As sporting heroes begin to grow old (they are still startlingly young, of course, by the standards of other professions), something within us accompanies them, no matter what our age. When a 35-year-old Novak Djokovic played a soon-to-be-36-year-old Rafa Nadal in the quarterfinals of the French Open, the full impact hit home. General shifts are bitter-sweet.

Roger Federer, first to 20 Grand Slam titles, is 40; he celebrates his next birthday in August, and his age might catch up with his ranking soon. He is currently 47th in the world, a sporting hero in the twilight. Even as Djokovic and Nadal were preparing for their French Open battle, he was indulging in a popular middle-age sport: getting a dog for the family.

Named Willow, it stole some of the thunder from the players on the court, if social media responses are anything to go by. An addition to the family, Federer called it.

Meanwhile Djokovic and Nadal were getting ready to play each other for the 59th time in their careers. When you have three players of near-equal strength and almost similar records (Nadal had 21 Grand Slam titles before the French Open, Djokovic 20), over a long period, their meetings probably lack the intensity of a one-on-one engagement. Statistically, this is the greatest rivalry in tennis history. For comparison, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe played each other 14 times. Yet they inspired philosophical thoughts and books based on their conflict.

An American professor of English once argued thus: “McEnroe is the only highly and genuinely indignant person I know of. Could more of us summon up such righteous indignation and direct it at social issues we would have Utopia within the year.” Tom Hulce, who played Mozart in the movie Amadeus said that he had used McEnroe as his model for the genius who made his own rules and had a grouse against everybody else.

Do the Spaniard Nadal and the Serb Djokovic represent elements beyond themselves? Do they stand for issues in the contemporary world which they express through their game and their personalities? Whatever their final records, are they condemned to play second and third fiddles to Federer although each has a better record in head-to-head meetings with the Swiss great? Do these things matter in the end?

Borg was once quoted as saying, “Picasso did not have a 5-3 won/lost record against Van Gogh, but I have to live with my 5-3 record against McEnroe and see that the balance doesn’t change.” (It did, the final score was 7-7).

Djokovic was expected to beat Nadal at the French Open, but Nadal won in four, to cut the Serb’s overall lead to 30-29. When the players are young and fans are younger, such things matter. When you are older than the players, there is an elegiac quality to their meetings. Things are coming to an end, we tell ourselves, let us make the most of the heroes while they are still active and spreading joy.