Age no bar for sporting success

Age is a number. Age is a state of mind. You are as old as you think you are. You can say all this and get away with it, so long as you are not a performing sportsperson.

Age is a number. Age is a state of mind. You are as old as you think you are. You can say all this and get away with it, so long as you are not a performing sportsperson. These are great pearls of wisdom that can be flaunted in coffee table conversations without the serious threat of being proved wrong.

But, if your job is to perform on a sporting stage in front of thousands of on-site spectators and millions watching on television, you wouldn't want to mock at the ageing process and make light of its ravages in an athlete — unless your name is Martina Navratilova.

At the Australian Open in Melbourne last month, the peerless Chech-American lady, aged 46, not only won the mixed doubles title with India's Leander Paes but also promised that she was going to be around, playing both women's doubles and mixed doubles, in the other three Grand Slam tournaments of the year.

The former world-beater said, too, that age was all in the mind and she felt she was 35 or 36. And those who watched her on the court with Paes were willing to shave another five or six years off that estimate.

Indeed, it was remarkable how the events in Melbourne forced us to revise our views vis a vis old age in the context of one of the most demanding sports of our times — professional tennis. For, the man who won the men's title with consummate ease, Andre Agassi, will soon be 33 and he has won five of his eight career Grand Slam titles past the age of 29. Megastars of another era, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, failed to win a single major title past the age of 26.

That was an era when a Jimmy Connors was an exception and it was generally believed that over-30 was over the hill in tennis, and in many other sports too.

Sport, for the most part, is the domain of the young. It is a world where the leading players are often so young that they are not old enough to vote in a national election or to acquire a driver's licence. It is a world where every other momentous triumph is at once a celebration of the patented virtues of youth, its vitality, its idealism and the rare quality of almost unrecapturable intensity that characterises its endeavours.

You cannot reasonably hope to become an accomplished scientist or a national political leader — unless you belong to the right dynasty — in your late teens or in your early 20s. But, as a sportsperson, if you have the right combination of talent, drive and luck, you can become a celebrity millionaire long before you have spent a quarter of a century on the planet.

A country's sports heroes are its most striking and popular symbols of youth, right up there on any list of young achievers.

And, in an age that will be seen by posterity as the high noon of professionalism in sport, the climate is truly congenial for youthful prodigies.

Yet, it is in such an age, too, that we see players like Agassi, Navratilova and Steve Waugh — who made that famous home hundred at Sydney at age 37 recently — give a new meaning to longevity in sport.

What these ageing stars have achieved is nothing if not a celebration of growing old, in the sporting sense.

The extraordinary deeds of these remarkable sportspersons will appeal not only to those who tend to get mistily sentimental over such things but also to everyone who know that the victory over Time is the hardest of all for an athlete.

In sport, delicate skills can plummet fast and far. Legs would disobey. Eyes would fool the athlete. Strength of mind would desert the performer suddenly.

But these very special sportspersons — Agassi, Waugh and Navratilova — have a few things in common. They are wonderfully fit for their age, they love their sport like few others have done, and, most of all, they enjoy themselves out in the middle every single time.

In our here-today, gone-tomorrow world, their success highlights the rare quality of durability that has underlined their careers.

At a time when several megastars in sport seem to get bored with their profession in their mid-20s, the admirable will to succeed displayed by Agassi, Navratilova and Waugh, to name only three, deserves a big toast from sportslovers everywhere.

All three of them have made enough money and experienced a level of fame few of their peers might have done. And what keeps them going is not money or fame but their love for the game.