Serena Williams won the 2017 Australian Open by defeating her sister Venus in the final. Fourteen years earlier, the same thing happened. In 2003 and again in 2017, Venus played on the final Saturdays at Wimbledon, the days before Roger Federer would be crowned champion. And this June, Rafa Nadal won his 10th French Open title, a dozen years after winning his first, all while looking just as invincible.
This year saw Tom Brady lead the Patriots to a Super Bowl victory, just as he did in 2002. It saw LeBron James play in the NBA Finals, a decade after he reached that stage for the first time. It saw Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi emerge as the top-two vote-getters for the Ballon d’Or, as they have been for each of the last six years, and as they were back in 2008. While in tennis this was largely the year of the comeback, in sports at large it was the year of longevity, the year that shattered previous norms surrounding how long superstars could sustain their athletic peaks.
Through some combination of modern-day training, diet, medicine, and philosophy, top athletes have continued to excel into their 40s and beyond, giving many of 2017’s biggest events the feel of a greatest-hits album. During a time when much has been made of a longing for the recent past, often through a selective nostalgia for a reality that never was, sports has somehow managed to keep producing the same champions who ruled the landscape a decade or more ago. Such an unprecedented wave of staying power has been marvelous to watch; it also has potentially shifted the paradigm for how greatness will be understood.
“Conversations about greatness invariably become conversations about time,” my colleague Danny Chau wrote in a column on Joel Embiid last month. He was referring to the way Embiid’s skills are reminiscent of those of Shaquille O’Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon, but was also getting at a larger point: Any discussions about the merits of athletic achievement inherently weigh the parts of the past and present that are roughly equivalent. Despite the changing standards of gameplay and athleticism, success against the competition of time is considered an equalizing force. For the greats, the best comparison is not their peers of the day, but their peers throughout history.
Yet when athletes begin to transcend eras, enduring throughout several periods and against different generations of peers, it becomes more difficult to compare them to predecessors who have, for the most part, been at their best for only 10 years or less. The list of athletes who have been elite across extended stretches, the Martina Navratilovas and the Derek Jeters, is short. The list of athletes who have dominated across decades is nonexistent — if you don’t include the athletes who are active right now.
Take Federer and Nadal, for example. From 2004 until 2010, they had a suffocating vise grip on their sport. For a few years they receded … to lower spots in the ATP top five. Now in their 30s, they split the year’s four majors and took five Masters shields, and despite their ages there is no reason to expect a sudden decline. John McEnroe, for as spectacular he was at his apex, stood atop the tennis world for only about five years. Bjorn Borg won his first French Open in 1974 at 18, but by the end of 1981 he’d walked out of the old Armstrong Stadium and into anonymity. Pete Sampras, at 31, crawled to his 14th major and then never played again. The best players in history had bright primes. Federer and Nadal seem to have had two, and now may be enjoying another. They have 35 major singles titles between them, only two less than the three next winningest men of the Open era (Sampras, Borg, and Novak Djokovic) combined.
Or look at LeBron, who began his career butting heads with the Gilbert Arenas–era Wizards, took part in his share of “Who’s the best?” matchups with Kobe Bryant, outlasted the Durant-Harden-Westbrook Thunder, and could outlast the league’s current crop of superteams, too. So much has changed since his rookie season in 2003–04. The United States has had four presidential elections and changed leadership twice. The actor who’s played Spider-Man has changed twice, too. All the while, LeBron has been extraordinary. He’s the only player in league history to average 25 points per game for 13 consecutive seasons, and this year it doesn’t seem like he’s lost even a hundredth of a step. In fact, he’s again the MVP favorite.
Michael Jordan’s center-of-the-world form held for only about a decade. Joe Montana was gassed after the ’80s. Once careers stretch through multiple eras, cross-time comparisons begin to fail. Brady is now the most prolific quarterback the NFL has ever seen. He’s won more Super Bowls than Montana and Terry Bradshaw, and he’s continuing to cast a shadow over the league long after Peyton Manning retired. Rivalries, contemporary and historic, have passed him by. Now, he only tries to outpace himself.
Longevity has become the defining athletic attribute of sports today. When LeBron’s career is complete, we won’t just process it by the sheer force of its numbers, but by the span during which he continuously served as the face of the league. And for now, we’ll understand him through the lens of infinite expectation; what LeBron has already done is less interesting than what he seems to be capable of, or where he might harness those capabilities.
The present is concrete. We can touch it, and so it is unremarkable. But the future remains unbound, and this age has encouraged us to be greedy and extravagant in the ways that we dream. This crop of greats has already accomplished far more than their predecessors, and in doing so they’ve presented a radical notion: What if a late-career injury or setback doesn’t necessarily preclude retirement? If 30 or 40 isn’t a reasonable age at which to expect a drop-off, when, if ever, should we expect Federer or Brady to eventually ride off into the sunset?
While it’s clear that our standards for recovery and decline are being distorted, it’s unclear how this generation of athletes will change our comprehension of greatness. In tennis, particularly, the current golden age has caused many to question the existential future of the game. Federer, Serena, and Nadal have lorded over the sport for the last decade and a half and smashed every key record to pieces. The conditions for greatness now require tennis players to stack trophies into the clouds until the foundation is hardly visible, something that is made possible only across an extended career. Djokovic was dominant from 2011 to 2016, reaching 17 major finals and winning 10 titles. He sits fourth among men on the Open era major wins list, and yet, without a glorified second wind, he’ll almost certainly pale in comparison to his peers.
This age in longevity will inevitably change the standards by which careers are judged. Now that athletes have shown they can be their best selves for decades, it’s not enough to get to the top. We want to see how long that a superstar can spend there. Brady’s 40-year-old MVP candidacy isn’t the most interesting part of Brady in 2017; the most interesting part of Brady in 2017 is the idea of him excelling in 2022.
For as strongly as greatness is linked with statistics and head-to-head matchups, those have never been solely what the concept is about. Greatness is about dreams and images, and in that respect Michael Jordan is something that no athlete who succeeded in 2017 — not LeBron, Serena, nor Cristiano Ronaldo — is: monolithic, spotless, mythic. He represents the model of dominance in sports as it’s always been understood.
But today’s athletes can be something that wasn’t possible before, a lesson they reinforced time and again in 2017. Now, the best can exist everywhere, even, seemingly, in time.