This story appears in the July 3-10, 2017, issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.
Wimbledon may be wed to tradition, but this verges on the absurd. When the tournament begins on July 3, the two favorites to win the men's title will be Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who first squared off in the final on Centre Court a full decade ago. Federer, now 35, won the Australian Open in January—beating Nadal in a spellbinding, five-set final—and will be aiming for his eighth Wimbledon title since he broke through in 2003. Nadal, 31, took the French Open last month by carving up the draw without dropping a set; he is going for his third Wimbledon crown. Competing at ages once befitting the senior tour, Nadal and Federer are one-two in ranking points for 2017.
This is a theme that echoes through most sports these days. Ours is an age, if you'll pardon the pun, when the quarterback of the most recent Super Bowl champion is about to turn 40. The big 4-0 is also the age of Floyd Mayweather, a boxer still capable of nine-figure paydays. David Ortiz was also 40 when he made a run at AL MVP last year before retiring. The reasons for this shift are manifold, but here's one that gets overlooked: Athletes are revealing themselves to be sports pragmatists, harnessing their energy to maximize long-term output.
Federer, for instance, took a leave not of grass but of clay, essentially sidelining himself for April and May to replenish his reserves. It's a move perfected by Serena Williams, who has been winning majors in her mid-30s but otherwise playing sparingly. Nadal, too, took off the last four months of 2016, which annoyed tournament directors and the ATP suits, but afforded him vital downtime.
This, of course, goes beyond tennis. LeBron James has made an art form of taking games off. How else to explain that in the playoffs—pitted against far better competition—his scoring average rose 25% from the regular season? Having rationed his energy, at age 32, he yet again piloted his team to the Finals. Tom Brady may have missed those four games at the start of last season because of the league's punishment for Deflategate, but on further review, it was a disguised blessing for the Super Bowl champion Patriots. It's being framed as an "unretirement" but the return of running back Marshawn Lynch, 31, to the NFL from his world tour rumspringa is predicated less on reconsidering his decision than on a plan all along for a restorative break.
There are costs to this energy conservation. By throttling back, Federer likely capitulated any chance at the year-end No. 1 ranking. Likewise, James once again removed himself from MVP consideration. But both deferred to a sort of internal risk-assessment department and made conscious decisions to sacrifice short-term goals for more important prizes.
All of this flies in the face of the sports code and an always-try-your-best ethos. Aren't we supposed to treat every game the same? Doesn't each play matter? And, yes, it stinks for the fans, when you go to the arena expecting LeBron and get Channing Frye instead. It was Rockets guard Patrick Beverley who championed the cause in March, when debate about resting starters was filling sports-talk radio. "I think that's a disgrace to the league," Beverley said. "I think the fans deserve better." But then his All-NBA teammate, James Harden, did go full bore during the regular season; by the playoffs he resembled a cellphone drained of its battery.
It's all a reminder that the labor market behaves like, well, a market. Management can schedule all the games it wants. The workers, especially those at the top, are going to try to maximize value and efficiency, and take off some shifts accordingly. And if these breaks extend careers—enabling the likes of James, Brady and Federer to sustain their excellence deep into their 30s—everyone wins.