As the saying goes, "Father Time is undefeated". No sportsperson can escape the inevitable decline of their powers as they grow older. Physical skills diminish with age due to the wear and tear of their respective games, dropping standards ever so slightly before the end comes. However, there are always exceptions to the rule. Some players manage to buck the trend to remain at the peak of their powers long after their time at the top should have come and gone.
Developments in the medical field have allowed sportsmen and sportswomen to recover from injuries that would have proved fatal for the careers of their predecessors in the 20th century. However, it takes more than fitness to remain a top-quality competitor; drive and determination are needed to be remembered as one of the all-time greats. Here are five sportspersons that have defied time to become legendary figures.
5. Tom Brady
Brady enjoyed a meteoric rise winning three Super Bowls in his first four seasons, displaying brilliance in the clutch for New England. At the age of 30, he made his first statistical mark in devastating fashion, breaking the NFL passing touchdown record in the process of leading the Patriots to a 16-0 record. He and his team-mates were denied perfection by the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII.
After suffering an ACL injury, Brady endured the first spate of criticism of his career, suffering high-profile defeats between 2009 and 2013. A hammering to the Kansas City Chiefs drew calls from sections of the media that he could be ousted by Jimmy Garoppolo.
Brady responded with a dominant run, leading the Patriots back to the Super Bowl where at the age of 37 he orchestrated a fourth-quarter comeback to beat the Seattle Seahawks and their vaunted defense. He enjoyed another fine campaign in 2015 before returning to the Super Bowl in 2016 after serving a suspension for the Deflategate scandal. The clash against the Atlanta Falcons was arguably his finest hour, guiding the Patriots back from a 28-3 deficit to clinch an overtime victory and his fifth ring at the age of 39. Brady took his team straight back courtesy of an MVP season in 2017 – the second-oldest player to win the award.
Although he put forward a record-breaking outing in Super Bowl LII, throwing 505 yards, the Philadelphia Eagles denied Brady a sixth ring. However, he drove the Patriots once again to the Super Bowl for the ninth time, where the 41-year-old was not at his best, but he and his team-mates did just enough to secure the crown in a dull contest against the Los Angeles Rams. It remains to be seen whether Brady will add to his litany of titles with the ambition of playing until the age of 45.
4. Tim Duncan
Duncan was the lynchpin of the San Antonio Spurs’ dynasty under the tenure of Gregg Popovich, producing an outstanding 19-year career in Texas. Duncan was part of the Spurs team that triumphed for the first time in the NBA Finals in 1999, earning the Finals MVP award for his performances against the New York Knicks.
He was at the peak of his powers in the early 2000s, winning the MVP award in back-to-back years. Duncan averaged over 20 points per game for Popovich’s men, while he was equally impressive in his defensive duties. No player epitomized the phrase big-game player more than Duncan. When the pressure was on, the forward always rose to the occasion, earning his third Finals MVP against the Detroit Pistons in 2005.
After 10 years in the league, players usually show signs of slowing down. However, Duncan remained consistent and relatively injury-free. Pushing into his thirties, Duncan remained the central figure for the Spurs, although their run of excellence at the top of the NBA was stymied by the Los Angeles Lakers and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Even with Duncan operating at a high level at the age of 36, San Antonio went down in the 2013 Finals to the Miami Heat and the big three of Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James.
Duncan’s finest moment arguably came in the following term when he provided the guiding figure to overthrow the Miami dynasty. At the age of 37, Duncan with Kawhi Leonard and Parker defeated the Heat with ease 4-1 in the 2014 Finals. He signed off at the top of the game with an All-Star nod in the penultimate year of his career – his 15th overall - highlighting his incredible consistency and durability to remain at that standard at 39 years old.
3. Tiger Woods
Woods enjoyed a period of dominance that no one other than Jack Nicklaus in the world of golf has matched. However, injuries and a lack of consistency blighted his late thirties. Woods returned to the summit of the game at The Masters in Augusta, producing a brilliant outing to claim the Green Jacket for a fifth time.
As golfers enter their forties they tend to decline due to the lack of power in their game. Woods’ distances have not suffered since he returned to his peak form. The American had endured a miserable four-year spell with injuries between 2014 and 2017. His career appeared to be more or less over after Woods opted to sit out eight-straight major tournaments.
However, he showed signs of returning to the player that won 14 majors at the beginning of 2018. The Open was the start of his renaissance, finishing in the top 10 for the first time since the event in 2013. He carried that momentum forward into the PGA Championship, placing second behind only Brooks Koepka.
The Tiger of old was on the prowl at the first major of 2019. Woods put the pressure on Francesco Molinari and pounced with a solid two-under round to claim the crown. The 43-year-old has won as many majors over the last year as Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy. He’s still in pursuit of Nicklaus' all-time record of 18 majors and shows no sign of slowing down yet.
2. Serena Williams
Williams was overshadowed by her sister Venus in the very early stages of her career, but she quickly became the dominant player in women’s tennis. Her reign at the top has now spanned two decades and even after taking a break to become a parent. Williams has claimed 23 singles’ titles over the course of her career, remaining consistent throughout across all surfaces.
She has been downright imperious at the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open. The only blemish on her record has been her inability to close out the Calendar Slam, winning all four majors in a single year. Williams has come close on two occasions in 2002 and 2015, collecting three of the four Slams on offer, although not quite being able to close out the feat.
Challengers have come and gone over the years, while even her sister has not been able to match the levels of brilliance produced by Serena on court. Her triumph at the Australian Open at the age of 35, took Williams clear of Chris Evert as the all-time leader in Grand Slam singles’ titles in the Open era.
It came with the added feat of becoming the oldest women’s Grand Slam winner, eclipsing Flavia Pennetta’s record. She continues to make deep surges into major events and the fact that she continues to win games at Wimbledon highlights how consistent she is despite her age.
1. Ted Williams
Baseball players either burnout rather quickly in their careers due to the amount of games played over the course of the season or they can enjoy lengthy tenures in the sport. Williams was a true great of the game during his 19-year career, which was interrupted by serving in the Second World War.
He enjoyed immediate success for the Boston Red Sox in his rookie season, finishing fourth in the running for the MVP award due to the quality of his batting. He kicked on to win All-Star recognition between 1940 and 1942, including an astounding average of .402 in the 1941 season. He did not lose his touch after returning from military duty in 1946, hitting 38 home runs in 1946 on his way to the MVP award, and remained at the peak of his powers in a four-year stretch, claiming his second MVP in 1949.
Williams’ statistics remained consistent throughout his career even after returning from another spell in the military during the Korean War. His average rarely dropped below .345, leading the league with an average of .388 at the age of 38. Williams remained an All-Star into his final season when he called time on his career at 41 even after hitting 29 home runs in 1960, including a homer with his final at-bat.