Tennis players are getting older. Well, the very best are.
In the last three years, the average age of Grand Slam winners is teetering close to a figure that you suspect most professional athletes dread even greater than the general public – the big 3 0. It occurred to us whether this trend is largely a by-product of the ageing GOATs (disclaimer) to bless our generation; Serena and Djokovic have won exactly half the Slams in this period and, going back a few years further, Federer won the majority of his Slam titles the other side of 25 whilst in direct competition with a maturing Djokovic and Nadal. To add context in an albeit fleeting manner, Bjorn Borg – Federer’s spiritual predecessor in way of demeanour if not actual playing style – had packed up the headbands along with those eleven Slam trophies of his at the tender age of 26.
But dig deeper and this trend has infiltrated the best of the rest. In 2002 the average age of the men’s top 10 was 24.5 years. In 2015 it was 28.6. The women’s top 10 averaged 22.0 in 2002 and was 28.2 by 2015.
What’s making players get better (and stay better) later?
Developments in sports science and training methods provide the opportunity to keep players in better shape – especially those at the top that can afford to piece together an entourage of professionals for whom ensuring the supreme physical condition of their given client is probably as much obsession as it is profession.
Then there is money; the old chestnut that increasingly grows on trees in the upper-echelons of the tennis world. It is undeniably a motivation for many and extending one’s career at the top can be very profitable business for both sexes in the age of equal pay at Grand Slam level.
Changes in society may influence individuals’ desire to commit to extending their lives on tour. People in many walks of life are settling down and having children at an older age. For those with families, or a penchant for home-sickness, working away for extended periods is a more reasonable consideration when you only need to turn on the i-pad to drop in with your ‘bae’.
Running with the theme, Azarenka’s current pregnancy-triggered break from tennis is rare for a top-ten player. The last example that comes to mind is Clijsters, who herself returned to the tour in her mid-to-late twenties, adding three slams to her existing one. While Azarenka’s disappearance might be considered a welcome refrain for the ears, it would be a loss for the WTA if more of their best players were to follow suit in the prime of their tennis life.
From a gentleman’s perspective, Djokovic and Murray have in recent years started families with little negative (if anything slightly positive) effect on subsequent results. The offspring in question are no doubt being provided with the very best in nomadic care, and an acquaintance to the perks of luxury travel will barely make a dent in their parent’s bank balance.
Away from tennis, much of the aforementioned should apply to a variety of sports. Are we seeing similar trends?
Ignoring Phil Taylor’s burgeoning love-hate relationship with a treadmill, we can cast an eye to football, where talk of players ‘burning themselves out’ by the age of 30 is commonplace. Michael Owen is the classic tale of world-beater to Stoke City bench-warmer. Wayne Rooney – hardly a primed modern athlete even in his heyday – has now lost the ability to bulldoze defenders with brute force. And while we’re at it, shout-out to Yaya Touré, who – despite implementing a strictly birthday-cake-free diet – has gone from running rings around opponents to being the ring-run-round-ee.
Naturally there are exceptions – Scholes and Pirlo to name a couple – who managed to perform at the top level well into their thirties. These are players generally considered to have never relied on their physicality to reach the summit of world football. But this is where football differs from tennis – you can’t pull out your deckchair on the baseline while Paul Pogba covers every blade of Centre-Court grass on your behalf. Unless you are one half of a very interesting doubles pairing, that is.
In Gael Monfils there’s an example of an ageing tennis player still relying on athleticism as much as racket ability. Those who regularly tuned in to last year’s US Open will have heard John McEnroe repeatedly assert Monfils to be in the top five athletes ever to play the game. They will have also witnessed a player doing quite the opposite of burning out as he hit 30 years (literally, during the tournament). Reaching the semi-finals at Flushing Meadows for the first time, his success was largely put down to a mental maturity not seen before from this player still nimble enough to slide around a hard court despite a raft of injuries over his career.
Which begs the question, does it take being pummelled back-and-forth and side-to-side on a tennis court for hours and years on end to develop the mental endurance required to beat the very best?
If so, you suspect Nick Kyrgios will have thrown in the towel before Djokovic and Murray decide they’ve had enough of handing it out. But you could say this hypothesis rings true for the likes of Li Na and Angelique Kerber, whose steady rise in the rankings with admirable helpings of blood, sweat and perseverance culminated in two Grand Slam victories apiece (and counting, in the case of Kerber). The first were achieved at the ages of 29 and 28 respectively. And let’s not forget Stan; three Slams at 28, 30 and 31.
Tennis, like most things in life, is subject to a cyclical nature. Back in the 90s, Boris Becker proclaimed Mario Ancic to be the future of tennis with his swashbuckling, big-serving style. A decade on and Americans Mardy Fish & Andy Roddick were purposefully losing bulk on the proviso of excelling in movement (advances in racket technology – and power – no doubt helped in this trade-off). The women’s game moved from the near-flawless technical game of Hingis to the power-hitting of the Williams sisters and those that followed.
Does the mental aspect of the game now hold the key to the success of future generations?
Maybe it will require greater focus on developing the mental side – as well as the technical and physical – at a younger age. It’s possible we’ll never again see the likes of a Becker, Hingis or Nadal winning a Slam in their teens. But if players arrive on tour with psychologists in tow alongside the fitness gurus, they’ll arguably be in better stead. Or perhaps it will take a new breed of natural-born mental giants to upset the apple cart. Think Del Potro without the injuries (the then 20 year old outfought Federer to win the US in ’09). Either way, it will only be good for the game to see players regularly competing together at the peak of their powers in both their early 20s and 30s.
For now, we’re left to marvel at the golden oldies competing at the latter stages of this year’s Australian Open; six of the eight semi-finalists were in their 30s. Respect to Roger Federer, whose form has belied a man returning from the best part of seven months out injured – never mind a 35 year-old at that. Then there’s the Williams sisters at it again; Serena on the brink of overtaking Steffi Graf’s 22 Grand Slams, Venus breaking an Open-era record for oldest female to reach a Grand Slam final at a not-so-tender 36 and counting.
A special mention here to Mirjana Lučić-Baroni, who burst on to the scene in the late 90s (yes, nineties) and, after a host of trials and tribulations both on and off court, battled her way into the semi’s at a Slam for just the second time. Even more exceptional a feat when you consider the previous one occurred in the last millennium and the heartfelt messages of support from her fellow pro’s are well deserved.