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How getting older became a good thing in tennis

28 Mai 2015
written by: Rob Cianfarani
written by: Rob Cianfarani
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For tennis players, age has always been a loaded number.

A few days shy of his 29th birthday, Rafael Nadal is facing questions about a possible end to his reign over Roland Garros for the first time since his domination on clay began. The 33-year-old Roger Federer has been battling the « decline » talk for years. But respectively ranked No. 7 and No. 2 in the world, why has all the focus been around their ages? And if they’re « old » already, are « young guns » like 24-year-olds Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov passing their primes?

Let’s look back at how tennis players have peaked over time and find out if age really has to do with success.

Troublemaking teens

In the 1980s, tennis immortalized the likes of Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, and Michael Chang almost immediately. Before becoming great champions, these guys burst onto the tennis scene as young, spirited phenoms, terrorizing older players with their speed, endurance, and power (oh, the joys of youth).

Chang became a Grand Slam champion at 17 years and three months old. He was the best tennis player in the world on clay at 17 years old, while I was (an above average!) student in my Grade 11 math class of 30 students – but yeah, consider my confidence shattered. Back in the day, young phenoms were much more of a threat, and seemed to thrive at Grand Slams, which meant players like Chang and Becker hit their peak rankings at very young ages.

Legends_1stGSWinLegends_Peak Ranking

Late bloomers

Conventional wisdom tells us that as a person ages, their body starts to break down. This process should be accelerated by the mini-torture chambers that are five-set Australian Open matches in 100+ degree heat.

Some evidence:

There are very few early ‘80s babies still winning Slams. Only 10.3% of Grand Slams have been won by someone older than 29 and 3.3% over 31. McEnroe and Borg won their last Slam at 25, while Mats Wilander won all of his seven by age 24.

Once you hit 27 – as Novak Djokovic, Nadal, and Andy Murray have – Grand Slam success is supposed to decline considerably.

Conventional wisdom is changing.

Top10_1stGSWinTop10_Peak Ranking

Teenage dynasty is dead

The days of players winning Grand Slam titles in their teens, as did Pete Sampras and Rafa, or even of an 18-year-old Djokovic being ranked No. 6 in the world look long gone.

There is currently only one man in the Top 10 that is below 25 – Raonic, at age 24. Even Federer, who at 21 years and 10 months was thought to be a slow starter when he won his first Wimbledon, would now be viewed as an incredibly young phenomenon.

In the ATP Top 50 rankings, 17 players are 30+ years of age and only six are sub-23. In 2014, the ages of Grand Slam winners were: 28, 28, 27, 25. The fact is – older players are getting better.

Some reasons for « old man » success:

  1. Focus on fitness. Top players treat their bodies like shrines and have fine-tuned their training and diet regimens to an extent that just didn’t exist in generations past.
  2. Get a crazy successful coach. Edberg, Becker, Ivanisevic, and Chang are coaching four of the Top 10 ATP players – Federer, Djokovic, Cilic and Nishikori – all of whom are 25 years old or older. Experience and wisdom like that is invaluable.
  3. Be Roger, Rafa, or Novak. They are the most dominant trio that tennis has ever seen, and have continued to be successful into their late 20s and early 30s.

The young guns are coming, as evidenced by their climb in the rankings, but the old guard will still be around for a while. We are in the midst of the first generation of players not to start winning Grand Slam titles in their early 20s. The average age of the ATP Top 100 continues to rise, and if we go by the numbers, it’s more likely for a wily veteran to claim the game’s biggest prizes than a precocious youngster.

In other words…