strange phenomenon

The ATP’s Aging, Like a Fine Wine

Tennis has been and always will be a sport for the young. Not only is the sport physically grueling, but 12-15 years of bouncing around from hotel room to hotel room can really take a toll on a player. Doubles players can usually eek out a few extra years, but it’s still extremely rare to see any player pushing 35, no less 40. However, lately I’ve noticed that players seem to be getting older. I know, this is not a strange phenomenon. We all get older, but for tennis, there’s a twist. Not only are the players getting older, but they also seem to be getting better or at least playing well for longer.

I spent some time pouring over ATP ranking stats this week and came up with some interesting results. Let’s assume the average tennis player turns pro at 18 and plays until 30. While 25 may seem young to the rest of us, a tennis player has officially entered the second half of their career. Let’s look at the numbers. First off, this week’s Top 20 includes 15 players who are 25 and older, 75%. This same week 20 years ago, the Top 20 included just six players 25+, only 30%. This could easily be a coincidence, right? My thoughts exactly. So, I looked at the same week of rankings every five years from 1990 to the present. The answer was pretty striking. The current average age of Top 20 players is 26.1 and there’s not a single teenager in the bunch. In 2005 and 2000, the average age was 24.9, 24.1 in 1995, and just 22.35 in 1990, including three teenagers. You may say there’s not that much difference between these numbers. However, this means that in the last 20 years, the best players, on average, have gotten four years older, approximately on third of a player’s career.

Ok, so I’m done boring you with the numbers, but I wanted more than just anecdotal evidence to back up my claim. Now I can jump into the fun part. Let’s look at some specific cases.

Roger Federer (ranked No. 3, age 29): I don’t care what you’re stance is on the Federer debate. If you want my personal opinion, he’s the GOAT and he’ll take another major or two. Even if you disagree with me, you have to admit that he’s still a contender in any tournament he plays. While he may be entering the twilight years of his career, he’s still ranked No. 3 in the world and he’s the oldest player in the Top 10. He was the second to qualify for the year-end finals in London and won the only Grand Slam this year not won by a man named Rafael Nadal. He may not be getting better, because let’s face it, it’s hard to beat perfection, but even on the decline, Federer provides a pretty convincing case for players continuing to play well, even when their pushing 30.

Mikhail Youzhny (ranked No. 9, age 28): Youzhny’s bounced in and out of the Top 10 for several years now, but the 28-year-old landed the No. 9 spot after equaling his career-best performance by making the semifinals at this year’s US Open. Youzhny had only made the semifinals of a major once before in his career, at age 24. This year, he had the misfortune of meeting Rafael Nadal in the semis, but Mikhail proved he still has the skills to win tough matches.

Jurgen Melzer (ranked No. 13, age 29): Honestly, I think Jurgen is one of the best cases to prove my point. At 29, he achieved a career-high ranking of 13 after this year’s US Open. Prior to 2010, Melzer had never made it past the third round of any Grand Slam tournament. This year he made the semifinals of the French Open and the fourth round at both Wimbledon and the US Open. He also won the men’s doubles title at Wimbledon. Overall, Jurgen’s been playing some of his best tennis, at an age where most players are starting to consider retirement.

Ivan Ljubicic (ranked No. 17, age 31): Ivan may not have reached a career-high ranking this year, but he did become the oldest man to win his first Masters 1000 event. In March 2010, Ljubicic won Indian Wells, one of the premier ATP events outside of the Grand Slams. This alone is not the impressive story. To win Indian Wells, Ljubicic took down Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals, beat defending champion Rafael Nadal in the semifinals, and defeated Andy Roddick to take home the trophy. I don’t care if the guy’s faded back into obscurity. That result will remain pretty damn impressive for a very long time.

Mardy Fish (ranked No. 19, age 28): I think we’ve all read this story a hundred times by now. Fish is in the best shape of his life and arguably playing his best tennis. He’s just two spots away from equaling his career high ranking, which I think he’ll have by the end of the year. Fish won two tournaments back to back this summer in Newport and Atlanta and he also made the finals at the Masters 1000 event in Cincinnati, nearly scoring a win over Roger Federer. Also to be noted, as late as July, Fish was ranked No. 79 in the world…and now he’s 19. It’s amazing for any player to jump 60 spots in just three months, but almost unheard of for a 28-year-old.

Michael Llodra (ranked No. 28, age 30): Ok, so I’m leaving my Top 20 bubble, but I couldn’t create this list without including Mika. He’s got a throwback serve-and-volley game that I just can’t get enough of and the personality to match. Llodra won two titles this year in Marseille and Eastbourne and is currently at a career-high ranking, seemingly still on the rise. Until recently, Llodra was known mainly as a doubles specialist, having won two men’s doubles titles at the Australian Open and one at Wimbledon. Llodra has successfully reinvented himself as a great singles player and doubles player. In this year’s Davis Cup semifinals, Llodra clinched both the first singles match and the tie-winning doubles match against Argentina to secure France a spot in the Davis Cup finals this December.

Alright, so I’ve given you my best info on men in the ATP, but I would be wrong not to mention that this effect seems to be occurring in the WTA as well. Just this week, Kimiko Date Krumm turned 40 and beat Maria Sharapova. In June, Francesca Schiavone won her first Grand Slam title at the French Open at the age of 29. Serena Williams may have been taken down by a beer bottle after Wimbledon, but at 28 she still managed to win two majors this year and is just as fearsome as ever.

I could go on and on, but let’s just say that age isn’t the restriction it used to be when it comes to tennis. However, on a side-note, Thomas Muster should really pack it in. I’m all for older guys sticking it out (I’m talking to you Marat Safin, why would you leave us at 29? I could’ve watched you for many years to come), but it’s just embarrassing for a former No. 1 to be losing in the first round of challenger events at 42.