Whatever happened to the time when tennis was a young man’s game? With Bernard Tomic’s 20th birthday last weekend, there are now no teenagers in the men’s top 200, a pretty astonishing statistic, even given what we know about the increasing physicality of the game. Thanks to @thetennisguru for pointing out the latest figures on the ATP Tour when it comes to young players; as of Monday, 23 of the top 100 were 30 or older. That compares to 11 in 2002 and just four in 1992.
Before we bemoan the lack of young stars coming through right now on the men’s side (we’ll get to the women’s in a second), is there anyone who really thinks that it’s anything other than a good thing that players are playing longer?
It is clear that tennis these days is such a tough sport, physically, that instead of bursting through like the Boris Beckers and Michael Changs of yesteryear, today’s players have to build up before they are strong enough to compete with the big guns. It takes an exceptional talent to break through and it’s no surprise that the only youngsters to really make it in the past decade were Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, all of whom were inside the top 10 well before their 20th birthdays. Even Roger Federer was approaching his 21st birthday before he broke into it.
The dominance of the top four has been well documented in recent times – Juan Martin Del Potro and Marat Safin are the only other men to win grand slams since the start of 2005 – but it’s also equally interesting to look at the ageing trend among grand slam champions themselves. Now obviously Nadal, Federer and Djokovic all won grand slams at a young age but they are truly exceptions.
If you look back at the last decade, from the start of 2003 – and excluding Federer, Nadal and Djokovic – of the five other grand slam winners (that’s all there were), only Del Potro (20), Andy Roddick (21)and Juan Carlos Ferrero (23) were under 25. Even in the few years before that, we saw plenty of winners over the age of 25.
The women’s game is becoming the same. Where once teenagers were all over the Tour – from Chris Evert, Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger to Martina Hingis and Maria Sharapova – now it’s changed to the point where Britain’s Laura Robson is the youngest top-100 player at 18 and there are only four others in there under 20. Even between 100 and 200, there are only 20 teenagers.
Now some of this is because over the past few years, the WTA Tour moved to reduce the chances of burnout by putting in place tighter restrictions on the number of tournaments a girl can play before her 18th birthday. That was an entirely sensible move and the results are clear but even at the top, there are more players playing longer than ever before.
A word for those countries who have it good right now in tennis-terms. While Switzerland have two players in the top 16 (Roger Federer at No 1 and Stanislas Warwinka at No 16), they have just one other player inside the world’s top 300. It’s a small country and there is no reason they should have the depth of Spain or France but it was striking to read Wawrinka say, in an interview in Le Temps, that behind the top two, there is “desert”. A generation after the arrival of Martina Hingis, maybe it’s time for their women to step up again.