Let’s get the obvious out of the way first — this has been the golden generation in men’s tennis. The players currently ranked in the top five have accounted for 50 of the last 55 Grand Slam singles titles. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are strong G.O.A.T. contenders while Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka have multiple Grand Slam titles to their name and could have had many more had they played in another era. As a result, for the first time in the sport’s history, the ATP rankings are topped by five men in their 30s. In large part, the five are the reason tennis has aged. When they were young, tennis seemed young. Now they’re old — and tennis is too. (Men’s Singles Results | Women’s Singles Results)
However, Murray (30), Djokovic (30), Nadal (soon to be 31), Wawrinka (32) and Federer (35) are only part of a movement. Players are faring well into their fourth decade and the next generation just hasn’t broken through. Exactly 10 years ago, there were five players aged 30 or above in the corresponding week’s top 50. This week’s top 50 has 24! The average age of the current top 10 is 28.1 while a decade ago, it was 24.8. Interestingly, the number of 30-year-olds in the top 50 in 1997 was 3 and the average age of the top 10 23.9. The increase, gradual two decades ago, has been seismic since 2007.
Renowned tennis coach Nick Bollettieri believes players are sticking around longer due to the benefits of age — experience and increased strength — and improved training methods. “Back in the 80s, 90s, when I trained (Andre) Agassi, (Jim) Courier, I was training a lot of teenagers. They would mature by the late teens to 20, 21,” says Bollettieri, who has coached the who’s who of tennis, including Monica Seles, Mary Pierce, the Williams sisters and Boris Becker. “Majority of young ones today struggle on the pro tour because it is difficult mentally and physically. That’s why you see a lot of players maturing from the mid 20s to late 20s… even the 30s, making it tougher for youngsters to break through.”
“The physicality of the game and the make-up of the players has also changed drastically,” adds Bollettieri. “The average height during Agassi’s time was about 5’10”. Today it is 6’2″.”
Jumping back to this week in 1997, there were four players shorter than 6″ and only one 6’5″ (Richard Krajicek) in the top 10. Today, Kei Nishikori’s the shortest man at 5’10” while there are three players 6’5″ or above. Something about the courts, then? “The players are more physical, and taller, because there are not many fast surfaces anymore. The courts everywhere are slower, the bounce is higher and that helps the tall player,” adds Bollettieri. “Plus they are spending so much time training physically and on the movement.”
Alexandre Lisiecki, coach of world No. 27 Gilles Muller, talks about the training. “Ivan Lendl was the first to take physical training seriously, and for a long time it was about the on-court training. But now, physical workout, conditioning and mental training are bigger than tennis sessions,” says Lisiecki. “Players are practising tennis 1h30-2hours a day while functional movement, warm-ups, cool downs take about 2h30-3hours daily. There is a mental session of 30minutes-1h30mins every two or three days. Building muscle is not as important as before. Flexiblity is more important than doing big squats.”
All that seems to be working for Mueller, who is playing the best tennis of his life at the age of 34. Four of his seven career finals have come in the last 12 months, including January’s Sydney Open, his maiden ATP title after 16 years on the Tour. “It has been a wonderful journey and he is nowhere close to finishing,” adds Lisiecki. “He has suffered career-threatening injuries. He has two boys and could have called it a day. But he decided to bring about big changes in his diet, training, conditioning and now has achieved his career high ranking.”
It’s not just the top players. Journeymen too have got smarter about diet and conditioning. Most travel with an entourage consisting a physio, coach, dietician and psychologist. They are not hitting a few balls and going out for a swig of beer or soda pop. Players track every piece of food that enters their body. Going gluten-free is not mandatory, but studying the urine colour is (A ‘lemonade’ colour is ideal). While the Borgs and McEnroes spent their downtime hanging out with Bianca Jagger and Andy Warhol, the Murrays and Djokovics have their pods and oxygen tents for company.
Then there’s the racquet technology. Racquets are larger and bigger, improving power and accuracy. And the polyester strings have made it easier to whack a ball and impart topspin. While Pete Sampras and Agassi would produce around 1,800 ball revolutions per minute, Federer took it to 2,500. Nadal’s average is 3,200 and could go as high as 4,000.
The game hence has shifted from the net to the baseline, further helping the older players to use the experience of point construction and shot selection over innate talent and touch.
With increasing prize money and the number of players taking up the sport, the veterans also have an incentive to hold on and make hay while the sun shines. Dr Mark Kovacs, performance physiologist and sports science consultant for the USTA and NCAA, agrees with aforementioned factors but believes the biggest reason behind the longevity is money.
“There’s more money in the game today than 10 years ago. Earlier players would simply retire after a point, the veterans today are prolonging their careers because they can make the cut for a Grand Slam and get the assured amount. It’s about financial security.”
Bollettieri talks of the other end of the spectrum. “Today, these youngsters have to make it into the main draws and that’s not easy. Only taking part in the $25,000 events can set a youngster back by $150,000 per year, without making a dime. Parents are mortgaging their houses and then demanding results. A lot of sponsors are not giving anything to the young ones unless you are a whiz kid.”
“Alexander Zverev is one. Look at his size. He is 6’6″ and has the forehand to boot.”
Last week in Rome, the lanky 20-year-old defeated Djokovic to become the first man born in the 1990s to win a Masters 1000 event. Many believe he could also be the youngest to win a Grand Slam since Nadal did so at the 2005 French Open as a man in a 19-year-old’s body. But experts remain wary.
“Alexander is doing great but he is not a breakout star. He has been a project for close to 4-5 years and has never made it to the second week of a Grand Slam,” says Kovacs.
Bollettieri adds: “He has been brilliant lately. But when you go to a Grand Slam, you have to be ready to play five sets. The youngsters, when they play five-setters… can they hold up physically and mentally for two weeks? Can he handle this pressure when everybody is talking about him?”
That’s what it boils down to then. Young pretenders like Zverev, Dominic Thiem and Nick Kyrgios need to own the grind and not get muscled out by the quintet and journeymen. Or perhaps, they can just bide their time for a few years. If 40 doesn’t become the new 30 by then, that is. After all, players today are less fine wine and more cast iron skillets. There’s nothing gentle about their aging. The heat of the competition and increasing physicality is only making them tougher and more durable.