Age in Perspective at the U.S. Open

As we are entering the second week of U.S. Open, I found that the lack of young players making it to the second week on the men's side is quite extraordinary. My curiosity got the better of me, so I decided to go back some 20 years and see the age patterns in terms of players who reach the round of 16s in the last Slam of the year. Some of the numbers turned out to be quite remarkable.

First of all, it's astonishing that the youngest players left in the men's draw as of Sunday night are Sam Querrey at the age of 22, followed by Novak Djokovic at 23. The rest of the players are all 24 years or older. The last time a similar pattern happened, in fact the only time in the last two decades, was in 1997. But even in 1997, the average age of the players making it to the second week at 25.6 remained well below this year's number at 26.2. In fact, the only year where the average age of the players in the second week was higher than this year's was in 2004 at 27.2, and that was thanks to a couple of players above their 30s, Sargis Sargsian and Andrei Pavel, who seldom made it that far in Slam tournaments (a total of seven times between them).

The average age of the players making it to the second week was slightly lower in the 1990s (24.7) than in the 2000s (24.9). This difference becomes more emphasized when considering that only 14 players above the age of 30 made it to the second week in the 1990s versus 20 players found in the same category in the 2000s. Furthermore, we find four years in the first of the two decades (1994-95 and 1997-98) where nobody 30 years or above made it to the second week, whereas in the following decade, we only find one such year (2008). Hence, we can comfortably conclude that older players have been more successful overall in the 2000s than the preceding decade.

Here is where it gets a bit more interesting: out of the 20 players 30 or above in the last decade that made it to the second week, only five of them are from the last five years (2005-09). Fifteen of them come from the first five years (2000-04). Despite the last decade bringing out the best of the older players than the preceding one, in the last five years, there has been a resurgence of younger players. So the pattern should continue in the first year of this present decade right? Wrong.

As stated above, this year's edition of the U.S. Open features an average age only surpassed one other time in the last two decades: basically, a complete reversal of pattern. And this is happening despite the fact that there are no players in their 30s who are left in the draw as of Sunday night. So it's not necessarily that old school is getting the better of the young generation, it's just that the upcoming generation, meaning the players having recently come out of the juniors rank in the last four years, are nowhere to be found. Again, Querrey is the youngest player left at 22 and the next youngest player is Djokovic, who would hardly qualify as a "young and upcoming” star on the tour.

There are a couple of conclusions that can be drawn from this, both open to debate. One is that this generation of top players seems to have a stronghold on the tennis world. Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Andy Roddick, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, David Ferrer, Tommy Robredo, just to count some names who have been regularly making it to the second week in the last several years, were teenagers or youngsters in the beginning years of the decade, and having arrived and/or older and more mature in the second half of it, have seemed to be one step ahead of the upcoming players lately. As the older champions have taken the backstage (Carlos Moya in 2007 and Andre Agassi in 2005 are the last big names to make it to the second week), no youngsters have been up to the task in dethroning the current generation of stars.

The second conclusion is that Federer and Nadal are ahead of their time, just like Bjorn Borg (although not in the U.S. Open), Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors, and Ivan Lendl were when they first arrived to the top of the scene. Like them, Federer and Nadal are able to sustain their top positions for a long time because they started out with a wide gap between them and the rest of the competition. It takes more than just a few years to catch up to them and surpass them, thus they bring the average age up every year, whereas they were pulling it down in the earlier years of the decade, along with other names like Andy Roddick, Tommy Robredo, Nikolay Davydenko, and David Nalbandian, who have helped with this pattern by showing up frequently in the second week of U.S. Open tournaments throughout most of the decade.

One other revealing pattern that is worth mentioning is the following: in the beginning of the 1990s, there were five years in a row where the average age of the players making it to the second week remained below 25 (1990-94). This period was followed by five years during which four showed the average age of players in the second week to be 25 or above (1995-99). That was followed by another period of five years where players making it to the second week remained older, peaking at 27.2 average in the year 2004. That was the last year of older players making their noises heard. Since 2004, we had not had a year where the average age in the second week reached 25 — until today.

Again, the same pattern that took place 20 years ago appears to have come back full circle. After five years of average age remaining below 25, this year we have not only surpassed 25, but we have the second highest average age in the last 20 years at 26.2. Considering that in the current group, only Federer seems to be a "veteran" at the age of 29, while other players like Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, [Stanislas] Wawrinka, Querrey, [Gael] Monfils, [Richard] Gasquet, and [John] Isner are all 25 years or younger, I see no reason why we should not repeat the pattern similar to the several years that followed the pattern of 20 years ago. I do not see these players going away anytime soon, and I am including Federer in this group, even though he is 29.

Adding to that the fact that presently, nobody out of the junior ranks appears to be up to the challenge as this year's U.S. Open have shown, I expect the average age of the second week to remain high in the next few years, perhaps to stay above 26 a few times in the upcoming years.

I am reluctant to bring up one last observation simply because I would need more detailed data to make a healthy comment on it: perhaps the stars of the current generation know how to manage their bodies better than the youngsters. The U.S. Open is the last Slam of the year and managing the tournament calendar has become a major issue for many players in the ATP Tour; Nadal has been a prime example of this discussion in the past years. Could it be that the players of the younger generation wear themselves out by the time U.S. Open comes around and are a victim of their own inexperience in this issue? I will leave that for another time. For now, it is time to enjoy a terrific second week of competition promising some high quality clashes in the upcoming days.

Comments and Conversation

September 9, 2010

Luke Broadbent:

“Again, the same pattern that took place 20 years ago appears to have come back full circle. After five years of average age remaining below 25, this year we have not only surpassed 25, but we have the second highest average age in the last 20 years at 26.2.”

I find this very interesting. What this fact, and the rest of the article, suggests is that we tend to get a golden group of players that nearly always make the second week, with just a few exceptions. So, the average is lower at the begining of the five year cycle because those “golden” players are younger.

I must admit that whilst I was reading this I was thinking that conditioning of the younger players may be a problem and then you alluded to that yourself.

Finally, bravo on the research for this.

September 9, 2010

Mert Ertunga:

Thanks Luke. It seems also that in the bigger picture, the average age for the men in the second week is the one thing that remains fairly constant (around 25) throughout the times despite all the vast changes to technology,courts etc… Just for fun sake, I did three random years from the 70’s and I got a similar outcome.

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