Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Will the Real Youth Please Stand Up?

By Mert Ertunga

If you still had any questions on whether it was the energy of youth or the experience of age that counted the most, this French Open should be more than enough to settle the issue. Many statistics show now that since the turn of the century, the average age of winners, finalists, and semifinalists in the Slams has consistently climbed up. But this French Open puts the exclamation mark on that statement.

Several articles have been written about how teenagers no longer win Slams in the 2000s like they were in the '80s and '90s. Maria Sharapova on the women's side in 2006 (U.S. Open), and Rafael Nadal on the men's side in 2005 (French Open) were the last teenage winners of Slam, both at the age of 19. I have written myself about the trend back during the 2010 U.S. Open.

Nevertheless, I wonder if any tournament has slapped reality in the face of the tennis world like this French Open has already in the first few days of the event regarding the dominance of aged players in both draws. There should be absolutely no doubt about it in anyone's mind at the end of the first round matches on the evening of May 29, 2012.

Let's look at the grim reality for the teenagers: in the men's draw, can you guess how many teenager players went past the first round in the men's draw? One! His name is Bernard Tomic, one of the few biggest "young" stars of the ATP Tour — yes, you guessed it, the other "few young stars" are already 20 years or older. Tomic is 19-years-old.

It gets even grimmer. How many teenagers were in the main draw when it was announced? One! Yes, Tomic was the only teenager to enter the French Open main draw. But wait, folks, we are not finished yet…

Just in case you were surprised that only one teenager made the main draw, trying to find more of them in the ATP rankings yields even more shocking results. Tomic is indeed, and get ready for this, the only teenager in the top 100! As a matter of fact, you would have to go all the way to the American 19-year-old player Denis Kudla ranked No. 179 before you can find a teenager in the ATP rankings.

Is this just a teenager problematic? Or are young players simply being outclassed by the older players more than ever before? Before I announce my verdict, here is an interesting comparison of numbers: in the second round of French Open Men's Draw, including Tomic, there are only 12 players left under the age of 25. To put that last number in perspective, there are more players aged 30 years or above in the French Open Men's draw after the first round than players aged below 25.

The average age of the 64 men still competing in the men's draw at the end of the first round is a very high 26.8! My verdict: no, this is not only a teenager problem. Age and experience rule, youth and enthusiasm are left behind.

Furthermore, numbers sing the same sad song for the teenagers in the women's draw, where one would usually see more teenagers than in the men's draw.

Traditionally, the women's tennis players have always been successful at a much younger age than their male counterparts. Teenagers have often been in the last weekend of tennis tournaments, and before Sharapova in 2006, there were several teenagers who made their marks in the '80s, '90s, and 2000s, such as Monica Seles, Steffi Graf, Martina Hingis, Serena Williams, and Svetlana Kuznetsova.

Teenagers were once again better represented on the women's side then the men's side when the main draw was announced: there were eight of them. However, that number is already much less than what one would have seen in the not-so-distant past — there were 16 of them 10 years ago in the 2002 French Open women's draw.

After the first round, fewer teenagers remain in this year's French Open women's draw than in the semifinal lineups of several Slams during the previous 30 years. Lauren Davis and Sloane Stephens, both Americans and each 19 years of age, are the only two teenagers to survive the first round of play at Roland Garros. On the other hand, there are seven players in the draw aged 30 or above, and the number of players aged 25 or above is higher than the number of players aged below 25.

The average age of the women in the main draw is an astonishing 24.9! I do not have the age statistics for every year, but I am wondering if the average age of the women's draw at the end of the first round has ever been this close to 25 in any Slam.

If none of these numbers left you bewildered, consider this simple yet astonishing fact: there are only three teenagers left at the end of first round in both the women's and the men's draw combined!

Many theories can be put forth to explain this trend such as the top players remaining longer on top of their games, or players simply being in better condition and having access to better equipment with advanced technology, thus being able to remain fit for longer periods of time.

In any case, it is time to reconsider the age benchmarks for certain terms and expressions in tennis that all of us use every now and then, such as "young and upcoming," "too old to win titles," and "on the downside of his/her career."

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