Will the Real Youth Please Stand Up?

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."

Comments and Conversation

May 30, 2012

Brad Oremland:

“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.” That is stunning.

I was vaguely aware that older players seemed to be having more success, but hadn’t realized how dramatically the age of top players has shifted. Fine work as always, Mert.

May 30, 2012

Mert Ertunga:

No kidding Brad. You are so right. I could not believe as I was looking at the numbers either!
(Thanks btw)

May 30, 2012

Angus:

Good article in general, Mert, but a few eyebrow raisers. You seem to be posing a lot of questions without answering them.

In all honesty, the reason there are fewer teenagers winning slams now is because the game itself has changed so much. The game is so much more physical than it ever has been. I recently watched highlights of the 1977 women’s Wimbledon final between Virginia Wade and Betty Stove. They appear to be simply patting the ball over the net. Good touch and volleys, but pitiful baseline play. And then you watch this year’s Australian Open final betwen Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. Now that is tennis.

Teenagers cannot win any more because their bodies are simply not developed enough to allow them to train at full capacity. Andy Murray, in his own teenage years, reached the Wimbledon third round several years in a row, but found he could not win in 5 set matches, because his fitness and strength simply wasn’t enough to beat a weathered journeyman, no matter how talented he was.

When Sharapova won her first title at Wimbledon in 2004, aged just 17, it looks like she was the last. She is one of the few offensive baseliners in the women’s game. The majority try to build up their experience over the years with counterpunching play. Wozniacki, the best counterpuncher in the women’s game found time and time again that it wasn’t enough in the slams. She did, however, reach the US Open final at age 19, so perhaps all hope is not lost. But she got there with consistency, not stylish or attacking play.

Radwanska is just 23, and she has the same problems. She cannot hit the ball for herself, and has never progressed beyond the quarter finals of a slam.

In simple terms, teenagers will not win because they are not finished growing and developing in this ever more physically demanding game, and because they seem to rely more on consistency and keeping the ball in the court than going out and taking points for themselves.

May 30, 2012

Mert Ertunga:

Hi Angus,

Great input as always. I loved your “now that’s tennis” comment 

You are definitely correct about the game changing a lot, I would say especially in the last ten years. I do believe however that it was not a progressive effect that started way back in the 70s, but rather unique to just last ten years. In the 80s and 90s there were periods of large influxes of players in their teenage years that took over the top portion of the rankings, certainly far more than what was the case in the 70s. Therefore, whether teenagers are simply done winning Slams or dominating remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that currently, it’s the glory years of age and experience.

Just like you say, the physical aspect has become so important now, and players take a while to develop. If we take Lendl as an example, he was rather skinny and had “toothpick” arms and legs in the 1981 French Open final against Borg, compared to what he looked like in the later years when he reached finals of other slams. I would think that (and I think you’d agree also from what you say) nowadays, he would have to wait until the later years to reach the finals and not be able to do it in the physical condition of his 1981 final, whereas back then it was possible. Mc Enroe who claimed playing doubles was his “practice” would probably be blown away just on the physical aspect today.

I did speculate on some conclusions on the article of 2010 that I mention in this article, and I still believe that in the beginning of the 2000s to mid-2000s we had few champions come up on both sides that were ahead of their time (Rafa, Fed, Williams) and their domination have not allowed for teenagers to win Slams either, but it’s just a side-reason compared to the one you so astutely point out.

The part that was eyebrow-raising to me is not necessarily the winning of a Slam but the degree to which teenagers have disappeared. Finding only one teenager in the ATP rankings until you go down to 179 seems astonishing., as well as that only two teenagers remain in the women’s draw after the first round (Stephens won today, so we are at least assured of one in the next round). I don’t have the time but one day I would love to do a study of the decline of teenagers in the top 50 or top 100 rankings in both women and men over the period of 1990-2010 for example. Maybe another time.

Thanks for your always valuable input.
Mert

June 1, 2012

Selim:

Mert,

You bring up a very good point about lack of teenagers in the upper echelon of tennis these days. It was quite a big surprise to find out about the stats you mention and I’m sure most people are not aware of them.

When I think back to the days of Becker winning Wimbledon at 17, Chang-French Open at 17, Edberg-Australian Open at 19, Sampras-US Open at 19, etc, what they achieved back then seems quite improbable to imagine these days. Becker had won Queens in ‘85 and Chang had already been showing signs of potential (I remember watching his 2nd round match vs Leconte at 16 yrs old at Wimbledon ‘88) but I just can’t imagine a 16-17 year old coming out of nowhere these days and winning a Slam in their first/second year on the tour.

Average age of top tennis players back then must have been so much lower than these days that when Andres Gomez won French Open at 30 yrs of age vs Agassi in ‘90, he was considered quite old.

As you rightly point out, Nadal was last teenager to win a Slam at 19 and I remember reading a stat at the time that he had broken Borg’s record of being the “teenager with most titles” - I remember Wilander was up on that list as well.

I agree that the main reason has to be how much more physical the game has gotten in the last two decades.

June 1, 2012

Mert Ertunga:

Selim, thanks for the feedback.

And that is some serious data bank memory with the Chang vs. Leconte match, I had no idea :)

My main memory of that tournament was Edberg vs. Mecir match, the biggest turnaround match I have seen since McEnroe vs. Lendl 1984 French final !

Mert

June 3, 2012

Angus:

Selim and Mert,

I wish I could contribute a little more to all this reminiscing about the 80s etc, but afraid I wasn’t around back then.

If I can mention one match I saw between teenagers however - back in ‘08 I saw Radwanska play Pavlyuchenkova in the second round of Wimbledon on the old court 3. Radwanska was awful back then. She would pat the ball over the net on her serve, struggling to reach more than 70/75 mph. At 16 I was serving faster than that.

But both players have come on a long way. Possibly it is a lack of self belief. They just don’t go for everything because they believe a more experienced player will pick holes in their game, so they just make sure they keep the ball in.

Not really seen any of these high profile games yet, but have centre court tickets for Wimbledon in a few weeks, so maybe I’ll see some history this time around.

Angus

June 4, 2012

Mert Ertunga:

Ok Angus, I see the “rub-it-in” at the end there :)) I will be at lowly Roehampton for the few of the quaifying round. Hahaa..

However, I will be at Philippe Chatrier tomorrow, Friday for the semis and Sunday for the finals. So there !!!! ;))))

By the way, you are right about Radwanska. She collapsed here too.

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