Tennis’ Late Bloomers

Tennis is a sport where you have to be young to succeed, or so we are always told. You need to start learning very young and make the transition to the bigger stage as quickly as you can if you are ever going to reach the top.

Most notably, there has always been a "rule" that stated if you hadn't won your first grand slam by the time you were 21, you wouldn't go on to win any more. Rafael Nadal won his first at 19, Novak Djokovic at 20, and Roger Federer at 21. They have all gone on to win many slams.

But there are a fair few who buck that trend.

The most notable of all these exceptions is Ivan Lendl, who won his first grand slam at the fifth time of asking at the 1984 French Open, at the "advanced" age of 24. Down two sets and a break, it looked like an inevitability that John McEnroe would win yet another slam, and his first French Open title. However it was not to be, as Lendl's experience allowed him to battle back, take control, and ultimately win.

The next big exception is Tim Henman. As a youngster, "Tiger" Tim showed exceptional talent, with a consistent serve, and solid, stylish play off both sides and was, for a time, the best volleyer in the game. Henman was the classic Brit, with his serve-volley style of play, and his quick feet made him exceptionally good on the grass courts of Wimbledon and fast indoor courts. He never reached a grand slam final, but was very consistent at a high level, reaching six grand slam semifinals, and was ranked among the top players for a long time, particularly towards the end of his career, where, under the guidance of Paul Annacone, he began to master the clay courts, and truly challenged on all surfaces. He won his only significant title, the Paris Masters in 2003, at the age of 29.

Now for a current player — Janko Tipsarevic. Tipsarevic seemed to be a safe bet for a grand slam champion when he turned pro, not long after winning the 2001 Junior Australian Open, but he did little afterwards, and for many years failed to shine. He only broke into the top 20 at the age of 27, but sharply rose to break into the top 10. Now sitting ranked 9th in the world, just one spot off his career high of 8, he is hitting his prime not too long before he reaches 29 years of age.

Austrian left-hander Jürgen Melzer was for a long time known as the best man not to get past the third round of a grand slam. It was not until he was 29 at the French Open in 2010 that he broke his duck, going all the way to the semifinals before losing to eventual champion and then four-time champion Rafael Nadal. His greater achievements came in doubles play, however, as he went on to win the 2010 Wimbledon men's doubles a month later, along with the 2011 U.S. Open men's doubles and the 2011 Wimbledon mixed doubles at the age of 30.

Mardy Fish is another who capped off an average career with a sparkling finish. Fish had always been struggling to find consistent performances, and his game was too flawed to provide much difficulty for world-class opposition, but in 2011, he shed the bulk of weight that had hampered him throughout his career and put together a string of performances of sharp-serving and heavy-hitting that took him to a career high of 7, a month before his 30th birthday. His greatest achievements will surely be seen as his qualification for the World Tour Finals, and overtaking Andy Roddick as the No. 1 ranked American.

And of course, how can this list be written without tagging on the name of Andy Murray? For years he was touted as the best player never to win a grand slam. He reached three major finals without victory, and it always appeared as though he did not have enough firepower in his arsenal to make that final step. But 2012 brought the appearance of the man at the top of this list, Ivan Lendl, who had failed to win in his first four finals.

With Lendl as coach, Murray's game became more aggressive, and, after having reached the Wimbledon final and again failing to jump the last hurdle, there was a watershed moment, and Murray could not look back. Four weeks later, he thrashed Roger Federer in straight sets on the very same court in the Olympics to win the gold medal, and then went on to outclass Novak Djokovic in five grueling sets in the U.S. Open final to win his first major title at the age of 24. From this position, and at this age, only Lendl has gone on to win any more slams, but time is on Murray's side as his game continues to improve, and any potential successors seem few and far between.

Finally, how can this list be complete without the best Croatian to play the game? Goran Ivanisevic is the greatest example of a late bloomer in tennis. His early career was promising, but every time he came close to that elusive major title, it slipped through his fingers. In terms of grand slam achievements, he was in much the same boat as Murray for the majority of his career. He reached three Wimbledon finals without winning and was, at that time, the best player yet to win a slam, and, at almost 30, and ranked 125 in the world, it looked as though it would never happen. He had been ranked as highly as No. 2, at the age of 22, but never made the final step. He had saved his best till last, however, as he accepted a wild card into Wimbledon, before resolutely beating anyone in his way, en route to one of the most memorable Wimbledon finals to date. Just two months shy of 30, and he made his last achievement his best.

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Comments and Conversation

January 29, 2013

Selim:

Angus,

I read your article shortly after I saw an interesting statistic on ATP website. This stat said that by winning the Sydney tournament, Tomic became only the second player born in the 1990’s to win an ATP title. Raonic, who is 22 years old, has won three titles and Tomic (20) only has one title. Aside from them, no other current player 22 years old or younger has won any titles in their career. Or put another way, there are only 4 tournaments in total won by players 22 years or younger.

I find this astonishing compared to the 80’s, 90’s, even 00’s when players used to peak much younger (Becker winning Wimbledon at 17, Edberg-Australian Open at 19, Sampras-US Open at 19, Nadal-French Open at 18, McEnroe-Wimbledon at 21, etc). Could this be the only time in the Open era when no teenager, 20, 21 or 22 year old (aside from Tomic & Raonic) has a single title?

Of course the subject has been discussed before - much of it is due to the physical nature of the game and the fact that the players’ bodies need to strengthen with time (i.e. into their twenties) before becoming effective on the tour. The other reason is you currently have an extremely strong generation of 25 to 31 year olds who have won 31 of the last 32 slams between them.

It will be interesting to see when will be the next time we see teenagers/20/21 year olds starting to win Slams (or regular tournaments!) again.

January 29, 2013

Angus:

Selim,

I had not seen this statistic, but it is certainly alarming. However, in terms of players in their young twenties or late teens winning slams, that time may not be too far away.

Tomic and Raonic are by far and away the best players in their age group, but both have serious flaws in their game which they don’t seem too anxious to fix. Once the current top four of Federer and Nadal, then Djokovic and Murray have faded away, which will most likely happen within the next 4-6 years, and once some of the younger players have split them up, neither Tomic or Raonic (as it stands) simply do not have the talent, or the consistency in their game to totally dominate the way these top four have.

I feel that once Murray and Djokovic have passed over the baton, any slam is up for grabs by just about anyone. For example, Grigor Dimitrov was widely touted as the new Federer, when he first came on the scene. And in a way he is, and in a way he isn’t. He plays with the same style and grace as Federer, but in terms of grand slam winning ability, he is not quite there. Federer won his first at the age of 21, and Dimitrov must wait until he is at least 22 before he can win his first, and that is unlikely at the French Open which will yet again no doubt be dominated by Nadal, Federer and Djokovic.

However, Dimitrov (born in 1991) did reach his first ATP singles final in Brisbane this month, only to be beaten by Andy Murray. You feel that, placed into a different era without these top four, he may well have won one by now, without having to live in the shadows of the greats.

It is my opinion that, of these three youngsters, Dimitrov is the more likely to step up on the big stage and win a slam first.

But in reference to when will youngsters win again? Maybe when Tomic, Dimitrov and Raonic are battling it out at the top, another player with talent, consistency, and an old head on young shoulders, will come and blow them out of the water. I don’t think that time is too far away, but I can’t see it happening for a good 4 or 5 years. Then again, who knows? A 16 year old junior may turn pro tomorrow and win a slam next year. It is almost impossible to tell.

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