For a number of years, a paradigm shift was discussed when it came to tennis trends and the ages of players. Teenage phenoms were winning grand slam tournaments and taking the sport by storm. Players began to slow down in their mid to late 20s and, by the time they hit the magic number of 30, were virtually finished.
It was almost like the number 30 seemed cursed – like any player nearing that age didn’t have a chance.
These days, that’s not quite the case.
Recently, many players – both nationally and locally – are attempting to reverse the perception that 30-plus runs with the “over the hill” cliche.
Rafael Nadal recently turned 26 and won the French Open, but one of the under-the-radar tournament storylines was the 37 men 30-plus years of age – a tournament record – who played in the event. This number is in stark contrast to the 11 players who did it a decade ago in 2002.
Twelve men 30 or older won at least one match in the recently completed tournament at Roland Garros, including David Ferrer and Roger Federer, who both made it all the way to the semifinals before bowing out to Nadal and Novak Djokovic, respectively.
While the numbers for the women were not quite as astounding, Na Li and Klara Zakopalova, both 30, reached the fourth round of play.
Coinciding with an increase in older players is also a decrease in teenagers playing in Grand Slam events. The men’s draw for the French Open featured only one teenager, Bernard Tomic, who bowed out in the second round. Gone are the days of Pete Sampras, Michael Chang, Martina Hingis, and Lindsay Davenport, who all won grand slam events before the age of 20. In fact, that has not happened since Maria Sharapova won the 2006 US Open at age 19. The men’s draw goes back over a year earlier with Nadal winning the 2005 French Open at age 19. This is not likely to change anytime soon as the average age of Grand Slam finalists has seen a significant increase, going from 21 between 2000 and 2005 to 24 for the past seven years.
One year ago, Martina Navratilova, who played professional tennis competitively into her 40s, told the New York Times: “You will see more players excelling between the ages of 25 and 30 than from 20 to 25. Everything’s getting older. I don’t think you’ll see people win Slams at 35, but 30 is not the cutoff point that it used to be.”
While no one 30 or older has reached the ultimate prize since Andre Agassi took home the 2003 Australian Open a few months before his 33rd birthday, Navratilova’s prediction appears to be on the right track.
There is also a bit of a local flavor to this trend as several seasoned players took to the courts for the Middle States US Open National Playoffs Qualifier. Robert Van Naarden topped the list, playing at age 65, while John Chatlak – at age 52 – won a match. Van Naarden had inspirational words for younger players upon exiting, and Chatlak stays involved in the game by coaching women’s tennis at Seton Hill University.
Ron Mercer, at age 44, also put in quite the amount of work, reaching the semifinals of the men’s singles draw while winning the mixed doubles tournament alongside partner, Stephanie Smith. Meanwhile, Punch Maleka, 33, won the men’s title.
The connections do not fully stop there. Combine local and national into one, and you get Lisa Raymond. Last year, Raymond, originally from Norristown, Pa., won the US Open Doubles tournament alongside Liezel Huber. Raymond turned 38 shortly before play began.
With new technology and ways of staying healthy, players at all level are attempting to extend their tennis careers despite some on the professional level not getting as fast of a start as some others once did. This is not to say that younger players are not active and having success. Youth tennis has been on a huge upward rise since the turn of the century with more players between the ages of 6-10 participating. Research indicates that this age group is key both for the athletes and the sport as a whole as the retention rate is much higher for players who begin some form of tennis instruction at an early age.
Teenage prodigies playing professionally may no longer be entirely relevant, but the overall participation in youth tennis is increasing, and older players certainly are not irrelevant. Quite the contrary actually.
It seems like, as the sport continues to progress, age is losing its significance. And as we move into the future, there will likely be even more surprises, with more and more people pushing age to the limit.
Perhaps what Agassi did in 2003 will be accomplished again very soon.