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Sunday 25 August 2019

Generation gap

Teenage wasteland

Tennis champions used to be much younger. Now the over-30s rule the courts. Jack Kessler investigates the triumph of experience over hopefuls

By Jack Kessler

Michael Chang’s victory at the 1989 French Open is an iconic moment in sport. His triumph came just weeks after the Tiananmen Square protests and the ensuing crackdown by the Chinese authorities, and Chang, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, felt he was playing to “bring a smile upon Chinese people’s faces around the world when there wasn’t a whole lot to smile about”. He became a hero, not just for Asian-Americans, but for Chinese people everywhere.

But there was something else remarkable about Chang’s triumph in Paris: his age. He was 17. Not that it was unusual at the time. In 1989, tennis had long been a playground for teenage champions. Between the start of the Open Era in 1968 and 2005, teenagers – men and women – won 43 Grand Slam titles. Since 2005, they have won one.

In 2019 only one man under 30 has even won a set in a Grand Slam final. And while 15-year-old Coco Gauff earned global attention for her stunning Wimbledon run this year, it ultimately ended at the fourth round. What brought about this change?

For a start, fitness and health have improved. Tennis players today enjoy training facilities and medical advances far beyond those that previous generations could expect. This has contributed to perhaps the greatest factor in prolonging players’ careers – injury prevention.

Dr Neeru Jayanthi, director of the Tennis Medicine Programme at Emory University, explains: “We no longer wait for players to get hurt before intervening. New treatments mean injuries which years ago stayed degenerative are now being prevented.” And when players do require surgery, it is often less invasive, allowing them to return to the court far quicker and without long-term effects.

Elite tennis players are now some of the fittest and most athletic sports people in the world, capable of impossible sprints even in the sixth hour of a match. It was not always this way.

Tennis had long favoured the artistic and technical over the physical and athletic. This was something of a hangover from its amateur era, which extended into 1968. John McEnroe won three Wimbledon titles in the 1980s despite hating practice; he played doubles instead. So when Martina Navratilova and Ivan Lendl broke ranks and took fitness training to new levels, it was viewed in some quarters as not the done thing.

John McEnroe serves during the Wimbledon tennis tournament

Dr Melissa Baudo Marchetti, a sports clinical specialist and former physiotherapist for the WTA, said that tennis has moved on from just being about good technical players. “Today, athletes are more concerned with athletic ability, speed, strength, endurance, and incorporating sports science and data to help with recovery and injury prevention.”

The transformation of the sport from a game of touch and artistry to one of strength and endurance means that teenagers now need more time to develop their bodies to compete against grown men and women. The 17- or 18-year-old cannot easily compete with a fully developed 25-year-old, or even someone of 30-plus.

Todd Ellenbecker, Vice President of Medical Services for the ATP, and Paul Ness, a physiotherapist for the ATP, said: “It may be harder for younger players to have immediate success, as in years past, due to the young males’ bodies not having the appropriate levels of strength and conditioning to compete with more mature players on the ATP Tour.” This, they went on to say, “may decrease the likelihood of ‘breakthrough’ responses except in unique circumstances.”

Professional Tennis Player may seem like an ideal job. Rome and Paris in the spring, London and New York in the summer, Sydney and Melbourne in January – there is little time for winter on the tour. In reality, it is a slog. The men play for 11 months a year, the women for 10. Players are constantly travelling, changing time zone and environment, from dry heat to overwhelming humidity to air conditioned indoor arenas. There are practical things you can do to make life easier – and enormous increases in prize-money have helped the best players.

In 1990, ATP prize-money (including Grand Slams) stood at $86.7 million (2019 dollars). By 2019, this had more than doubled to $231.9 million. For the WTA, prize-money has more than tripled, from $44.7 million to $149.1 million in 2018.

These huge increases have coincided with rising ages of Grand Slam winners and of the top 100.

Dr Mark Kovacs, Executive Director of the International Tennis Performance Association, said that greater prize money has been crucial in prolonging careers, because of what players can do with it. “The money allows top players to hire more staff – coaches, physical therapists, strength and conditioning specialists, a chef. More people around them to help them maintain their body. This adds years to a player’s lifespan.”

Roger Federer tours the world with a small city of support staff. Two coaches, a physio and a fitness trainer, as well as a team of nannies and teachers for his four young children. The men’s world number one, Novak Djokovic, uses a cryogenic chamber to help his recovery and has even published a book on nutrition, Serve to Win: The 14-Day Gluten-Free Plan for Physical and Mental Excellence.

This is a far cry from the past. Chang told me: “I would just have my brother and mum with me. Maybe in some big tournaments I’d have a coach.”

The greater prize money does not just help the top players to recover more quickly – it enables them to play less.

When Roger Federer tore his meniscus in 2016 doctors advised him to take three months off to recover. Federer took six. On his return, fully refreshed, he promptly won his first Grand Slam for nearly five years. He then took the entire clay-court season off – before winning Wimbledon.

Other players took note. Djokovic took the second half of 2017 off, and then regained the number-one ranking. Serena Williams, who gave birth to a baby girl in September 2017, today rarely plays tournaments outside of the four Grand Slams. Players are buying more time, and they are reaping the rewards. Jayanthi calls it the “Federer effect”. He said: “People used to be scared to take time off. It took someone like Federer to show tennis it can be done, and it prolongs careers.”

Chang believes that playing fewer tournaments has helped players to focus on the tournaments they really care about – the Grand Slams. “Our norm was to play 25 to 30 events a year. Today, the top guys play under 20, and do much better in those tournaments. It contributes to their longevity.”

This benefits the older, more established stars. Playing fewer tournaments is one thing when you already have millions of dollars in the bank and thousands of ranking points on the board. Younger, less established players, who are still chasing that prize money and points cannot take time off to recover from fatigue and to peak for the Grand Slams.

Tennis has always been a sport that places a high premium on experience and mental toughness. There are no teammates, no substitutions and no half-time team talk from the manager. If the strategy devised before the match is not working, it is up to the player alone to figure out how to fix it – and fast. This has always been an advantage for older players.

Anabel Medina Garrigues suffers an injury at the 2012 Australian Open

In previous eras, the older player’s mental edge was often offset by physical decline. Today, that decline sets in later. Chang told me, “The older guys who’ve been on tour for a while know how to handle situations. Younger players may not know what their body can and can’t handle. The older guys know what to do. They have the experience to manage their emotions, their breathing, the tension.”

Kovacs put it this way: “The older players are still playing at a high level, but with ten years of match experience, and the ability to handle the pressure. The younger players don’t have this, so it’s so much harder for a teenager to consistently play at that level.”

In a 2019 paper, ‘Technological Change and Obsolete Skills: Evidence from Men’s Professional Tennis’, the economists Ian Filmore and Jonathan Hall argue that the period from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, when teenage champions were common, is in fact an aberration. They attribute this youthful success to the technological revolution in rackets – the wholesale and sudden shift away from wooden frames and towards composites.

Filmore and Hall write that these larger, more powerful rackets “temporarily helped younger players at the expense of older players”, and increased the retirement rates of older players. The theory is that the cohort of players that included Chang, Agassi and Sampras, who came of age in the late 1980s, benefitted from having grown up with these new rackets, like the first generation of teenagers to be smartphone natives.

A composite racket in the hands of Serena Williams

These newer rackets enabled players to do so much more with the ball, and while older players also switched, they mostly continued to play with a wood-racket style, and so could not fully harness what the newer rackets could do. McEnroe, the last dominant player of the wood-racket era, never won a Grand Slam after 1984, like a star of silent cinema eclipsed in the era of the talkies.

Three players, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, have won 51 of the last 59 men’s Grand Slam titles. Serena Williams has won nearly 30 per cent of all women’s Grand Slams since 1999. Tennis has had dominant champions before, but this, for good or ill, is a period like no other in the game’s history.

 

Further reading

Underarm serves. Cramp. High drama. Relive Chang versus Lendl at the 1989 French Open.

Simon Kuper interviewed Roger Federer in his private jet as part of the ‘Lunch with the FT’ series. (£)

Federer’s delightful “73 questions” with Vogue, at Wimbledon.

The evolution of the tennis racket.