Incredibly, it seems that you have to be thirty or older – in some cases a lot older – to reach the semi-final of a Grand Slam. With the shining exceptions of two 25 year olds, Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov and America’s Coco Vandeweghe, all the other six men’s and women’s semi-finalists were of a generation that started their careers more than ten years ago.
In fact, to put it into a social perspective concerning the way our lives have changed so dramatically, when Serena Williams first played Mirjana Lucic in 1998, Google did not exist. That really was a different age.
Tennis stats emphasize just how different as far as our game is concerned. Serena’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, showed me some graphs that highlight the ageing of the game. In 2000, Grand Slam men’s singles draws had an average of 9 players over the age of thirty. Today that number has ballooned to 46. Has there ever been such an age-related shift in the history of any sport? Talk about an ageing population! But does it matter and why is it happening?
Asking people who play, coach or analyze the game does not provide you with clear cut answers. The first reaction is an expression of puzzlement. No one denies that there is a new and exciting generation of talent waiting in the wings, especially amongst the boys, but that is where they remain. In the wings.
The only player of 21 or younger to get as far as the fourth round in either draw was Jenny Brady from Florida who was ranked 116 in the world. She proved herself to be a fighter by outlasting Britain’s Heather Watson 10-8 in the third and then defeated Elena Vesnina, the 14th seed from Russian 7-6, 6-2. But Lucic-Baroni beat her 6-4, 6-2. That was a great effort from Brady but no one is regarding her as a future Grand Slam winner.
On the men’s side, the story was, if anything, more confusing. There were several unforeseen, even shocking, upsets but the players who caused them were not from the next generation. Quite the opposite. World No 1 Andy Murray was rushed into defeat by the 29-year-old Mischa Zverev who used a faster than usual Center Court to charge the net at every opportunity. It was Zverev’s greatest ever win after an injury-hit career.
World No 2 Novak Djokovic went down 6-4 in the fifth in the third round to another journeyman of long standing, Denis Istomin. It was also the Uzbeck’s greatest ever win.
If there was one young player who possessed the talent to burst through the field it was Nick Kyrgios but, after a mental blow up which, unfathomably, occurred when he was two sets up, the Australian lost to another of those players who have been at it for years, the 32-year-old Italian Andreas Seppi.
The other unseeded player to make it into the fourth round was Dan Evans who ousted Marin Cilic and Bernard Tomic. Evans, who has decided he needs to spend less time in Birmingham night clubs and more on nurturing his considerable talent, is 26.
With the greatest of respect, Istomin, Seppi, Evans and the older Zverev do not represent the future of the sport. Mischa’s younger brother, the 19-year-old Sascha Zverev is another matter but, well as he played in the third round, Rafa Nadal outlasted him 6-2 in the fifth.
Having spoken to people like Pat Cash, Rosie Casals, Geoff Masters, Wayne Ferreira, Craig Cardon, who has obviously done wonders for Coco Vandeweghe’s game, and Mourotoglou, who continues to keep Serena on track, a combination of these factors come into play:
The improved overall fitness of the players.
The incentive for players to stay fit and play on because there is so much more money in the sport.
Courts that, for the most part, enable powerful players to hone their best strokes to a point that they will not breakdown under pressure.
The spin-friendly strings that enable great ball-hitters to power on, secure in the knowledge that, mostly, they will be able to keep the ball in play.
And a lack of Plan B for younger players who are coached to play in a certain style without variation.
Rosie Casals, Billie Jean King’s Grand Slam winning doubles partner who now coaches some American juniors, is particularly frustrated by the rigidity of some of today’s coaching. “The young players don’t have a plan B,” she told. “When they get into trouble they cannot vary their play. Where’s the volley? Are they taught it?”
Pat Cash thinks improved fitness training has given players an extra lease of life. “I was virtually done when I was thirty,” he says, referring to his numerous physical problems.
Geoff Masters feels that the extra money is an incentive for players to play on. “They take care of their bodies much better now and find that they can still compete at the top level which wasn’t always the case,” says the Queenslander who won Wimbledon with Ross Case in 1977. “So why stop?”
Like Mourotoglou, former South African No 1 Wayne Ferreira feels the courts have a lot to do with it and would like to see more courts playing at the speed of this year’s Rod Laver Arena and the US Open.
Australian Open tournaments director Craig Tiley told me that there was no special effort made to quicken up the courts at Melbourne Park this year. “But we did have the courts laid a week earlier which might have had an effect,” he said.
These are all valid reasons but none quite explain the extraordinary way in which professional tennis, at the highest level, has become a game for over thirties. I cling, with less certainty than before, to the belief that a new generation will surge up the rankings to dominate the top twenty, particularly in the men’s game in two years time.
Luckily, I don’t bet on tennis because I would not have been putting my ten bucks on Federer and Nadal being in the semi finals with Murray and Djokovic nowhere in sight. So who knows what 2020 will bring. You would need 2020 foresight to know.
By Richard Evans