Everything is flipped Down Under in Australia. North is warmer. South is colder. Winter is Summer. Summer is Winter. Kangaroos. Well, lots of kangaroos. And at this year’s Australian Open, the first tennis Grand Slam event of the year, older meant better!
Roger Federer and Serena Williams, both 35 years old, just outlasted their younger peers to win the 2017 men’s and women’s singles titles. But are these results really a flip or just the continuation of a trend?
Federer beat youngster Rafael Nadal (30 years old) in a gripping five-set final 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 after getting through fifth-seeded and 27 year old Kei Nishikori in the Round of 16 and fourth-seeded and 31 year old Stan Wawrinka in the semifinals, both in five sets. That’s a total of 18 sets in four rounds. Break out the Ben Gay. Williams meanwhile had a bit of an easier road, not dropping a set until beating her older sister, 36 year old Venus 6-4, 6-4 in the finals. Of note, along the way, she beat 34-year old Mirjana Lučić-Baroni in the semifinals. Federer now has a record 18 Grand Slam titles, further distancing himself from second place Pete Sampras and Nadal, both at 14 titles. Serena Williams is now in second place among women with 23 major titles behind Margaret Court, who had 24, and ahead of Steffi Graf who had 22.
With so many 30+ players making headlines in Melbourne, is tennis really still a younger person’s game? Where are all those teenage prodigies that used to dominate the game such as Tracy Austin, Andrea Jaeger, Mats Wilander, Boris Becker, and Martin Hingis? Well, it’s been quite a while since a non-adult and someone who can’t rent a car has made it through the draw at a major event to capture the title. Past history has suggested that tennis performance drops after the 30 year old threshold. Indeed Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight has reported that players over the age of 29 have won only slightly over 10% of all the four Grand Slam tennis tournaments (the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open). And the percentage plummets to 3.3% when you consider players over age 31. Steffi Graf retired at age 30. Monica Seles played her last professional singles match at the same age. But history is history. And things seem to be changing.
In 2015, Sports Illustrated showed some interesting graphics that broke down the ages of players on the Association of Tennis Professional (ATP) and Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) tours. The average age of the Top 200 men’s pro players is 27 years and 4 months. But reduce this to the Top 100 and this moves up to 27 years and 8 months. The Top 20? 29 years. 40% of the top 20 players are over 30 years old. For the women, for the Top 200, 25 years. For the Top 100, 25 years and 6 months. the Top 50, 26 years and 2 months. The Top 20, 26 years and 6 months. Only one teenager in the Top 50 and none in the Top 20.
With the entertainment world’s, fashion industry’s, and Silicon Valley’s obsession over youth, are we forgetting that experience plays a big role in performance? Sure, as a younger person, you can cram a bunch of garbage down your throat, drink excessively, stay up all night, and still be able to immediately run and jump around without injury. Sure, when you get older you have to more careful about your diet, stretching, and getting rest. But nothing really replaces experience.