New balls, please
“Why don’t we have any teenagers in the top 100?” wondered 17-time Grand Slam winner Roger Federer out loud. “I’m not even sure we have many players under 21 or 22 in the top 100. It’s surprising because when I was coming up, there was Lleyton Hewitt, Marat Safin, Andy Roddick, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Tommy Haas… they were all excellent players and in the top 100 as teenagers. It was a normal thing. Boris Becker won Wimbledon and Michael Chang won the French Open.”
What’s remarkable about Federer’s observation isn’t just its accuracy – there is just one player under 21, Australian Nick Kyrgios, in the top 100 – but the fact that he made it four years ago. Not only has nothing changed in the interim, it might even have got worse.
He made those comments on the eve of the 2010 ATP World Tour Finals, when his main challengers in the year-end tournament were Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. Of the 15 Grand Slam tournaments played since, only one has been won by someone outside that quartet – and at 28, 2014 Australian Open champion Stanislas Wawrinka was hardly the epitome of new blood.
For those hoping for signs of life, the statistics look bleak from pretty much every angle. The 2005 French Open, won by a 19-year-old Rafael Nadal, remains the last Grand Slam won by a teen. By contrast, at this year’s tournament there were only two teenagers in the entire men’s draw of 64 players – one of those was a wildcard, the other a qualifier. Of those who finished the 2013 season in the top 50, 28 were also in the top 50 in 2008. Fully a quarter of the top 100 players in the world are now aged 30 or over.
As we approach the US Open in New York’s Flushing Meadow, which begins on August 25, it’s almost certain that the man holding the trophy has won a slam before – and that means someone at least 27 years old. “Maybe the game has become more physical and more mental and that’s why players today need a bit more time to break through,” pondered Federer, trying to answer his own question.
“There has never been a top 10 that has been this good and this consistent for so long”
That is certainly a key factor for Reem Abulleil, tennis writer at Abu Dhabi-based sports newspaper Sport360. “The age issue is something that is brought up at every major tennis tournament,” she says. “I think there are two factors at play: Firstly, there has never been a top 10 that has been this good and this consistent for so long. For someone to break into the top 10, someone has to drop out – and no one is doing that. After Nadal, Federer and Djokovic, you have Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer, Raonic and Wawrinka, and they’re still winning tournaments and competing at the slams. There’s just no room at the top.
“The second is that tennis is such a physically demanding sport now. A lot of the younger players aren’t able to play at that level of intensity day in day out. When Nick Kyrgios knocked Rafa out of Wimbledon this year, he was beaten easily in the next round. His body simply wasn’t up to it.”
Allistair McCaw, an athletic performance expert who has worked with nine Grand Slam winners, is in full agreement, citing a combination of increased durability among the top-ranked players and insufficient focus on physical development. “There’s too much of a rush to produce professionals,” he says.
“A lot of the young prodigies you see at 10 or 11 burn out, get injured or simply lose the love of the sport by ages 15 or 16. Look at young US player Ryan Harrison, a great prospect at 12, a top 100 player as a teenager, but now struggling. He is now catching up his athleticism and rehabilitating a few injuries – he simply didn’t spend enough time on his athletic skills.”
The game in the US seems to be particularly afflicted. The current top 50 contains just two Americans, and only one, Jon Isner, in the top 20. In 1984, there were 24 Americans in the top 50 – practically half the elite field.
New York Times tennis writer Christopher Clarey examined this problem in 2013, unearthing a different cause with every expert interviewed. Four-time Slam champion Jim Courier suggested there was a lack of work ethic, while Tim Mayotte blamed basic technique. Echoing McCaw, Carey suggested that however many good players there are under 20, “the path to the top is strewn with outstanding juniors who never became outstanding pros”.
What all this does mean, of course, is that when Federer, Nadal et al do retire – and they will be doing so within a couple of years of each other – there will be an intriguing gulf at the summit of the men’s game. Indeed, come 2018 we might be wondering where the next dominant force is coming from. But we can be equally sure, it won’t be coming from the current top 20. Until then, we’re probably better off admiring the best group of players the game has ever seen.