September 15, 2013       

Geriatric Tennis?

Jay Margolies
TennisOne Managing Editor

What’s up with the ATP Tour these days? In case you haven't noticed — the players seem to be aging, gracefully to be sure, but aging still, and right before our very eyes. At this year’s Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, which I had the privilege of attending, no less than 21 of the 56 players in the men’s draw were 29 and older; and most of those were over thirty. More to the point, only one player currently in the top ten, Juan Martin Del Potro, is under 25. So, why are so many older players having success on the tour, and where are all the young up-and-comers?

In 1992, seven of the top ten players were under the age of 25

Now it can’t be denied that tennis has changed dramatically since the advent of the open era — far more than any other sport. Just watch some of the old footage floating around on the internet — Laver playing Rosewall or even Connors vs McEnroe — the pace seems quite languid compared to what we see on the LCD these days.

Think about it, baseball is still played the same way it was 100 years ago, with a hardball and a wooden stick — about the only change has been the addition of performance enhancing drugs and how has that worked out?

In the NBA, the players have gotten bigger and more skillful and they’ve added a three point line, but the game is still played with a leather ball and a ten foot basket. And it’s much the same with football, but the ATP tour is considerably different than the game played only a few years ago when players like Connors, McEnroe, and Lendl roamed the courts.

In the current top ten, only one player, Juan Martin del Potro, is under 25.

It’s a Whole New Ball Game

40 years ago tennis was a tactical almost leisurely game played mostly on grass or clay courts, using continental forehands, one-handed backhands and a get to the net first mentality. Players used small, dead racquets with lively strings and large grips. The modern game is played from the baseline using weapons of mass destruction, with lively racquets, dead strings, and smaller grips — a 180 degree turn-about.

But none of this explains why the top players are so much older than they were just a few years ago.

With the exception of Connors, Lendl, and a handful of others, in the open era, careers were on the wane by the time a player reached his mid to late 20’s, pushed aside by young guns with superior weapons, driven by newer, innovative techniques. And this has a lot to do with how the game of tennis has evolved over the years.

The Two-Handed Backhand Scenario

A case in point is the advent of the two-handed backhand. First there was Evert and Connors, followed by Borg and Austin — all great champions to be sure, but at the time the stroke was considered an oddity by most pundits and teaching pros. In fact, Borg was asked more than once when he was going to switch to a one-hander. Yet despite the success of these champions, it took another generation of players before the stroke gained widespread acceptance. Today, it is the predominant stroke on the tour, especially on the women’s side.

Although Borg, Connors, and Evert dominated tennis with their two-handed backhands, it took a generation for the stroke to take hold.

But while the two-handed backhand took a generation before taking over the game, other innovations seem to instantly become the norm. These days, once a new or innovative stroke proves successful, younger players quickly follow suit, as was the case with, the swinging volley, the squash shot, and the jump two-handed backhand. All of these strokes and others are now commonplace in tennis, even among juniors and high level club players.

Which leads me back to my original question — why are so many older players having success on the tour and why aren’t the younger players pushing them aside?

Let’s go back a few years to a time when Stefan Edberg ascended to the top of the game by perfecting his elegant serve and volley game. He seemed invincible after back-to-back US Open wins in 1991 and ’92. Yet very quickly, younger players like Sampras and Agassi quickly blew by him due to superior techniques and fire power. Andre hit massive groundstokes with topspin off both wings and Pete Sampras hit pin point serves at 130 miles an hour and added a massive forehand and powerful volleys to back it up. While Sampras’s serve is still the gold standard because of its combination of speed and spin, today most of the big servers can crack it 140 and higher.

The modern game is now played at hyper-speed using these weapons of mass destruction and this has led to shortened backswings and more efficient groundstrokes so that players can respond more quickly to this high-powered topspin game.

And it’s not only changes in technique that move the game forward but also changes in fitness, first championed by Martina Navartilova, Ivan Lendl, and then Jim Courier. Today, every player on the ATP tour sports a chiseled physique previously reserved for body builders and, perhaps the gods.

The Inside-In and Inside-Out Forehand

Changes in tactics and strategies have also infected the modern game. Jim Courier reached the top by emphasizing his strength (and to protect a flawed backhand), which was one of the biggest forehands in the game. Consequently, he was one of the first players to consistently run around his backhand and hit inside-out forehands. Roger Federer took this strategy to the next level even though he had one of the best backhands in the game. Today, the inside-in/inside-out combination is the predominant strategy on the ATP tour.

Pete Sampras. Andre Agassi, and Jim Courier quickly rose to the top by adding new elements to the game.

The Next Generation

There are many talented young players on the ATP tour, in addition to del Potro, Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori, and Jerzy Janowicz come to mind. But unlike previous generations, they have not blown past the old guard and taken their rightful place at the top of the game. Perhaps the reason for this has to do with the maturity of the game itself — techniques are now well established, fitness is paramount, and strategies are well defined.

Roger Federer took the game to this level, and though at 32, he shows signs of aging, Murray, Djokovic, and Nadal, have matched his standard and seem prepared to carry on for quite some time. So how old is too old? That’s hard to say, Tommy Haas seems to be playing some of his best tennis and he’s 35.

So unless there’s some youngster practicing ungodly strokes on the dusty courts of Ojai, California or sloshing around on the red clay of Barcelona, Spain, or wherever it is these phenom’s spring from, expect to see Murray, Djokovic, and Nadal age gracefully at the top of the game. But, as they say, time really does march on and sadly, everyone does get older…. Eventually.

So, what about the young, up-and-comers,….  Well, I guess they’ll just have to wait their turn, won’t they?


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