RISING GERIATRICS & FA(I)LLING TEENAGERS
He was the number 1 player in the world. He had won 5 of the preceding 12 Grand Slam tournaments. He was the finalist in 3 & semi-finalist in another 3 of those 12 Slams, ergo he was 6 sets away from Slam in 11 of them. He was on a 13 match winning streak, part of a 36-2 record in the year which was part of a bigger 306-30 streak in nearly four and a half years. The man's, robot's really, 237 week reign at the top was interrupted by the Swede for 20 weeks. Suffice to say, the Czech-American was at the peak of his powers.
Opposite him stood a 17 year old baby. Mismatch doesn't even begin to describe the fourth round tie at Roland Garros. A year earlier he had beaten the Sino-Californian and told the then 16 year old, "First off, you’ve got no serve. And you’ve certainly got no second serve. You can’t hurt me. You can run but you better develop a weapon to survive out here." The boy took the advice to his heart and worked on developing weapon(s).
Nothing seemed to work for the first two sets as Lendl raced to a 6-4 6-4 lead. Michael Chang battled back to take the 3rd 6-3, the first set Lendl dropped until then. Suddenly, the usually unflappable Lendl was clearly rattled and double-faulted in the 6th game of the 4th set to give Chang a break. The opening was enough for Chang to level the match at 2 sets apiece but it came at a price. Chang started to suffer from cramps and it seemed like the Czech may just survive after all. Up 2-1 in the 5th set, Chang started to walk towards his chair seemingly to quit but suddenly turned around and resolved to finish things. A few underarm serves & standing near the service box on Lendl's serve psyched out the Czech and the 17 year old was through 4-6 4-6 6-3 6-3 6-3 after a marathon 4 hour & 42 minutes.
|Cramps & Dehydration can't beat me|
Six days later, Michael Chang became the first American male tennis player to win a Slam since John McEnroe's US open triumph in 1984. He became just the 5th male teenager, after Borg, Wilander, Becker & Edberg to win a Slam in the Open Era. He bettered Boris Becker's Boom Boom win of 1985 by 118 days. He has since been joined by Pete Sampras & Rafael Nadal. The aforementioned seven teenagers had amassed 10 Slams between them before they hit the big Two-O. Borg, Becker & Wilander having won two each.
So question arises, where the $#@% have all the teenagers gone? The highest ranked 18- year old is Alex De Minaur at 245, the highest ranked 19- year old is Duck Hee Lee at 136 and the highest ranked 20- year old is the very talented Alexander "Sascha" Zverev at 18. Ahead of him are 2 near 30 year olds (Muzza & Nole), 2 near 31 year olds (Bull & LaMonf), 3 near 32 year olds (Stanimal, Muhammad Ali & Berdman) and near 36 year young reigning Hottest Slam champion Roger Federer. A generation ago, these veterans would have been made mincemeat by a rising teenager. Like 19 year old Pete Sampras who beat near 30 year young Lendl, near 31 year young McEnroe en route to his 1st Slam in 1990.
|Ecstasy meet Agony|
Sampras was part of a class of American tennis players born between 1970-72 to start making huge waves in the late 80s: Chang, Agassi & Courier. Agassi ended 1988 ranked 3rd in the world at just 18 years of age. Courier reached 15 before he turned 20. Sampras ended 1990 ranked 5th and Chang also finished 5th in 1989 aged 17. It would be nearly a decade before the next teenage phenom to emerge, the Aussie counterpuncher, Lleyton Hewitt who became number 1 just 9 months into his twenties. As Hewitt was maturing, rose the Bull from Mallorca, Rafa Nadal who became the 1st teenager since Sampras to win a Slam in 2005. Djokovic & Murray rounded up the last bunch of teenagers who made an impact on the tour.
|Last set of teenagers to impact the tour|
Let's delve into some numbers. Since 1990, not only is the number of teenagers in the top 20 falling but also the number maturing players under 25 years old. This has coincided with the dominance of the "Big Four" who have won 25 of the 29 slams, 7 of 7 ATP WTFs and 55 of 63 ATP 1000 Masters titles. The age of the player is the year he was born subtracted from the year in discussion. The month is irrelevant. For example Nishikori is a 27 year old in 2016 even though he was born on December 29th, 1989.
|Mean Age of Top 20 Tennis players in the period 1990-2016|
As we can see the average age of the year end top 20 has hovered around 24 years, 9 months from 1990 to 2009. Post-2010, it has steadily risen year after year. The 2016 year end top 20 average age is a mind boggling 28.5 years old! By 28.5, McEnroe was burnt out, Sampras began his 2 year title-less run, Becker, Edberg & Rafter were mere months away from their respective retirements. Hell even Federer & Nadal went through an extensive dry spell when they were 28.5 years old.
|Median Age of Top 20 Tennis players in the period 1990-2016|
Mean can sometimes be pulled up or pulled down by few extreme values like Djokovic (19), Murray (19), Nadal (20) & Gasquet (20) did in 2006. Even the median hovers around the 24/24.5 year old mark but rises steadily after 2010. The 2015 & 2016 median age is a massive 29!
|Mode Age of Top 20 Tennis players in the period 1990-2016|
If we look at the most number of players of the same age i.e. the mode of our yearly data, it has also increased steadily. From 1992 to 1996, it increased from 21 to 25 because it coincided with a strong class of players that included Courier, Sampras, Agassi, Ivanisevic, Bruguera etc. It again rises from 1997 with a slightly less powerful but a competitive generation of Kafelnikov, Henman, Corretja, who, while not winning many slams, were perennially competitive in the tour. The strong class of Ferrero, Safin, Federer, Hewitt, Gonzalez etc bring the age down around the turn of the millennium but it takes the same trend post-2010 steadily increasing year on year. There were 4 31 year olds (& 5 more 30+ year olds) and just 3 below 25 year olds in 2016.
|No of Top 20 Teenagers in the period 1990-2016|
Its now 10 years since a teenager ended up in the top 20 at the year end. Since Sascha Zverev turns 20 in April, hopefully, the young giant Russo-Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas can break the duck in November.
|No of Tennis players between the ages 20 & 25 in the period 1990-2016|
The sadder part is the lack of players between the ages 20 & 25. Players like Thiem, Dimitrov (though he's nearly 26) seem nowhere close to dominating the tour. Thiem made his 1st Slam semifinal last year but that seems anomalous to his usual 1st week exits in other Slams. Dimitrov has made just 2 Slam semifinals. By 26, Federer, Nadal & even Djokovic were among the greatest ever player lists. The players born after 1990 have been an utter disappointment. After a high of 15 players in 1994 it plateaued around 9-10 upto 2008 before plummeting to 2 from 2013-15 and rising to 3 in 2016. Let us believe this is part of a rising trend in this half decade.
So what is it that so special about the "Big 4"? How come the other greats weren't able to dominate the tour like them? Maybe the "Big 4" are better than the 70s & 80s "Big 4" (Lendl, Wilander, Borg, McEnroe) or the 80s & 90s "Big 4" (Sampras, Agassi, Becker, Edberg) but surely they aren't that good. The homogenized court conditions has had them make very few adjustments like the 80s & 90s greats used to. The slow conditions emphasizing fitness over skill has led to the near extinction of the giant killing hot-in-the-zone player today. An upset of the magnitude of Yzaga over Sampras smack in the middle of the year Sampras was number 1 the entire year and his possible peak is unthinkable in the present day.
|2017 Australian Open Court Speed|
There is no way to know that unless surfaces are de-homogenized or diversified as slow, fast, high bouncing, low bouncing etc and we see a rise of teenage terrorizers like Borg, Agassi, Nadal etc. The speeding up of the courts & the light balls gave rise to a couple of big upsets and Olderer & Agedal turning back the clock this Australian Open. Let us keep the faith that other tournament organizers follow suit and add a bit of variety to the near uniform courts irrespective of surface. AND YOU GOD DAMNED TEENAGERS THROW YOUR SMARTPHONES AWAY AND RISE THE $#@% UP! DON'T YOU WANT US TO CONTINUE WATCHING TENNIS?
P.S: A detailed XLS file can be downloaded here. It includes the top 20 from every year between 1990 & 2016.