Traditionally, tennis conjures prodigies. This is especially true of the women’s game, which has spawned a string of memorable teenaged champions. Some of the most indelible memories have included those outrageously talented at a young age. It has always been an astounding sight to watch, essentially, school kids win the most hallowed tennis trophies.
Some prime examples include: Steffi Graf winning the ‘golden slam’ — which included a gold medal at the Seoul Olympics — in 1988 aged 19, Martina Hingis achieving her beguiling best before 17 when she blitzed the circuit in 1997, and the Williams sisters each winning slams in their teens. It was always so natural and normal witnessing the emergence of a young talent conquering the landscape even before she was legally allowed to drink alcohol or drive a car.
There were obvious reasons why tennis produced such precocious youngsters. To excel at tennis requires dedication at such a tender age manifesting into an early skill-set much like many Olympic sports, which similarly have an early peak for athletes. The prime years for tennis players was always deemed to be in the early 20s; once a player hit 30 it was almost game over.
However, there has been a severe shift in recent times which started a recalibration of traditional thinking, made notable during the Australian Open where all four finalists of the singles were aged over 30. In the women’s singles, Venus Williams is 36 years old and enjoying a renaissance having not won a Grand Slam title since 2008, while her sister Serena has arguably enjoyed her best years since hitting 30, winning nine majors since to defy the ravages of age. Other recent examples include Flavia Pennetta winning her maiden Grand Slam title at 32 and a late blooming Li Na winning the 2014 Australian Open aged almost 32.
Conversely, the last teenager to win a Grand Slam title was Maria Sharapova at the 2006 U.S. Open at 19. The days of a fresh-faced ponytail teenager storming through a Grand Slam has all but ended. One of the reasons for the decline of the young phenomenon was due to concerns from the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) in the 1990s.
Ominously, in the backdrop, there were cautionary tales dotting the landscape of teenagers flaming out due to burnout, injuries or immaturity. Headlining the problems was American sensation Jennifer Capriati, who took the tour by storm at 13 before succumbing to off-field issues. Fortunately, Capriati recovered and eventually won three Grand Slam titles to fulfil her promise, but many others weren’t so fortunate. Thus, the WTA enacted age-eligibility rules in 1995 that limited the number of tournaments players between the ages of 14 and 17 could enter. Naturally, it has become harder for youngsters to bolt from the blue.
Perhaps more pertinent to the game itself, women’s tennis, stylistically, has changed dramatically in the past two decades. The emergence and domination of the Williams sisters signalled a shift towards a power-baseline game. Relentless slugging from the back of the court became the new norm requiring strength and brutish force. Veterans, whose body and mind had been hardened over the years, had the edge over the adolescent newbie not physically or mentally up for the grind. The game’s changing course meant the Hingis type of player, who relied on finesse and guile, were eroding from the game; Hingis, herself, won her fifth and final major at the age of 18 before succumbing to bullying from the Williams sisters although she has enjoyed a stellar revival in the doubles which better complements her game.
Since the start of the millennium, tennis has shifted from finesse to power game, where players must spend years honing their game and physique to become a force on the tour. This has contributed to more late bloomers and resulted in fewer prodigies. You can still see glimpses of teenaged wonders, complete with mesmerising, innate talent, but too often they get physically overpowered, and the relentless grind of the circuit wears them down.
Prolonging careers and safeguarding from burnout, veterans tend to carefully select which tournaments they play to manage the arduous workload of the calendar. The Williams sisters were pioneers in this, often playing scant tournaments other than majors partly because of their love for outside interests but also, smartly, to freshen up away from the game.
Undoubtedly, the longevity of tennis players is not an outlier but a trend across sports. With the advances of modern medicine and sports science, athletes are prolonging careers and extending their primes. Tom Brady, New England Patriots quarterback in the NFL, played arguably his greatest ever playoff game recently at the ripe age of 39. LeBron James, the consensus best player of the NBA, is in his 14th season and yet has shown no slippage, with his statistics in the current season almost similar to that of a decade ago. It has been reported that James spends over $1 million a year to aid his fitness, including a gym at his home and a personal chef. Almost everything he does revolves around ensuring his body is in optimal physical shape.
Similarly, tennis players, particularly those well remunerated, can fastidiously look after their body to ward off ageing. Even at 35, Serena shows no difference in athleticism from her ultimate peak of the early 2000s. Incredibly, much like counterpart Roger Federer in the men’s, Serena has extended her prime, which has lasted about 15 years now — the type of longevity that seemed unfathomable just a couple of decades ago.
We are currently in the midst of a golden age of tennis with the men’s ‘big four’ and the Williams sisters all-timers. Perhaps they are outliers, and the astounding longevity is a testament to their innate resolve and sheer professionalism.
However, undisputedly, tennis — like sports itself — has evolved and there are greater rewards on offer for the indefatigable and the savvy veterans on tour.
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