It’s no child’s play

Argentine Juan Martin Del Potro... the 2009 U. S. Open champion. In the last decade, Del Porto and Novak Djokovic are the only two men's players who won their first Slam trophy before turning 23.-REUTERS

The changes in the way tennis players prepare and play the game has only taken the sport to heights it had seldom seen before. Furthermore, it also ensures that the greats will enjoy a longer stay in the game. That can only be music to the ears of a tennis fan. By Priyansh.

Tennis has always been a welcoming host to that young dasher who takes the sport by storm. The story of 17-year-old Boris Becker, who stole the show at Wimbledon in 1985, has been oft recounted and yet it serves up a beautiful image. There’s really very little reason to dislike that youngster, who sets the stage alight while showing little care for nerves or pressure.

However, it’s a figure that has slowly left the sport’s main stage. The last teenager to win a singles Grand Slam title was Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros in 2005. You have to go even further back to find the last female teenager, who became a Slam champion — Svetlana Kuznetsova (2004 U. S. Open).

But it would be disingenuous to solely seek out teenage Slam winners. After all, since the beginning of the Open Era in 1968 at the French Open, only 19 players have won a major trophy before they turned 20. Rather, it would be wiser to widen the net to under-23 players. As conventional wisdom went, the years after a player turned 25 represented a path of decline. Also, most tennis greats had won their first Slam before they had turned 23.

An analysis of Slam champions since the Open Era came into existence is insightful. For under-23 players, the decade starting from 2006 has been the toughest period in terms of winning any of the four major titles. In the men’s game, only Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro won their first Slam trophy before turning 23. Compare this with the preceding decade (1996-2005). There were eight under-23 Slam champions.

Australian Nick Kyrgios (pic. above), for all his talent, doesn't have the composure and physical stability to threaten title contenders.-REUTERS

The same can be said of women’s tennis. Ana Ivanovic, Petra Kvitova and Victoria Azarenka are the only three players in the category of under-23 Slam winners since 2006. The only time the women’s game saw a lower number of ‘young’ champions was between the 1968 French Open and the end of 1975 (two). However, that period wasn’t a full decade. Again, like in men’s tennis, the decade preceding the current one saw the highest number of under-23 Slam champions. There were 10 of them between 1996 and 2005.

No wonder then that the rankings represent the slide in the fortunes of the young too. As of June 29, 2015, no player is aged less than 24 in the men’s top 25, while the youngest player in the women’s top 10 is Simona Halep, who will turn 24 in September.

In this light, 20-year-old Garbine Muguruza’s run to the Wimbledon final was impressive. Yet, nobody was really surprised when Serena Williams swatted her challenge away in straight sets.

In the men’s section, there was a repeat of last year’s final and no under-25 player made the last eight.

More importantly, it was no surprise to see the ‘elderly’ players feature at the end of the business end of a Slam. This is the new reality of tennis.

Goran Ivanisevic had recently told this writer that he would have played for three-four years more if he had access to the medical and conditioning facilities available to the current crop. Roger Federer and Serena Williams are probably the best example for players that have remained fiercely competitive despite their advancing age.

Federer’s success, though, can’t be attributed to the benefits available to all top players alone. While it does help him to maintain his impressive fitness standards, there are other facets to his game that have contributed to his longevity. Federer isn’t a grinder like Nadal. Hence, his style of play puts lesser pressure on his body. This also helps him to move aggressively on court and shorten the points.

Serena’s achievements, however, are a consequence of her insatiable desire to win more than anything else. Ever since appointing Frenchman Patrick Mouratoglou as coach, the American has displayed an obsession with winning and made the necessary adjustments to achieve what she desires the most.

For young women players, she remains the major obstacle. In terms of the pace, physicality and skill in the women’s game, there’s nothing that should hold the youngsters back. But it’s Serena who stands in their way always. Consistency is another major issue. Eugenie Bouchard’s troubled 2015 is a case in point. After reaching the semis at Roland Garros and the final at Wimbledon last year, she exited both tournaments in the first round this season.

Among the men, though, it’s even tougher to see a young player earning a breakthrough Slam anytime soon. Even though Federer and Nadal are no longer the model of consistency they once were, the likes of Djokovic, Andy Murray and Stanislas Wawrinka remain veritable forces.

The physicality and pace of the men’s game has peaked and it takes experience coupled with adequate physical development to be a consistent performer at the Slams. A player like Nick Kyrgios, for all his talent, doesn’t have the composure and physical stability to threaten title contenders. With changes in conditioning and training practices, it’s likely that a male tennis player will peak at a later age henceforth.

This isn’t bad for the sport. Instead, the changes in the way tennis players prepare and play the game has only taken the sport to heights it had seldom seen before. Furthermore, it also ensures that the greats will enjoy a longer stay in the game. That can only be music to the ears of a tennis fan.