The perfect age for a tennis player

Truths, Lies and Tennis Statistics RSS / / 04 October 2007 / Leave a Comment

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"Magical" Matthew Walton tells us why Roger Federer can be said to be over the hill

Despite winning three of the four Grand Slams this year (and making the final in the other) people have begun to question the dominance of Roger Federer in the men's game. Strange perhaps, given his record in 2007, and more so given the fact that he has actually made the final of the last 10 Grand Slams - no mean achievement!

No, the problem for Roger is that he can beat all his rivals on court but he can't beat one off it ... Old Father Time.

Federer is now 26 and that, for a tennis player, is moving rapidly towards his sell-by date. The advice to the world No.1 would be that if he is going to break the Pete Sampras record of 14 career Slams, he better do it quickly!!

Take a look at the record of several leading players over the last thirty years, it creates a striking pattern as far as their career paths are concerned :-

Connors - born 1952 - turned pro 1972 - won mid career title* (52/105) 1977
Borg - born 1956 - turned pro 1972 - won mid career title (30/61) 1978
McEnroe - born 1959 - turned pro 1978 - won mid career title (38/77) 1982
Lendl - born 1960 - turned pro 1978 - won mid career title (47/94) 1985
Sampras - born 1971 - turned pro 1988 - won mid career title (32/64) 1995

* mid career title is numerically the halfway point of the total number of titles won during a player's career - e.g. Borg won 61 titles so the mid-point is 30/31.

These players won their 'mid career title' aged 25, 22, 23, 25 and 24 respectively - an average of just under 24.

Then take a look at this season's ATP tour results. From all the events played, including those won by 'veteran' Federer, the average date of birth of the winners falls in 1982 making their average age around 24.

Sure, we've had the odd win for the real old stagers - Santoro (34) in Newport, Moya (31) in Umag - but the dividing line is 24-25 years old, thereafter it's very much the inevitable decline towards the 'pipe and slippers'.

Federer, as we said before, is now 26. Look at the new kids on the block - Nadal (21), Djokovic (20), Murray (20) and Gasquet (21) - and it becomes even more evident that despite only being five or six years older than these young protagonists, Federer is in a different generation.

Maybe it's a telling sign that Federer won 11 titles during 2005 and 12 titles in 2006 (when he was 23 through to 25) but he's won just 6 tournaments this year as he moved past 25 and became 26 in August.

It's interesting to note as well that we may have seen teenage success on tour this year (Djokovic was 19 when he won in Adelaide, likewise Murray in San Jose) but there still remains quite a dividing line around the age of 20. Basically, if players are winning when they're 18 or 19, like those two plus Nadal and Gasquet before them, we're talking about exceptional talent.

These players are destined for the top ten and worthy of note.

All five legends highlighted above had won their first titles before they were 21 and Federer was 20 when he first won in Milan back in 2001.

The bottom line is, if you're going to be a really top player then you need to post your first ATP win by the age of 21 and then, just five years later aged 26, you're quickly heading towards retirement. So make hay whilst the sun shines!

Maybe this explains why Tim Henman's rise to the top stalled just a few agonising feet from the summit. He was an already ancient 22 when he won his first title!

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