14. Older and less likely to change: the ATP Top 50 zeitgeist

The ATP Top 50 is older than ever before and less likely to change. Not exactly the stuff of pre-season optimism. Um, happy holidays….

With the 2014 season little more than a week away and with Christmas a few hours away, it is generally time to be optimistic. So I feel a bit bah humbug writing this post about the ATP Top 50 being older than ever before and being less likely to change than ever before. So I’ll be brief.

Less likely to change

I wanted to see how the ATP top 50 has evolved since rankings began in 1973. I wanted to see whether there had been dramatic change from one year (eg 1973) to another year five years later (1978). For this post, therefore, I listed the players who finished in the top 50 in 1973, and then those in the top 50 every five years since 1973 (i.e. in 1978, 1983, 1988 etc through to 2013).

My findings were that the ATP top 50 has never been less likely to change:

  • 28 of the players who finished 2013 in the ATP Top 50 were also in the top 50 in 2008. This is a record since rankings began in 1973.
  • In only one other five year period (1973 to 1978) did more than 20 players remain in the top 50 after five years.
  • Between 1983 and 1988, and between 1998 and 2003, only 13 players remained in the top 50. The top 50 experienced the most “churn” in these two periods.

Players remaining in the ATP top 50 over consecutive five year periods

5yeartransition

Older than before

Given that the top 50 is less likely to change, it is not surprising as a result that the average age of ATP players is older. The correlation coefficient between age and changeability is 0.9, i.e. very strong. When the top 50 experienced the most churn in the early 1980s and the late 1990s, these were the periods when the top 50 was also at its youngest.

For this chart, I calculated the average age of players in the ATP Top 50, again in five-yearly increments from 1973. The graph below accordingly shows the average age of the top 50 at the end of 1973, 1978, 1983 and so on through to 2013.

Average age of the ATP Top 50 in 1973, 1978, …, 2013

5yearaverageage

So what’s going on?

The data is incontrovertible. Why it might be happening is less so. Let me know what you think. But here are two questions:

1)      Did the advent of new racquet technology in the 1980s allow a new, stronger and younger generation to break into the top 50?

2)      To what extent are the convergence of court speed and the greater fitness of players responsible for the apparent later maturing of players since about 2000?

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