44. The concealed effects of ageing: part 2

The ATP top 100 is getting older; but it is unlikely that this has anything to do with the older players among them being intrinsically better than the younger generation. The data strongly suggests that among the possible reasons for the increased longevity are 3 “structural” reasons, namely:

  • The trend towards expensive full-time and increasingly specialised fitness and nutrition staff to maintain physical condition;
  • Disproportionate allocation of increases in prize money in favour of the main tour and those with higher rankings;
  • The decision to increase the number of seeds at grand slam events in 2001 from 16 to 32 (as well as byes for the top seeds at many ATP tournaments).

The three reasons reinforce each other: ranking points deliver prize money that pays for conditioning.

The outcome, unintentionally or otherwise, is to protect those at the top of the game at the expense of those trying to break through.

Part 3, outlook and recommendations for the ATP, comes tomorrow.

***

So we know from part 1 of this series that the average age of the top 100 is getting older and it’s taking longer to reach the top.

It’s tempting to think that the longevity of a small number of all-time greats such as Federer, Nadal and Djokovic (the first, in the top 3 aged 34) has had a significant effect on the average age of the top 100; and that as a result the established older generation is better than the younger generation trying to push through.

That would be the wrong conclusion: the dominance of 3 players can have only a very limited effect on the average age across 100 players.

So it’s more helpful to look for tour-wide structural reasons for this increase. And indeed, a comparison of the average age of ATP and WTA top 100s supports the idea that what has happened on the ATP tour is not restricted to the men’s game.

For although a member of the WTA top 100 is typically about 3 years younger than her male counterpart, the women’s tour has closely mirrored the ageing trend of the men’s tour.

Average age of the year-end ATP Top 100 and WTA Top 100 1974-2014

42 ATP-WTA age comparison post

Accordingly structural factors are more likely to play a role in the ageing trend.  As noted at the outset, the structural reasons are likely to count among them better fitness, skewed prize money increases and the increase in seeds at grand slams. Let’s look at them in turn.

Strength and strength-ability

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a teenage tennis player with ambition of breaking through must be in want of strength and fitness. The last 15 to 20 years have seen a marked increase in the care players take to put themselves on court, from conditioning to diet and strength, as well as knowledge of sports science. It takes time for a young man to develop that same physique and fitness, and equally it’s something that can be maintained for longer.

At the Australian Open this year, Lleyton Hewitt said: “The players, they’re a lot bigger, stronger guys these days than when I first came on tour [1997]… Some of the bigger guys when I first started, they were a bit hit-and-miss, spraying a lot more shots. Even guys like Isner and Karlovic, they obviously hold so many service games, but they’re not hackers from the back of the court.”

Andy Roddick at Wimbledon: “When I started [1999], there were guys who were really good tennis players, not good athletes. They could get away with it. That’s not the case now.”

Players are fitter and are able to play longer (Kris Dent, ITF). Top players, like Andy Murray, will have a “battalion of experts”, including for example a coach, a physiotherapist, fitness trainer(s), and a nutritionist. Many of these travel with the players.

The problem is that this new “battalion of experts” costs money. Who can afford them? Certainly not those trying to break through.

Inequality of prize money

That the “battalion of experts” costs money was recognised in 2014 by ATP executive chairman Chris Kermode: “The cost for players now of playing professionally, with coaches and physios and nutritionists, is significant.” Annually, playing on tour has been calculated to cost anywhere from USD 38,000 (low estimate from the ITF), to USD 75,000 (a Forbes / Michael Russell estimate without a coach travelling) to USD 140,000, a USTA estimate of travelling with a coach.

The only problem is that prize money increases over the last 30 years have disproportionately benefited the higher ranked players: particularly those in the top 20 or so who make the latter stages of ATP 500 and Masters 1000 events. Between 1978 and 2014, adjusted for inflation, average prize money for an ATP tour level tournament increased by over 200% while at the same time Challenger level prize money (the ATP’s second tier of tournaments used by younger players as a stepping stone to the main tour), again adjusted for inflated, decreased by 29%, a disparity that only grew wider following the ATP’s prize money announcements for the ATP and Challenger tours in December 2014 and January 2015.

In January 2015, the ATP announced that the minimum prize money at a Challenger tournament would be guaranteed at USD 50,000 in 2015, an increase of 100% “inside 10 years”. However, adjusted for inflation this is a no more than 3% to 5% raise since 2007. In the same period, main tour prize money has increased about 60% accounting for inflation.

Prize money: ATP main tour (excl. grand slams and World Tour Finals) vs ATP Challenger Tour 1978-2018, indexed to 100 and adjusted for inflation (data points for 2016-2018 based on ATP press releases)

42 Prize money comparison post

Average prize money per tournament: ATP main tour (excl. grand slams) vs ATP Challenger Tour 1978-2014; absolute dollars (2014) and adjusted for inflation

42 Ave prize money by tour level post

Higher prize money reinforces the ability of the top players to prepare themselves more ably by hiring the “battalion of experts”; thus allowing them to win more matches and more prize money in a self-reinforcing cycle. The ability to pay for these experts is out of the reach of those trying to break through onto the main tour (at whatever age) – and that gap has widened with the recent prize money announcements.

To clarify, the very best players deserve the extra prize money, but the gap in prize money between two entire tiers of the men’s tour has significantly widened. When Michael Russell, ranked about 100 in 2013, won a Challenger event in Ecuador that year, his week was essentially described by Forbes as 8,000 miles for USD 5,000 to break even.

Seedings

So, money and fitness reinforce each other. The only additional thing you would want to do to stack the deck in favour of the top players of the main tour would be to ensure they did not need to play other high ranking players to earn either ranking points or money. Strong perhaps, but a subsidy to the elite is exactly what the ITF and Grand Slam committee provided when they expanded the number of seeded players at a grand slam from 16 seeds to 32 seeds in 2001.

The rationale was clear: the grand slams and the top players wanted “an extension of seeding protection for the world’s top players”. So the top 16 seeds were protected from having to face a player ranked 17 to 32 in the first 2 rounds.

Equally important though was the correlation that the seeding expansion smoothed the first 3 rounds for those seeded 17 to 32.

As a result, according to excellent analysis from Jeff Sackmann of Tennis Abstract in 2014, those that have really benefitted have been those ranked / seeded 17 to 32 who in the 11 years before 2001 reached the third round about 35% of the time; but between 2002 and 2013 reached the third round 53% of the time.

That difference – i.e. the difference between 53% and 35% – has a ranking points dividend of about 40 ranking points per player. Each year. Think about it this way: it’s as if a player ranked 17 to 32 gets an ATP 250 quarter-final on his points tally at the start of each this year as an unearned bonus.

If you think 40 points is not a lot, consider this, particularly in light of the top 32 players being slam seeds: at the end of the calendar year, 40 points or less was the difference between players ranked 32 and 33 in 2014, 31 and 33 in 2013, and 31 and 34 in 2012.

To say nothing of the financial windfall that being in this privileged position also bestows: the difference in prize money between reaching round 2 and round 3 of the US Open in 2015 is USD 51,600 (USD 120,200 to USD 68,600) – up from USD 45,000 last year. That could be your coach’s travelling expenses right there.

More points, more prize money, more experts, longer careers. Et cetera. Sackmann concluded that the increase in the number of seeds “certainly supports an arbitrary middle tier of players at the expense of the rest of the field”. Jon Wertheim, tennis writer for Sports Illustrated, has spoken of “the charmed life that comes with being ranked in that 8-25 range”.

“I always dreamed of winning Wimbledon” and “I dreamed of being world number one” are common refrains. No question, the career-conscious and financially savvy up-and-coming player would do well to say: I dreamed of being seeded at a grand slam event.

Conclusion at the end of part 2

The tour is getting older, partly because players can maintain fitness for longer, but partly due to in-built advantages – decided by the tour – that raise the barriers for young players to break through. Those in the top 32 can sustain their position by using greater prize money to buy the fitness and coaching entourage required. At the same time, those same players receive a regressive financial and ranking points bonus each year just for being in the top 32.

Part 3 tomorrow contains my observations and opinions on this data.

2 thoughts on “44. The concealed effects of ageing: part 2

  1. Pingback: The Challenges of Challengers – Alison Lee Interview | Foot Soldiers of Tennis

  2. Pingback: 61. The Estoril Diaries: Day 1 | Cleaning the lines

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