45. The concealed effects of ageing: part 3

So as you have read in the previous 2 parts, a drive towards fitness, a key seeding change and a distribution of prize money that more acutely favours the top 32 appear to have contributed to the fundamental alteration of the trajectory of tennis players’ careers. These factors reinforce each other.

What does it all mean? A few notes.

  • The irony of the 32 seed issue is that what benefits the 17-32 group as a whole does not benefit the individual. How so? The group of 17-32 seeds have as a group reached round 3 of grand slams more post-2001 than pre-2001; but to compare the same two periods they reach fewer quarter-finals. Presumably catching a top player cold at the start of a grand slam is of the essence. So, those ranked 17-32 have been buttressed as a group but to the detriment of the individual.
  • Let’s say that a player turns pro at 17 and, for the sake of argument, that reaching the top 100 is enough to earn a living. 30 years ago, that player if he broke the top 100 would have taken an average of 5 years to do so. Since 2009, a player has had to fight for a further 2 years before breaking through. Does the lack of prize money on offer at the lower levels of the tour mean that players who would otherwise break through are no longer able to? If this favours players from wealth backgrounds or with wealthy supportive federations, will it reduce the quality of players that do break through?
  • Chris Kermode, executive chairman and president of the ATP, has stated that the Challenger Tour should support players who are up-and-coming and should not artificially support veteran professionals who are not going to improve: the Challenger Tour is “meant to be a feeding mechanism, not a place where someone can earn a living”. If anything, the analysis in these 3 posts shows that if any tier of players is being artificially supported, it is those ranked 17 to 32. At what point is the ATP artificially supporting someone on the Challenger Tour if players are improving their rankings in their 30s (Vanni, Estrella Burgos, Feliciano Lopez)? And if it takes a player 7 years to break into the top 100 (turning pro at 17) should they not be supported financially at Challenger Tour level in the “feeding mechanism”?
  • The outlook of the tour is uncertain. Have we reached a new norm of fewer teenagers and more 30 year olds? Probably. What does that mean for future grand slam success? A couple of writers from the tennis blog, The Changeover, have drawn attention to the fact that “the ATP has stopped making good young tennis players”. The writers refer to a group of players whose grand slam winning potential appears to have been passed over because of the dominance of the Big 4 (Federer et al.). In 2013, The Changeover called these players, which included the likes of Nishikori, Cilic, Raonic and Janowicz, “The Lost Boys”. The analysis in part 1 shows that the peak period for a career is later than ever before (or being extended) and the age when we used to call someone a veteran – let’s say 28 years of age – is now around the peak of their career. The phenomenon identified by The Changeover is right, but not the labelling: Nishikori et al may actually be The Delayed Boys rather than The Lost Boys – something that is borne out precisely by Nishikori, Cilic and Wawrinka winning and reaching the finals of slams in the last 12 months.

Policy recommendations  

It is incumbent on the ATP and the ITF (for Grand Slam tournaments) to decide what kind of tour and tournaments they want to run. At its extremes you have 2 options: a tour defined by providing outsized financial rewards to the elite players and raising the barriers to entry; or a tour that distributes prize money more equally and sets the conditions for insurgency in its younger talent.

Of course there’s a balance to be struck; and any decision involves trade-offs.

By sustaining the elite you give the top players more of a stake in their success and you also have the opportunity to create more gladiatorial narratives for fans based around Federer-Djokovic XLI or Federer-Nadal XXXIV etc.

By removing barriers to entry (reducing seeds to 16, more equal prize money) you level the playing field for younger players making their way in the game. And there’s some evidence that you actually promote the 17-32 group by giving them the opportunity to strike the 1-16 group earlier in grand slams.

Both points of view are legitimate and I can understand both. But my 2 recommendations are as follows:

  • For the ATP – Improve prize money at Challenger Tour level.

The Challenger Tour prize money increases announced in January 2015 are insubstantial, and are dwarfed by the increases awarded at the ATP main tour level. To allow younger players to close the gap with their main tour peers on the level of resources (i.e. coaching, trainers), Challenger Tour prize money should be increased.

What’s important to emphasise is that improving Challenger tour prize money by significant percentages is a relatively simple exercise and inexpensive.

To make Challenger tour prize money in 2014 equal to what it was in 1978 (adjusted for inflation) would cost only USD 3.4 million. An extra USD 15 million would result in the doubling of Challenger tour prize money since 1978. That may be a stretch in one go, but the ATP’s recently announced investments in ATP 250, 500 and 1000 prize money are worth over USD35m annually by 2018. In other words, sharing even 10% of the increase in main tour prize money with the Challenger tour would be enough to keep Challenger Tour prize money equal to (not more than) what it was in the late 1970s, adjusted for inflation.

Prize money scenarios for ATP Challenger Tour

42 Challenger tour rectification post

There are some who have a problem with Gilles Simon’s comments about the WTA tour. But on the subject of financial capabilities, he was right in April 2015 when he said: “The best in the world travel with their coach, their stringer, their doctor, sometimes their hitting partner. On the other hand, you have number 80 in the world who gets there without being able to afford a coach. Those two types of players face each other in the first round of a Grand Slam. To me that shouldn’t be possible.”

  • For the ITF – time to remove 32 seeds at grand slams and revert to 16 seeds

Having 32 seeds provides players ranked 17-32 with a subsidy amounting to on average 40 points a year or the equivalent of reaching an ATP 250 quarter final. This is an arbitrary subsidy as it is not clear why this group of players – or indeed any group of players – deserves the subsidy.

It is time to scrap it and not just in the interests of fairness and lowering the barriers to entry to the top 32. It is also in the best interests of those ranked 17-32 if they did but know it: having 32 seeds is shown to make progression into the quarter finals of slams less likely for individuals within the 17-32 group than if there were 16 seeds.

It may also make the first 2 rounds of a grand slam tournament less susceptible to lopsided matches. It may even make those matches more exciting – but I can’t find the data for that…

Thanks for reading.

5 thoughts on “45. The concealed effects of ageing: part 3

  1. Hey Andrew,

    I wrote “The Lost Boys” posts at The Changeover, which you kindly reference above.

    I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand the phenomenon you describe in these three posts (as you have, obviously). I think (as you do) that reducing this (ATP) phenomenon just to the Big 4 can’t explain the age variance, although I do think the Big 4 have contributed to raising the bar to compete at M1000 and GS tournaments.

    It is possible that something deeply structural is going on in the game. The last really significant technical change in tennis was the introduction of poly strings in the early 2000s, combined with an acknowledged slowing down of some of the hard court surfaces. One result of those two changes was a much greater homogenization of styles and results across surfaces. One no longer sees clay court or grass court specialists: the top players go deep on all surfaces.

    By 2010, the top players were commenting, as a group, that levels of play had improved across the board. A good, though perhaps not great, player in the early 2000s might have well defined strengths, but also weaknesses which could be exploited. By 2010, these weaknesses had been mostly eliminated. So you could see (in addition to conditioning, recovery etc) why established players might benefit from experience and craft.

    And yet – the “Lost Boys” phenomenon has been so pronounced for so long that I genuinely don’t see it as a gradual confluence of factors. It’s not just players failing to challenge for Grand Slam titles, it’s players failing to reach the QF or even R16 stage in the big tournaments. I can accept that players may peak 2-3 years later in their careers, but the very best players used to make breakthroughs (as recently as 2007-8) in their late teens. Only one player born after 1988 (Nishikori) has reached a single GS final: none of them have won a M1000 or GS title.

    For the better part of 2 decades, the average age of a top 50 player was 25, plus or minus a year. In February 2009, by my calculations, it was 25.71. Within the space of about 5 and a half years, it was up to 29.02 – an astonishing rise in so short a time.

    This has been noticed by the top players themselves. Here’s Nadal in April 2015:

    “I am not agree,” Nadal said. “When I arrived here, when I was younger than this generation, Coria, Nalbandian, Hewitt, Federer, Safin, Roddick, they have been young players when I arrived there. They have been 23, 24. They still young. So always seems like is very difficult when I arrived here. I thought is almost impossible be there because there is all these players that they are there, and they are young. Will be a big, big challenge to go there.

    “At the end you are there, you have the level to be there. Is not tougher now or more difficult. Is a thing of level. If you have the level, you can be there,” he added. “Is not because the players are more physical today. Is more level of tennis than another thing.”

    So that’s pretty much where I am: tennis is changing, but it hasn’t changed that much. Two years after I wrote the original Lost Boys article, they’re still lost.

    • Hi Andrew,

      Apologies for the delay in reply; thanks for your comments, and so some additional thoughts based on those. Broadly I think players do still have particular strengths and that court conditions still show some variance.

      But I suppose – if only to emphasise the areas we have in common – my point is that the success of the Big 4 has disguised the emergence of a tour-wide maxim – that ability on its own gets you less far that it used to. Add in the need for world class conditioning (see comments from Hewiit and Roddick), unequal prize money and the 32-seed subsidy, and I’m not surprised that teenage breakthroughs are more limited.

      What’s important is to sift attributes that are Big 4-related (Nishikori, Cilic not wining M1000s / GS on regular basis) from those that aren’t (10 teenagers in the top 100 in 1989; 4 in the last 7 years): my focus in this set of articles was on the latter.

      Anyway, I appreciate the engagement – important debates to have if only to inform what policy should be followed afterwards. Personally, I think what we’re talking about can partly be rectified by levelling the financial playing field. That, of course, is another argument entirely.

  2. Very interesting article! Well researched.

    Nadal (in Andrew Burton’s post) seems to think he was simply the only teen good enough in the last 15 years which is why the numbers are lower, but the stats about seeding and financial distribution are hard to ignore.

    From a commercial standpoint, the beefing up of a constantly record breaking top 2/3 players which has been on going in various forms since the Fedal Rivalry began is I think good for tennis some ways as it draws more attention to the game at an amateur level. Professionally though, this strategy must be unsustainable. When Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic finally do retire it looks like we’ll be left with the aging ‘Lost/Delayed Boys’ with only a very few big titles between them and no real champion pedigree which could potentially lead to an era of uninteresting mediocrity unless another all conquering record chaser comes along, which will be naturally more difficult as the records get stretched.

    Do you think that any structural changes to the points allocations or the number/frequency of tour events could also achieve more balance? I’ve always thought that more Round Robin events would be good as it forces players who don’t meet often in knockouts (eg. players ranked 10-5) to play each other more often, and it forces the top 4 players to play the rest of the top 10 not only earlier in a tournament, but also more often in each tournament.

  3. I agree. The ATP is committed to (at least) a $35m prize money increase from 2015 to 2018. When Federer, Nadal retire, will Murray, Djokovic, themselves getting older at this stage, be able to sustain the fanbase in the same way? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s expecting some players to take the place of Federer and Nadal that have not yet captured the imagination in the same way. If those players fail to materialise some tournaments, committed to increased prize money, may struggle financially. A couple have in the last 12 months or so (e.g. Estoril, Valencia).

    The ATP tried round robin events a few years ago but got into a bit of a mess over a how to break a tie in the round robin. I don’t think the tour would want to repeat that anytime soon. But your broader point, that those challenging the best players might do better if they played them earlier in tournaments, is to some extent borne out by the grand slam data. And as I say above, getting rid of sees 17-32 in a grand slam event would remove a subsidy from those seeded players.

    Thanks for reading and commenting, much appreciated.

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