71. The inevitability of ageing

This year’s Australian Open has drawn attention again to the ageing phenomenon in professional tennis. With today’s women’s final being contested by Serena and Venus Williams and tomorrow’s men’s final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, for the first time in the Open era (since 1968) all four members of the principal singles’ finals at a slam are aged over 30; Federer and the Williams sisters are all aged 35 or over.

Although the identity of the four protagonists is remarkable in that we have Grand Slam finals that were first played in 2001 (Williams sisters) and 2006 (Federer/Nadal) respectively, the fact of having four finalists over the age of 30 is less remarkable. The average age of the top 100 on both ATP and WTA tours has been rising, almost inexorably, since 1990. At year end 2016 the average age of the top 100 on the ATP tour was 28.4 years, a record since rankings began in 1973; and 26.1 years in the WTA top 100, again a record. See charts below.

Average age of the ATP and WTA Top 100s, 1974-2016

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The reasons for this likely revolve around the players’ better conditioning and strength, which teenagers by and large have to develop to compete at the top, as well as a large number of supporting tier 2 events that delay the breakthrough into the top 100. This blog has a few posts dedicated to the ageing phenomenon and its implications (here, here and here). The increase in prize money in recent years may also be a factor (this blog here; Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated here).

The picture is complicated somewhat by the fact that Federer, Nadal, Venus and Serena are actually, well, really rather good, and that their continued presence in the finals of major competitions, driving up the average age, is a reflection of their ability as much as it is of tour-wide trends, a point well made by Carl Bialik of fivethirtyeight.com.

However, with Murray and Djokovic  approaching 30 and with many of Serena’s challengers in their late 20s, expect age-related records to continue to be set  in the coming years. Venus and Serena finals, Roger and Rafa finals: these may be throwbacks, but they are not unexpected ones.

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Featured image. Source: Venus and Serena Williams share a moment of humour following their showdown in the Australian Open final. Photograph: Paul Crock/AFP/Getty Images

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