Age and experience trump younger generation of tennis players as old guard still reign supreme in ATP

Anuradha Santhanam
With prize money now higher than ever, and the advantages scientific prowess brings, players have been playing longer, and better than ever.

On Sunday, Rafael Nadal pulled off the seemingly impossible to win his twelfth title at Roland Garros. Now a three-time defending champion, Nadal is no spring chicken. At 33, the Spanish ace has done what no man before him has ever been able to do, on any surface.

But with Nadal setting one record on one side of the court, it was Dominic Thiem who set another one of his own: at 25, he was the only semi-finalist below 30.

If you were to look at the ATP Year-end rankings from exactly a decade ago, they would look something like this:

1. Roger Federer 2. Rafael Nadal 3. Novak Djokovic

All three of those men occupied the four available positions at the semi-finals of the French Open.

Once, 30 would make a tennis player blush. Not so long ago, even as recently as just over 20 years ago, 30 was considered "old" to still be playing sport professionally.

Last week's final threw up one surprising statistic: Thiem is the only active male player currently under 30 to have won a set in a Grand Slam final. At 25, Thiem would be considered squarely average by the ages of tennis players even a decade ago. Funnily enough, however, the core of the top tennis players ten years ago are still the top tennis players today.

In 2009, Roger Federer was World No. 1, his biggest rival Nadal was No 2, and the relatively less experienced Novak Djokovic, who at that point had only an Olympic bronze medal and one Major title to his name, was No 3. At that point, it was Federer, 27, Rafael Nadal, 23, Novak Djokovic, 21.

A decade later, much younger competitors have come and gone, posed challenges €" but very occasionally, and still, somehow, never managed to unseat the three, each of whom has cross-generational, once in a lifetime talent.

The 2019 top-3 reads: Novak Djokovic - 32, Rafael Nadal, 33, Roger Federer, 37.

Even the most talented cannot escape the ravages of age; but for Federer and Nadal it truly seems, on occasion, that they have quite literally turned back the clock. Players in past generations have retired in their early 30s; even Andre Agassi's second wind, when he began to work his way up the rankings a second time, came at 28 €" which by today's standards, would be "normal". Back then, it was still considered "older". It was Agassi who perhaps kickstarted this trend when he made the finals of the US Open in 2005, aged 35. He would lose that tournament to a 23-year-old Federer.

Today, longevity in sport €" particularly demonstrable in men's tennis, where the average age of the top-10 today is approximate 29, is not so much an outlier as it is the norm; five of the ATP's top-10 are over 30, with a sixth €" Kei Nishikori, on the cusp at 29.

It might not be the most expected statistic, either: tennis has become significantly more physical than it was previously €" players are getting taller and stronger, and the game is more demanding on one's body than ever. How, then, have the biggest players managed to stay at the top of their game even today?

Science has been perhaps the biggest contributor: sports medicine has all but transformed the sporting world as a whole. Where a player may have travelled, 10 or 15 years ago, with a team doctor or physiotherapist, today's players have entire teams for physical rehabilitation. The equipment they have available has changed. Machines that seemed almost space-agey are commonplace €" and it would appear immensely helpful.

For Nadal, the now 12-time French Open winner made changes to his serve, his stance, his movement going into the 2019 season to adapt to a body not wrecked, but affected by a number of repeated injuries and the wear and tear of years of play at the level of a World No 1.

But not all players have changed their playing styles very drastically. Increasingly, it has become strategic scheduling that has helped players conserve themselves for the right time. Federer, for example, almost entirely eschewed the clay season, playing two matches at the Madrid Open in his run-up to the clay-court season. Nadal is likely to do the same going into Wimbledon.

This scheduling is perhaps something that younger players €" many of whom are still in need of prize money, and a need to move up the rankings, can either not necessarily afford to do, or have not mastered just yet. Now a Masters title winner and two time Grand Slam finalist Thiem was one of the victims of the "too many tournaments" problem only a few years ago.

One might argue that strong, quick reflexes are crucial for a player at the top of their game and indeed, they are. But for the new-older crop of players, their reflexes are sharper than ever. Case in point the intense rally during the Federer-Nadal semi-final at Roland Garros this year, with both players at the net quickly trading shots, waiting to see who would fall first.

The age argument is not even something just restricted to the top-3: Stan Wawrinka, who fell out of the top-200 following his three Grand Slam wins, followed by subsequent injuries, was a semi-finalist at the French Open at the age of 34. All three of the Swiss' Majors titles have come between the ages of 29 and 31, and currently, at World No 19, Wawrinka looks on track to add at least a few Tour-level titles to his kitty, fitter than ever after his surgeries.

Elsewhere, and perhaps closer home, 45-year-old Leander Paes recently became the oldest man to win a match at the French Open, taking a first-round win in the men's doubles with partner Benoit Paire.

With prize money now higher than ever, and the advantages scientific prowess brings, players have been playing longer, and better than ever. But let us not take away from the immense mental strength it takes to play the game as long as the 'Big Three' have €" through injuries, serious upheavals, and the ups and downs of a sporting career that can seem 'normal' to the average person but can mean so much more to a professional athlete.

Even as the WTA draw gets younger than ever with three teenagers in the semi-finals, and a 23-year-old title winner, the men's winners get older and older.

Yes, there will come a time when Federer, Nadal and Djokovic retire. But the way each of them is going, that is a long time away. And why complain? As fans, as writers, as those who enjoy the sport, this generation has witnessed the kind of greatness you only see once in a generation or two. So why not hold on to it as long as possible?

Also See: Dominic Thiem vs Rafael Nadal, French open men's final 2019, Match Highlights: Nadal wins 12th Roland Garros title

French Open 2019: Rafael Nadal thrashes Kei Nishikori in straight sets to march into 12th Roland Garros semi-finals

French Open 2019: Novak Djokovic faces Alexander Zverev test; Dominic Thiem eyes fourth straight Roland Garros semi-final

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