WTA - Aging with Greatness

When Serena Williams turns 34 in a few weeks, she will very likely have added a 22nd Major title and Calendar Slam to her CV–securing her reign as the most decorated thirty-and-over in the sport. A decade ago, few would have believed that a tennis player in her mid-thirties would be at the peak of her game. There’s no doubt that Williams' achievements and resurgence at this stage in her career are exceptional. But, what might be less appreciated, is that Williams' is at the forefront of a wave of thirty-somethings who are at the top of their game.

Since 1984 (the first year when public data on player ages is of good quality [Source: Jeff Sackmann]), the average age of players advancing to the Round of 32 at the Grand Slams increased from 22.3 years to 25.9 years, an increase of nearly 4 years (Figure 1).

But is this aging trend at the Slams just a fluke of Williams' dominance? At the 2015 US Open, 7 thirty-somethings–including the Williams' sisters and the inspiring Petra Cetkovska–reached the Round of 32, the most to advance this far in the past 30 years.

This is one marker of a more general trend of thirty-and-over dominance at the Grand Slams. Figure 2 shows the best Major result for thirty-and-overs between 1984 and 2014. Before 2004, fewer than 5 thirty-and-overs were advancing beyond the first round. In the past 10 years, that number was closer to 10 and appears to be continuing to rise.

The ATP Tour has been aging at a similar clip (as I have written about before and will highlight in a future post). The fact that we see an aging cohort for both tours that has persisted since the early 2000s suggests that it is a consequence of a general shift in the way the game is player. The rise of the baseline game has made stamina and grit more critical for success in tennis than ever before, and the sweet spot for those qualities is somewhere between a player’s mid-twenties and mid-thirties.

As the scales have tipped in favor of the more mature player, teenagers have been put at a disadvantage. Based on the best results of WTA teenagers at the Grand Slams in the past 30 years (Figure 3), we see that there has been a dramatic drop in the presence of teenagers at the Grand Slams. In the past 5 years, in fact, no teenager has advanced beyond the quarterfinal of a Grand Slam and the last time a teenager won a Major was in 2006, when 19 year-old Maria Sharapova took home the US Open trophy.

With the exit of 2 of 3 remaining teens (18 year-olds Belinda Bencic and Daria Kasatkina) on Day 5 of the US Open, only 19 year-old Anett Kontaveit will have a chance to breakthrough and turn the trends back in favor of the youngsters. To do so she would, in all probability, have to beat the seasoned thirty-something Williams' sisters back-to-back. Unlikely to happen. But, if she could pull it off, it would be a performance for the ages.