An Aging ATP - No End in Sight

With Donald Young’s stunning comeback over Victor Troicki on Day 6 of the US Open, he became the youngest player to advance to the Round of 16–making 26 the new young in tennis. The average age of the 16 men still in contention for the title is 29.3 years and 5 of the 16 [Feliciano Lopez (34.0), Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (30.4), Stan Wawrinka (30.4), John Isner (30.4), Roger Federer (34.1)] are over thirty.

The dominance of the veteran player has been rising steadily since the mid-1980s (Figure 1). In the 30 years from 1984 to 2014, the average age of ATP players reaching the third round of the Grand Slams has gone from 23.7 to 26.7, an increase of 3 years.

Almost exactly 10 years ago to the day, 24 year-old Roger Federer defeated 35 year-old Andre Agassi in 4 sets at the 2005 US Open final. In an ESPN interview on Day 7 of this year’s US Open, Roger Federer reflected on that match and recalled his 24 year-old self setting the goal to play as well as Agassi into his mid-thirties.

Federer has far exceeded that goal, but, at the time, it would have been considered a long-shot. In Agassi’s era, it was rare for veterans to have a real chance at a Major title (Figure 2). Before 2000, fewer than 10 thirty-and-overs were regularly making it beyond the first round at the Grand Slams. During the 2000s, that number was closer to 20, and in the past 4 years more than 25 thirty-somethings have made it past the first round of a Major in every year.

As veterans have come to dominate the game, it has gotten increasingly more difficult for teenagers to make a run for a Major title (Figure 3). Since the mid-1990s, most years have had fewer than 5 teens advance beyond the first round.

The aging trends on the ATP align almost exactly with trends for the WTA, with the average age of players reaching the later stages of Majors increasing by 3 years over the past 30 years. The universal aging in professional tennis suggests that these shifts have been driven by a fundamental change in the way the game is played. No change has been more fundamental than the decline of the serve-and-volley game and the emergence of marathon tennis, a shift that began in the late 1990s and directly aligns with the timing of the rise of the veteran player.

Roger Federer will face big-server John Isner on Day 8 of the US Open. In the lead up to that match, there has been a lot of speculation as to whether Federer will try to put the SABR on Isner, referring to a new stroke Federer introduced at the Western and Southern Open. “The SABR” (for Sneak Attack By Roger) is an attacking half-volley on the return of serve that is followed to the net–the kind of quick point that is reminiscent of the serve-and-volley era. It has been a lethal addition to Federer’s arsenal and, though no other player has yet attempted to replicate it, it is interesting to speculate whether it is the earliest sign that the sport could return to a faster-paced style of play.