loris bertolacci

Sport, Health and Fitness

Elite ATP/WTA Tennis players getting older. But don’t point finger at PED use!

Recently there has been press on fact that the average age of the TOP 100 men’s and women’s ATP/WTA rankings have risen to 27+ for mens and 25+ for women. This article below outlined the changes.

TENNIS PLAYERS GETTING OLDER: Article from New York Times

And following twitter there was some discussion on this topic recently and probably some inference that maybe PED’s might just be a factor in the 30 + players that are starting to congregate in the top 1000. So topical now with AFL issues in the spotlight. But in reality I simply believe many other factors are at work here. Certainly I always thought Australia’s youth policies were not based on raw hard data and simply flowed on from the subjective notions that tennis was different and was a young person’s sport. I think the critical issue to me is the socio economic factors at play in tennis and the resulting fact that anyone > 18 who was not winning/making money or had rich folks simply gave the game away. Also with the injuries involved and fact that only the top 200 make any money more the reason to not go past the teenage years

In 2002 I presented a lecture on the optimal age of elite sport

OPTIMAL AGE ELITE SPORT

Simply that 25 to 26 was the peak age for fitness related pursuits. 27+ probably for strength related and 28+ it seemed for highly technical sports such as cricket where fitness is important but finely tuned skills and experience is at a premium.

When I started helping tennis players I used to listen to parents and coaches say that if their kids were not making it by 16 to 18 ADIOS any help. There was this ( and still is) this subjective notion that¬† when that dries up, unlike athletics and AFL, it becomes impossible to continue. Coaches often want 70 plus dollars an hour for coaching. The chase for ITF Junior points and ATP/WTA points require a huge financial push. So if one can afford it then someone who is gifted and works hard but also is from a well funded family can improve from the coaching needed and more so the relentless need for points. If you don’t have points you cannot enter tournaments and then you cannot get more points!

And in Australia and other systems elite targeted kids do get assistance ( not many) but when they falter at 16 to 19 quite often the system spits the player out and the system goes back to the next big hope/s at 14 to 16. I call it the “NEXT” process in these institutionalized systems such as Tennis OZ. Two steps forward and often 2.1 steps back. Tennis is an individual sport like track. And we have seen the institute/bureacracy approach to sport often fail in individual sports ( unlike team sports) unless there is a heavy reliance on sports science such as cycling and swimming. There are too many factors at play in the development of a tennis player which is why the ‘uncle tony” approach often works better with some added help from the federation of course!

When one examines the attributes needed for tennis NO 1 is you must be ale to play! Skill!  Then NO 2 is decision making. Then the ability to move efficiently and then factors such as enough strength to hit the ball hard. But it is not a pure fitness sport like athletics or a combat sport like rugby & AFL. And it even requires less emphasis on a pure fitness quality such as Volleyball where jumping ability is critical. So players are separated by a net and the main thing is get to the ball back and get the ball back over the net. It is hard to pin fitness profiles on a tennis player.

Added to the issues is that the sport requires a huge amount of discipline because of the travel required and also simply the need to back up mentally day in and day out. Certainly so many horror stories in tennis of young players burning out mentally, parents mortgaging houses, injuries etc , all when millions are trying to get into that top 100!

In Europe and only now in OZ there now exists club tennis where older players can earn money yearly and finance their development in their 20’s to push hard from 20 to 27YO in quest for top rankings. This has seen a change in the ability to sustain a career whilst on tour.

Also overseas it is easier now to travel and win points and survive the financial jungle in the 20 to 25YO age bracket. Certainly in OZ if you are not funded y TA and ranked 450 in the world at 24 years of age a trip to Europe for 3months could cost 10,000 plus with no chance of getting money back until one cracks top 250 for example.

Also older players are now better prepared and because of strength and conditioning older wiser and stronger players will always on average beat younger players unless that younger player is a potential Djokovic for example.

I really believe that if the sport of tennis did not rely so much on travel and finances that we would see even a slightly higher average age. It is a sport that is just not accessible to the masses. Too expensive and developed by the rich and an unrealistic points system that makes a few zillionaires but creates many maladjusted uneducated paupers and parents who lost their savings.

So when I read simplistic comments inferring the spread of PED’s in tennis I cringe. Sure they would help recovery given the grind and sure some tennis players will use PED’s like many drug cheats do.

But in my opinion there are many obvious reasons why tennis simply is starting to have the same age distribution as sports like elite AFL, Rugby, NFL, Basketball etc. Simply the average age of top 1000 players is probably 25 approx and that is the same as other sports. Just do a distribution graph. Look at distributions on different ranking areas then work it out. No brainer.

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June 3, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment