Earlier this year, and indeed before and since, Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray broke yet another record – they became, along with six others, the oldest, on average, set of players to ever occupy the ATP top ten. With all of the top five being aged 30 or older, it looked for all the world like a seismic shift in the very nature of the sport.
Gone were the days of 17 year-olds lifting Grand Slam trophies, and 30 year-olds planning their farewell tours. It seemed that with new tennis technology, and advances in fitness and sports medicine, the rules had permanently changed. With Federer and Nadal dominating the year, Andy Murray at the top spot, and no emergent #NextGen players threatening at the slams, one could be forgiven for imagining a world where pro tennis careers would start at 25, rather than peak at them.
Fast forward a few weeks to now, however, and the picture is starkly different. At the first Masters event of the US Open circuit, a fourth of the original field has withdrawn. Among them are Murray, Wawrinka, Djokovic, Cilic, and Berdych.
Their average age? Over 31.
Why are so many top players having to pull the plug on tournaments, and entire seasons, at once? There are, of course, the arguments that have been bandied about for years. The season is too long, the events too close, the number of required events too many, the surfaces too demanding.
Most prominently, Nadal himself has been a strong advocate for a shorter tennis season – no surprise given his usual struggles on the tennis year’s last few hard courts. While there is merit to all these discussions, and some of them the ATP tour has worked to address, there is one elephant in the room that no one seems to want to talk about – and he’s got a big white “+” on him.
Roger Federer. Turning 36 years of age today, he is currently the holder of two grand slam titles, two Masters 1000 titles, and the proud recipient of a clean bill of health. More and more held up as a model for longevity, the Swiss man has many things to credit his success to – his top-notch fitness and coaching team, his undying love for the game, his own competitive spirit and drive, and smart scheduling. What, then, is the elephant in the room? It’s quite simply that none of the just-outlined factors matter – because Roger Federer is an exception.
Back in 2012, Nadal was quoted as saying Federer has a “super body” and will finish his career “like a rose”, whereas he believed he and the rest of the Big 4 would not enjoy that privilege. Though it is true that Rafa has defied expectations by remaining competitive till 30, amassing an unprecedented 10 Roland Garros titles when most expected his body to burn out by his late 20s, Nadal has done so at the expense of large stretches of his professional career. Taking long, multiple breaks, being forced out due to injury, are not ideal conditions for the best of players. Though Nadal was able to climb back almost every time, others – such as Juan Martin del Potro – have not been so lucky.
It may well happen that Djokovic and Wawrinka will come back stronger than ever next year, much as Federer and Nadal did this year. In which case, most of this article will be consigned to the same heap which features articles that featured “Federer” and “retirement”. If they do not, however – if the model built on the exceptional case of Roger Federer fails – the ATP will have to face the truth that it has been denying for the better part of this decade: tennis is a young man’s sport.
Since 2012, fans have convinced themselves that things are different. Legends do not fade away, age is but a number, and the best can be the best through sheer force of will. Now in 2017, ironically in a year where Federer and Nadal have been resurgent, we might finally have to contend with the idea that this was all just a glitch in the matrix.
Issues of fitness, injury, and motivation still will derail even the greatest players once they cross that inevitable threshold of 30, and all the wishing in the world won’t make it otherwise. It might just be time to prepare for saying goodbye to one of the most impressive generations of tennis there’s ever been, as time says and does what it has always said and done – out with the old, in with the new.