It seems so long back when pretty young things would break records of being the youngest to win Grand Slam tennis titles. Martina Hingis (15), Monica Seles (16), Steffi Graf (17) or even men such as Michael Chang (17) and Boris Becker (17) captured the world’s imagination before they could get a driver’s licence.
It’s a different story now. Serena Williams won her fourth Wimbledon earlier this month at the age of 28. Francesca Schiavone won her first Grand Slam title, the French Open, at 29 last month. At 26 and now married, Kim Clijsters became the first mother since 1980 to win a Grand Slam when she took the US Open title last year. World No. 3 Venus Williams is 30.
The average age of the top 100 tennis players is 24. Only eight players are less than 20, according to the player age profiles available on the Women’s Tennis Association’s (WTA’s) website. PYTs are now slightly more mature.
What’s led to this change? The WTA, faced with several cases of burnout, decided to raise the entry barrier in 1995. The objective: to help players last longer on the tour and deal better with the attention and pressure from media, fans and sponsors.
The most notable example of burnout, perhaps, was Jennifer Capriati.
At 13, she debuted on the tour, started beating higher ranked players and made it to the cover of the Sports Illustrated magazine. Terrific results included an Olympic gold medal in 1992 that made Capriati a household name. She couldn’t handle the pressure and eventually sunk to embarrassing depths that included charges of shoplifting and cannabis possession in 1994, and spent time in a drug rehabilitation clinic.
Jon Wertheim, senior writer at Sports Illustrated, says over the phone from New York: “Capriati’s burnout created a lot of publicity and bad press for the tour. At 18, if she is caught taking drugs, it doesn’t bode well for the tour.”
WTA’s 1995 age-eligibility rule progressively allows players to play more and at a higher level by phasing them into professional tennis in accordance with their age, ranking, skills and experience gained from the tour. A tennis player’s entries in tournaments are limited till she turns 18.
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The women’s tour has seen remarkable changes after age-eligibility rules were introduced. Statistics from the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour show that premature retirement (before 21) decreased from 7% to less than 1% between 2000 and 2009. The statistics show that players have increased their career length on the tour by 16% in the last decade—13.9 years on the tour as of 2009, up from 12 years in 2000.
Changes in the ranking system have prevented rapid rises to the top. The WTA and ATP tour ranking seems to lay great emphasis on Grand Slam victories, with significantly high points awarded for these wins. The WTA ranking, for instance, works on a 52-week rolling method; the best results out of a mandatory 16 tournament entries played in the past 52 weeks are accounted for to arrive at a player’s ranking.
Vijay Amritraj, India’s former Davis Cup captain and now a commentator, says: “That is why Serena and Venus Williams are at the top of the rankings despite playing such few events. The way the ranking system has changed over the years ensures that it’s easier to play less and still stay at the top.” The ranking system, coupled with age-eligibility criteria, has made it tough for young guns to reach the top.
Men’s tennis has its own ranking system—this too recently underwent a change, making it tough for younger players to break into the big league. Players have to defend the points that they won the previous year in the same tournament. For instance, if a player wins a Grand Slam and gets awarded 2,000 points, the next year, when he enters the same event, he has to defend his 2,000 points. If he loses, even in the final, he loses the points he won the previous year.
Getting the body right
When Serena is not sporting the latest fashion trends, she sports a well-toned body, with muscular arms pounding serves at 125 miles per hour.
Tracy Austin weighed 43kg when she won the US Open at 16 in 1979. Serena Williams weighs 68kg. “When Andre Agassi was 16, he weighed 64kg. John Isner—the player who won the longest match in tennis history at Wimbledon last month—weighs 111kg,” adds Wertheim, as examples of how physically demanding tennis has become.
“It’s very physical, the way the ball is struck these days. Since rackets have become stronger, balls have become heavier and it’s not much different to playing on clay at the French Open or on grass at Wimbledon,” adds Amritraj.
Chang, who won the French Open men’s singles title in 1989 at age 17, believes that the advancement of racket technology is a major factor in the change. He said over email: “What has enabled the present players to utilize those (physical) attributes even more are the current line of rackets and strings available to players. If the rackets and strings did not change, it would still be possible for younger players to compete but now, it’s becoming increasingly difficult. Their physical maturity, along with current technology, all play an important role now in breaking through to the top. Obviously, there’s more to it than that, but these two elements are the most visible.”
At 38 and long retired, Chang believes that he hits with more power, more spin, these days than in his playing days, and plays shots that he never thought were possible before, thanks to “the advancement of technology in the game today”.
Players are taking more time to cross that line from the juniors circuit to the professional tour. Ricardas Berankis of Lithuania, for instance, was the No. 1 ranked men’s junior player at the end of 2007. Now ranked at No. 131 in the men’s circuit, he is closing in on the top 100.
“It just shows how it takes a bit long these days to cross over to the professional circuit,” says Greg Sharko, ATP statistics and information guru.
For fans it’s a double-edged sword—while it’s sad to find fewer young guns on the cusp of fame, it’s good to watch the older players hanging around a little longer.