Those black-and-white snapshots — 16-year-old Tracy Austin in pigtails and gingham dress, wooden racquet and Chrissie-be-damned smile; Jennifer Capriati, at 13 slugging her way to the final in Boca Raton, an event that would become known as the Virginia Slims of Capriati; the title-bound Boris Becker, 17 and unseeded, diving headlong across the Wimbledon grass — exist like fading relics buried at the bottom of a curio drawer.
Such adolescent breakthroughs have become a thing of the past.
Yes, there are now five teenagers in the WTA’s Top 100, a promising group of up-and-comers that includes Indian Wells quarterfinalists Bianca Andreescu and Marketa Vondrousova. Canadian teens Denis Shapovalov and Félix Auger-Aliassime have infiltrated the ATP’s Top 100. But you won’t find too many still standing on the final Sunday at the Slams these days. Today, players aren’t peaking until their mid-20s/early-30s. And they’re staying competitive on the tour longer than ever before. Aussie great Ken “Muscles” Rosewall was 37 when he won the Australian Open in 1972, but thirtysomethings are having more of a critical-mass impact in 2019.
“I think players see more and more that it’s a privilege to be a tennis player,” said 20-time Slam champ Roger Federer, who recently captured his 100th career title.
“The secret behind it, I’m sure, is starting with nutrition and stretching, massages, sleep, you name it,” he continued. “All these things have gotten more and more professional at a young age. I remember when I came up, people doing the elastic band, and people laughing at them. Now everybody does it. Then people stopped doing that and doing other things. Back in the day, all you had was a hot bath, ate a banana on the court. That was it. Nowadays people do all sorts of crazy stuff. It’s interesting to see how the game has evolved.”
The Big Three of Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are 37, 32 and 31, respectively. That trio continues to re-author the books. And how about Ivo Karlovic? The 6-foot-11 Croat turned 40 last month and is still going strong after nearly two decades on the ATP Tour. His run to the Round of 16 in Indian Wells included a 6-4, 7-6(2) upset of No. 11 seed Borna Coric — a player 18 years his junior.
Now 38, Venus Williams is striking the ball with as much authority as ever. She’s into her second straight BNP Paribas Open quarterfinal this week, thanks to convincing wins over No. 3 seed Petra Kvitova and Mona Barthel. Baby sister Serena, 37 and a new mom, continues to chase Margaret Court’s all-time Slam mark.
“I think it’s the game style that you have that will allow you to keep playing, and also how lucky or how much you take care of your body to not have injuries,” said Garbiñe Muguruza, 25. “The game style of Roger, it’s quite perfect. It’s not as physical as other players. Venus, also, she’s an athlete. The way she moves, the way she hits — it’s still incredible. It’s a little bit about your body. There’s other players who get injured a lot and that’s one of the first reasons that the athletes don’t go as far.”
Why are these athletes choosing to stay in tennis longer, and how are their bodies still holding up at a time when the sport is more physically taxing than ever?
“First thing is, you are passionate about what you’re doing,” reflected Nadal. “Second thing, you are able to work on the prevention of injuries, treating your body the right way. Third thing, you’re still competing to win important matches.”
There are 32 men aged 30 and up now ranked among the Top 100. There are 22 on the women’s side. With players like Federer and the Williams sisters proving that you can still be a force in tennis as a tricenarian, those numbers may continue to grow. After all, as we’re learning, age is just a number.