Elite sport – it’s a young man’s game; you hear it said time and again. And in many sports it is true – but not in tennis.
As the n Open lurched into life on Monday, there were 128 men and 128 women in the draw, each washed, brushed and ready to play – and of them 64 were aged 30 or older: the men had 46 “mature” players in action and the women had 18. They were no old has-beens either – gone are the days when “mature” was a euphemism for “past it”.
Roger Federer kicked off his campaign against Jurgen Melzer, two men with a combined age of 70 giving the Rod Laver Arena crowd something to cheer. Denis Istomin, 30 years of age and a veteran of 13 years on the tour, upended the mighty Novak Djokovic on Thursday by playing like a free-hitting youngster. As for Venus Williams, she is 36 and has been schlepping around the circuit since the last century and shows no sign of stopping any time soon.
These oldies are not just topping up their pension pots; they mean business. Thanks to the wonders of racquet and string technology, modern medical science and increased understanding of nutrition and diet, athletes can prolong their careers. The result is that the sport becomes more physical – these are mature men and women playing at their peak and it is harder for the younger players, those still growing into their bodies, to take them on pound for pound, muscle for muscle. The days of a 17-year-old Boris Becker wannabe bursting onto the grand slam stage are long gone.
“The game today is much harder physically than when I started out,” Melzer said. “There is nobody out there who is not fit and can’t run for X amount of time. Also the court speeds went slower and slower and slower, so it’s just more rallies. There’s no more easy serve-and-volley or anything like that.”
There will always be the occasional genetic eccentricity, the uber-athlete who emerges fully formed into this world but they are rare. Rafael Nadal was one: a teenager in a man’s body who first set up camp at the French Open and allowed no trespassers. But as Lleyton Hewitt said of him a more than a decade ago: “He is carved from a very special wood.”
Sam Smith, the former British No.1 and Channel 7 commentator, has spent her life in tennis but still cannot quite believe how it has changed since she hung up her racquet 17 years ago.
“I just think what we did was prehistoric but then we thought what they did in the ’60s and 5’0s was prehistoric where they didn’t even stretch – they had a cup of tea and off they went. The words ‘core stability’ were never mentioned in those days.
“The big change for me has been the recovery side. I quite often joke in commentary that it would be a hot shower, a bit of a stretch against the wall of the locker room and a banana before I did my press and that would be it.”
Today’s players head for the ice bath, they head for the gym, they warm down and stretch out meticulously and thoroughly. They monitor their intake of food and liquids to the last calorie and millilitre – tennis players these days are a science project from the moment they first pick up a racquet. Everything is geared towards injury prevention and perfect preparation for the next match.
“If you have a good kid at an academy, an eight or nine year old, they will already start the core stability while they are there,” Smith said. “They’re doing Pilates, they’re doing yoga – you start as you mean to go on. I never did any of that! Everything is just a lot more specific and they’re drawing a lot more from other sports. You have to build a body now and that takes a long time.”
Of course, in Smith’s day, the players did not hit the ball as hard as they do now. Modern racquets help players generate more power with more control but these men and women are bigger, fitter and stronger than ever before – when they clump the ball now, it stays clumped.
But the biggest change, in Smith’s eyes, is the money in the game. Now players can afford to travel with a team of experts, each dedicated to a specific area of their employer’s health and wellbeing.
“I don’t think Martina Navratilova had a personal physio with her whereas a lot of the players do now,” she said. Radwanska has, Serena has for a long time – you can do it financially. As good as the WTA physios are, they are there to patch you up and send you out. If you have your own personal physio, they are there to manage that side of it but also they know your body. That is a really big factor.”
Thanks to science, technology and a healthy pay cheque, it seems that today’s players never die, they can just keep returning forever.