They say tennis is a young man’s sport. It’s hard to argue with that. It is among the most physically demanding sports out there. You need elite level physical conditioning – speed, power, athleticism, endurance – to be able to compete at the highest levels.
And tennis players’ careers are typically over relatively earlier compared to their counterparts in most other sports. Historically most tennis players have retired by their early 30s. Indeed, players like Roger Federer and Jimmy Connors who have been able to tough it out with the best into their mid-30s and beyond are the exceptions.
So what’s the ideal age for tennis? What is the age at which most players tend to hit their career peaks? Are some surfaces more suited to younger players while other surfaces are more suited to the more experienced pros? These are all interesting questions, and ones I compiled data across the Open Era(men’s only) to try and answer.
The 4 biggest events across the tennis calendar are the 4 Grand Slams. Each Slam provides its own unique set of conditions and challenges. I looked at the ages of the champions at each of the 4 majors, and came up with various statistical data points and comparisons to see how age might affect your chances at each of these, as well as overall.
Note : For compiling the data, only whole number ages were taken into account. For example players aged between 20 years 0 days to 20 years 364 days are all considered 20 years old.
The Open Era begun 50 years back in 1968. Since then, we’ve had exactly 200 majors, and consequently 200 champions – 50 at each major. Across these 200 events, the average age of champions was 24.96. The median age was 25.
10 out of the 200 have been won by teenagers. These 10 have been divided between 7 teen champions – Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, Michael Chang, Pete Sampras and Rafael Nadal. Incidentally, 5 of these 7 players feature in the top 10 in our list of greatest men’s tennis players of the Open Era.
26 of the 200 slams have been won by players aged 30 or older. This means 164 of the 200 have been won by players in their 20s, which is a whopping 82%. Of the 164, 89 have been won by players aged between 20 and 24, and 75 have been won by players ranked between 25 to 29.
Interestingly, the Australian Open seems to be the major most favouring older players. It has the highest average age of champions at 25.8. It also has the most champions in their 30s with 9 of the 50 titles going to this age group. 28 of the 50 titles have gone to players that are 25 and above. It is likely that the Australian Open’s position in the tennis calendar really helps the slightly older players. Being early in the season, all players can arrive down under fresh and raring to go.
Clay is a surface which heavily rewards raw speed and stamina. And it posts the lowest average champions’ age at 24.28, narrowly edging out Wimbledon. It also boasts the most teen champions quite comfortably. 4 of the 7 men to have won majors as a teen have won the French in their teens – Borg, Wilander, Chang and Nadal. Of these, Borg has done it twice, while the others have done it once. Michael Chang and Mats Wilander won Roland Garros as 17 year olds.
There’s actually a decent range of ages among French Open champions. The Coupe des Mousquetaires has been lifted by someone in their 30s 6 times. The oldest winner was Andres Gimeno who won it at 34.
The French Open has been won by players aged 20-24 23 times and aged 25-29 16 times.
Wimbledon has a marginally higher average champions’ age than the French Open. The average age of a Wimbledon champion in the Open Era is 24.54. Grass favours raw athleticism over long endurance, and that isn’t ideal for the older guys.
However, the more interesting feature in the case of Wimbledon is actually the distribution of ages. On 44 out of the 50 occasions, the champion has been in his 20s. That’s an astounding 88%. Andy Roddick once called Wimbledon the strongest roll call of any tennis tournament. The numbers here definitely seem to back him up. There have been very few, if any, fluke winners at SW 19. You have to be a pretty darn good player to lift the Wimbledon trophy. And going by the numbers, you would have to be at the very peak of your powers to stand a shot at the Big W too. Very few players win Wimbledon either in their teens or in their 30s. It also has the most champions in the 20-24 age group with 26 out of 50 champions falling in that category.
Only one player has won Wimbledon as a teenager – Boris Becker, and he did it twice. 3 players have won Wimbledon in their 30s – Rod Laver, Arthur Ashe and Roger Federer, who has done it twice. Last year, Federer incredibly won Wimbledon at 35, becoming the oldest ever Wimbledon champion by over 4 years.
The US Open probably posts the least diverging numbers of all the slams. The average age of an US Open champion is 25.2 years. The median age of an US Open champion is 25. The US Open has been won by players in their 30s 7 times. However, it has only ever had one teen champion – Pete Sampras in 1990. Interestingly, the US Open is the only slam whose average champions’ age has gone down since 1990(24.82 since 1990).
The US Open has been won by players aged 20-24 20 times and aged 25-29 22 times.
The following table illustrates the entire results:
|Australian Open||French Open||Wimbledon||US Open||Overall|