Historically, tennis has been a young person’s sport. You can find enough numbers and statistics to back up this statement.
A couple of years back, I had compiled data and statistics regarding the ages of the winners of the 4 Grand Slams, the 4 biggest tournaments of the sport.
The numbers seem to point towards the mid-20s being the average and median ages for winning Grand Slams. For example, the average age of Grand Slam champions came out to be 24.96 at the time of writing.
After recompiling the numbers again, the average age rises to 25.27 now thanks to Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic winning the vast majority of the slams over the last 2 years. And that is a pattern we have witnessed over the past few years. The average ages of Grand Slam champions has gone up. Of course, this statistic is highly influenced by the eponymous Big 3 of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. The Big 3 have kept winning Grand Slams well into their 30s, while the immediate succeeding generation of players just did not seem to measure up, with guys like Nishikori, Raonic and Dimitrov providing scarce intermittent challenges at best. Whether this turns out to be a long term trend remains to be seen.
However, even under the given circumstances of a finely aging Big 3 and a weak bunch of immediate successors, this trend of a growing number of champions in their 30s has not translated to the fifth biggest tournament of the tennis calendar, the Nitto ATP Finals.
In fact a look throughout the history of the tournament shows that it has always been a hard tournament for the older players to win. As it stands, Roger Federer is the only player to have won the year-end championships in his 30s.
Winners in their 30s
While over the last few years, the Big 3 have been winning a number of slams even into their 30s, the year end championship is one title that has eluded them post turning 30 on every occasion barring 2011, when Federer won it just a few months after his 30th birthday. Incidentally that was the first, and still remains the last occasion that the year end was one by a player aged over 30.
This is in stark contrast to the winners list of the 4 Grand Slams, which have been won by a player over 30 a combined 35 times in the Open Era.
A Grand Slam has been won by a player over 30 a total of 35 times in the Open Era
Average and Deviation of Age of Winners
The average age of champions at the year end is also less than that of Grand Slam champions. The average age of an ATP Finals champion is 24.4 years compared to 25.27 years in Grand Slams.
But perhaps an even more interesting statistic is the deviation of the ages of the champions. While the standard deviation calculated for the ages of Grand Slam champions across the Open Era comes out to 4.04, the corresponding number for the winners of the year end championships is 2.76.
This low deviation implies a tighter two-way bound ie. not only is the ATP Finals unlikely to have very old winners, it is also unlikely to have very young winners.
If we try to spot the teen champions in the history of the tournament, we see that John McEnroe lifting the trophy in 1978 as a 19 year old is the only instance of a teenager winning the tour finals.
The above numbers taken over a fairly large sample seems to point to one thing – a player needs to be closer to his physical peak to win the year end.
Okay, so although the above statement captures a trend, it is statistically an oversimplification. Phrasing it more accurately, the conclusion could be stated as
As a player diverges further away from his physical peak, his chances of winning the Year End Championships declines at a faster rate than his chances of winning a Grand slam.
A Unique Challenge
At first glance, the above numbers might appear somewhat shocking. But if we really think about it, perhaps it is not that surprising. The year end championships really is a unique challenge in the sport.
Firstly, the year end is the final event of the long and grueling tennis season. You do necessarily need to be in great physical shape to be one of the top 8 players in the world throughout the season and then arrive at the final event fit and ready for the challenge that lies ahead. In recent years, we have even seen some of the older players heading into the US Open swing with various physical issues. The year end is even deeper into the season. And perhaps it makes sense that players like Federer and Djokovic who have reached dizzying heights at this event during their mid-20s have often failed to reproduce that form over the last 3-4 years.
Another factor that makes the year end very different from any other tournament on the calendar, including the slams, is that you have to face top 8 players right from the first match itself. In Grand Slams, you can ease your way into the tournament, and then try to peak at the tail end of the tournament. Older players with years of experience would have mastered this art, while it might be easier for slightly younger players to try to maintain their best level throughout an event. And the latter is exactly what you need to do at the tour finals. You have to play 5 matches against top 8 opposition, something that is made logistically impossible at any other tournament by the tennis seeding and draw system. While getting the win while not playing your best is an attribute that is immensely valuable at a Grand Slam level, the ability to bring your best or close to it in every single match is more valuable at the year end. And we have seen that the latter becomes harder and the off days become more frequent the more players age.