Net benefits: why Wimbledon’s tennis stars are getting older - and younger
FT data journalism specialist John Burn-Murdoch takes a close look at why the men's and women's games of tennis are diverging. Age profiles are polarising among groups of top players, including some of those in action this weekend: Serena Williams, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal
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Something has changed at Wimbledon. Ten years ago, the average age of the men who reached the second week of the tournament in the singles was 26-years old. This year, it's past 30 for the first time ever. Thirteen years ago Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal first played in a Wimbledon final. This year they meet again in the semis, both of them well into their '30s.
In the chart here we explore how the average age of men reaching the latter stages has steadily increased over recent years. Across the chart we have years, and vertically we have the distribution of all the players' ages who reached the last 16, the fourth round. So you can see that in 2019, for example, Ugo Hubert, the Frenchman, is the youngest player who reach the last 16, aged 21, while Roger Federer himself, at around 38, was the oldest.
The full range of that bar represents the full range of ages reaching the fourth round. As you look towards the middle you see that average standing out. We can then draw a line cutting through all of those annual distributions which shows how the average age has progressed. For around 30 years the average age fluctuated between around 24 and 28, but over the last 15 years there's been a steady and perpetual increase.
In the 70s and 80s, teenagers and young teenagers at that, regularly reach the last 16 of the men's singles. Bjorn Borg, the Swede, who went on to win several major titles, Boris Becker and Michael Chang were among the most obvious examples. In the last few years a teenager in the last 16 has become a more rare occurrence. At the same time the number of players in their 30s has gone up and up and up.
This year, of the 16 players to reach the fourth round, only two were aged under 28, and the majority were aged 30 or higher. Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer as well as Novak Djokovic have all reached the semi-finals this year. The three will compete over the next couple of days to determine who wins the Wimbledon men's title this year. For any of them it would be yet another major victory.
So when these players go head to head what happens when the pressure's on? The most pivotal points in a tennis match are breakpoints. - the opportunities for a player to win a game against serve while their opponent is serving. This chart here looks at who are the best performers of all time on these crucial points in men's tennis. The horizontal axis here shows the ratio of the percentage of break points that a player converts against her opponent serve, versus the percentage of break points that they lose on their own serve.
The higher the number the better these players perform attacking and defending these crucial points. Rafael Nadal is the standout. Of all men's players in the entire open era going right back to the 1960s, Rafael Nadal is about 33 per cent more likely to win or to defend these crucial break points than the average player. Novak Djokovic comes second, but there's a big gap there. Nadal really is the coolest head under pressure on the tour.
Sampras, Federer and Agassi are the greats for behind that, but this really is a case of Nadal being the man. Andy Murray has won several major tournaments and is undoubtedly one of the outstanding players of the last few decades, but his performance on these crucial break-point opportunities and break-point defences is actually much lower down the rankings than some of the other top players of his generation and generations before.
Now this doesn't mean, of course, that the likes of Murray and Becker fail to win tennis matches. Winning break points is only one part of the story. If you simply win far more points than your opponent over the course of the entire match you'll rack up far more break-point opportunities than them. And so even if you don't convert them in a super-high rate, you're still going to win.
But what this does show is that for every break-point opportunity forced, Rafael Nadal is much more clinical in converting them than the likes of Andy Murray. Moving onto the women's side of the game, the big story at Wimbledon in 2019 was the emergence of teenage star Cori Goaff. The 15-year-old American reached the second week of the tournament, the fourth round, aged just over 15. That makes her the fourth youngest women's player ever to achieve this feat since Wimbledon has been running in the Open era.
Here we're looking at the age at which every one of the 272 women's players to have reached the second round achieved that landmark. Goaff is highlighted in red, and she appears far towards the left, which means she is very young across the grand scheme of things for players to reach the last 16. And aged just over 15, she was actually the fourth youngest player ever to achieve this landmark.
Jennifer Capriati, Andrea Jaeger and the great Steffi Graf were the only three to achieve this mark at a younger age. Capriati and Graf went on to win multiple grand slams, and Andrea Jaeger reached several finals before her career was cut short with injuries. So Gauff is certainly among elevated company here.
If we look slightly further to the right, we see other familiar names, stars of the game. Monica Seles, Martina Hingis, Sharapova, and then further across we have Chris Evert, and of course, Serena Williams herself. All of these players reached the second week in their teams, but were considerably older than Gauff this year. Whether or not Cori Gauff goes on to win major tournaments like the players around her by this measure remains to be seen, but the future certainly looks bright for the young American.
In the women's game, Serena Williams has been the dominant force for more than a decade now. But aside from her, the dearth of huge dominant forces has created space for youngsters such as Gauff to come through. The men's game has had more dominant players for a very long time now, and it's not until the likes of Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic move on that we'll actually see opportunities for youngsters to come through.