If you’re following the 2018 US Open tournament—or really, if you’ve been paying attention to tennis at all in the past decade, you may have noticed a trend. Top-seeded players in this year’s US Open for men include Rafael Nadal, 32 years old; Roger Federer, 37; and Juan Martin del Potro, 29. All four of the men competing in the semifinals tomorrow night are over the age of 28.
On the women’s side, the trend is less-pronounced, but it’s still there. The top-three seeded players in the women’s bracket were Simona Halep, Caroline Wozniacki, and Sloane Stephens, who were 26, 28, and 25 respectively. Serena Williams, perhaps the greatest athlete ever, was still seeded in the US Open’s top-20 at the age of 36, and is heading into the semi-finals tonight against Anastasija Sevastova, who is 28. The other two women competing in the semifinals are younger; Madison Keys is 23, and her opponent, Naomi Osaka, is 20.
Nevertheless, it’s clear: tennis careers aren’t what they used to be. In the last decade, tennis players have become far more likely to extend their time in the professional circuit into their late 20s and 30s. A decade ago, the typical male player in the top 50 was about 25 years old; today, he’s almost 30. For women, the median age of a top-50 player jumped up from about 23 in 2008 to 27 in 2018.
In other sports, most of the top athletes stay within the same age range. The best gymnasts tend to be in their late teens or early 20s. The best basketball and volleyball players tend to be a little older, in their late 20s. But these trends remain constant; in tennis, the age at which elite athletes are at the top of their game has decidedly shifted to be older, particularly on the men’s side.
This is because tennis isn’t what it used to be, either. Now, the game is a power sport with more emphasis on overall athleticism—and older players have figured out how to game it.
Tennis used to be won mostly on the basis of superior skill and strategy. The idea was to angle your shots in order to force your opponent across the net to make an error. Strategy still matters in today’s game, but players have bulked up, gotten faster, and gained the stamina to endure five-hour matches that start at night and go into the early hours of the morning. Although match speed varies depending on surface type, generally more points today are won today after long baseline rallies than they were in the past. On average, the time for each point has increased by about two seconds since the late 1990s across all major tennis tournaments, including Grand Slams. It may not sound like much, but over the course of hundreds of points, plus time in between serves and switching sides, which has also increased, the differences can translate to hours.
“The previous generation really focused on hitting tennis balls,” says Mark Kovacs, a physiologist and executive director of the International Tennis Performance Association. Kovacs, a former NCAA doubles champion, now works with elite tennis players. He says players like Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, who were stars in the 1990s, spent hours on the court every day, working to improve their strokes. They were technicians.
The current generation of players, though, has moved beyond that. Being technically sound is now just one component of the game. Today’s top players are a lot more concerned with their overall athletic ability than their predecessors. Speed, strength, endurance, and minimizing recovery time from fatigue and injury receive much more weight in a professional’s training than it ever has before.
Hitting millions of balls as the only form of training isn’t physically sustainable over the course of a players’ career. Tennis players use their dominant hand to hit the vast majority of shots, and all of the hardest-hit swings, like serves, overheads, and forehands, which puts a lot of pressure on muscles, ligaments, and bones on one side of the body.
Many players in the late 1990s and early 2000s retired in their mid-30s, presumably because they had peaked a few years prior. This was, in part, because players weren’t taking care of their bodies. Hours of court time can give a player perfect technique, but it doesn’t protect against physical toll of playing an intense sport for the 11 months of the year (paywall). Younger players can handle hitting essentially nonstop, but older players can’t.
To keep professional players on the court at the highest levels longer into their lives, the training shifted. Although younger players will still spend most of their time perfecting technique and strategy, by their mid-20s, some now cut their court time in half. Instead, they start to focus on other aspects of athleticism, like cardio, strength training, and rest and recovery.
In previous decades, players in their teens and early 20s would come screaming into tournaments, knocking out the veterans—which, for tennis, meant those in their late 20s. Nowadays, many players hit their stride in their late 20s. They remain just as technically sound as they were in their younger days, but their additional whole-body training allows them to stay stronger and active for longer.
Plus, being older seems to come with mental benefits. “Tennis has a massive mental component as well, and over time you get better at that,” Kovacs says. In a sport where you’re alone against a single opponent (or, at most, have one partner in a doubles’ match), having a little extra maturity helps.
Second, older players are likely wealthier. As “Matt” (no last name given) points out on Medium, earnings for winning a grand slam have increased substantially over the years. Today’s players who have won multiple grand slams tournaments also are likely to have more professional endorsements than lesser-known players, and can afford to have more professional help travel with them.
It’s not uncommon for elite tennis players now to travel with a coach, nutritionist, strength trainer, endurance trainer, and even a mental-skills specialist, Kovacs says, whereas before the top pros likely brought along just one coach to take care of all their needs. With more expertise off-court, players can take even better care of themselves, which allows them to stay at the top for longer.