Over at Global Post, a new international news service, there’s an interesting article on tennis greats and age. I didn’t realize that tennis talent – at least when measured by Grand Slam victories – basically drops off a cliff at the age of 28, which is why Federer can no longer beat Nadal. According to Mark Starr, the early start of Nadal – he started winning as a teenager – means that he’ll go down as the greatest player of all time.
Sampras won only two Grand Slams after turning 28, one that year and a last-gasp triumph at the U.S. Open when he was 31 and headed for retirement. And Sampras did not have a player of Nadal’s transcendent gifts standing in his way. Even if Federer does ultimately catch Sampras, he must already sense the possibility that his claim on “the greatest” in tennis history may be short-lived.
Nadal, of course, is not only standing in Federer’s way, but now clearly chasing him as well. Federer won his first Grand Slam title at age 21 and, by his 23rd birthday, had won two more. Sampras had won four by that age. Nadal is well ahead of that pace, having won his first Grand Slam at the precocious age of 18. The Australian was Nadal’s sixth and he will be a prohibitive favorite to capture his fifth consecutive French Open just a few days after he turns 23 in June.
But here’s my question: why is tennis a young man’s game? I think there’s plenty of evidence that it’s not the fault of the body. Just look at Kobe Bryant: he’s over 30 and has never played better. Michael Johnson was 29 when he shattered the world record in the 200m and 400m. Dara Torres swam her fastest times at the age of 40. And so on. The point is that, given the proper training, the fast twitch muscles of the body don’t suddenly start to decay in our late twenties.
So what happens to tennis stars? Why can Federer no longer defeat Nadal? I’m guessing performance anxiety. I think tennis, perhaps more than any other sport, is a game of self-confidence. Unforced errors are inevitable – the margin for error when hitting a ball that fast with a metal racket is simply too small. The question is how you deal with these mistakes. Players with swagger – say, the Federer of 2006-2007 or the Nadal of now – brush off their errors and come back with an ace. With age, however, comes the nagging tremors of self-doubt. When I watch the Federer of 2009 I see a player who no longer knows he’s the best – his face occasionally betrays anxiety and insecurity. The end result is a dangerous form of self-consciousness, as Federer starts thinking too much about his serve, or that backhand whip shot, or his forehand down the line. Why aren’t his shots going in? Why is his serve 5 mph slower? Why can’t he beat this annoying young Spaniard in the capri pants?
The problem with such reflections is that tennis needs to be played on auto-pilot. Once you start thinking about your shots – and I think Federer is especially self-conscious when playing against Nadal – you lose the necessary fluidity and grace. These deliberate thoughts – the by-product of age-related insecurity – interfere with the trained movements of our muscles, so that we start regressing on the court. When players worry about not hitting a shot in, they’re bound to hit it out. Federer doesn’t need a new trainer: he needs a shrink.
Update: There’s some good dissent in the comments. I’ll just point out that I’m not sure the endurance argument holds water. After all, the conventional wisdom is that marathoners – the cliche example of an endurance sport – actually peak in their late twenties and early thirties. Unless, of course, you’re Constantina Tomescu, in which case you win the 2008 Olympic marathon at the age of 38. But I do think David Dobbs makes an excellent point about the desire for victory (or lack thereof) playing a role. That said, Federer did weep after he came in second: this guy still wants to win.