Tennis and Time

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.

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I disagree with your assessment. I think tennis, even more than other sports, requires an insane amount of stamina. In basketball, for instance, the coach can sub you out when you're getting winded and you can have your teammates dictate play for stretches. As Kobe has gotten older, he's learned to pick his spots.

In addition, winning majors requires going full force every other day, and frequently every day, over a 2 week period. In the basketball playoffs, games are played every 3rd or fourth day.

In the Nadal-Federer matches, there's constant back-and-forth running for 5+ hours. While in the latest match, Federer showed nerves in the 5th set, in general, players drop off of a cliff after they turn 28 because they can't match the stamina of their younger competitors.

welcome to scienceblogs, where people speculate on the natural world.

By zombie_bot (not verified) on 08 Feb 2009 #permalink

I buy your case because in the psychology of tennis dominates a phenomenon known as "choking under pressure" (as in many others sports with audience effects)

Let me say in spanish: viva (y bravo) Nadal! Rafa the best.

I disagree as well. I think that there is clearly a drop off in the fast-twitch capabilities of athletes that comes along with aging, even into the late-twenties. And I think that Kobe, or even any basketball player, is the wrong way to prove otherwise.

Basketball players can rely on so many other factors of performance (an improved shot, more efficient movement, game savvy, etc.) that can make up more decreased explosiveness. This is just a guess, but I would guess that Kobe's vertical isn't quite what it was at 20. You basically never find world-class sprinters winning gold medals past 28 either.

I think that baseball, when we're talking about the perceptual gifts required for elite performance, is the more apt comparison, since hand-eye coordination and ball tracking skills are the real limiting factor in both sports, rather than pure athleticism.

Interestingly enough, studies have found that baseball players also peak at around 28, and that it is extraordinarily rare to find players past that age exceeding the performances of their younger years.

So maybe all athletes suffer crises of confidence at 28, but I think that more likely, the weird mix of perceptual gifts that allow one player's auto-pilot to be so much better than everybody elses really does drop off.

Back-up of the baseball stuff can be found here:…

The book Infinite Jest by the recently late David Foster Wallace has a lot to say about the zen of playing tennis without playing tennis. If you're interested, of course.

If physiology tells us anything, it's that experience potentiates used neural connections and the more repetitions one has of a given behavior the stronger the consolidated trace becomes. It should be easier for Federer to run on auto pilot given that he has done this for so much longer and any behavioral program that is executed should be more robust in the face of distraction (performance anxiety). If there is indeed strong empirical evidence for this drop off at 28, I think a more likely suspect is reduction in temporal recognition and/or processing speed, but 28 is a bit early for this as well. However, if tennis is anything it's fast!

When Serena Williams turns 28 this September, I hope she'll get a nice card from SciBlogs.

Is Nadal the poster boy for young whippersnappers to point out the down side of metacognition to their too conscious elders?

Isn't our host here 27 or has he already coyoted over the cliff? Avoid the Acme tennis rackets.

Yes, Infinite Jest has a lot to say on this point. (The way Hal's tennis performance varies over the course of the novel has specifically to do with his mental state.) Even more so, Wallace's essay "Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley" (which appears in the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again) -- about his short career as a ranked Junior tennis player -- speaks precisely to this point. And in at least one interview, when asked about why he didn't continue pursuing tennis professionally, he recalled his coach telling him, "You got a bad head, kid."

I suspect the key factor may be the difficulty in sustaining the intense desire needed to win at the top. The talent level of these players us v close, but it's v hard to sustain the almost unreal motivation requires to be no 1 once you've reached many of your main goals. Agassiz could not, and so lost often to lesser players and fell way behind Pete. Pete's most incredible feat, even atop his wonderful game, was how he sustained the drive to win 14. You can now see Federer struggle to maintain his fierce desire long enough to catch Pete in major victories; that's why he faded in the fifth.. That's why he was so crushed at his loss in Australia; he wants to have it done but isn't sure he can sustain the intensity. "Oh God, it's killing me," he said. He knows he has only so much more in him and fears it won't be enough.

I suspect the key factor may be the difficulty in sustaining the intense desire needed to win at the top. The talent level of these players us v close, but it's v hard to sustain the almost unreal motivation requires to be no 1 once you've reached many of your main goals. Agassiz could not, and so lost often to lesser players and fell way behind Pete. Pete's most incredible feat, even atop his wonderful game, was how he sustained the drive to win 14. You can now see Federer struggle to maintain his fierce desire long enough to catch Pete in major victories; that's why he faded in the fifth.. That's why he was so crushed at his loss in Australia; he wants to have it done but isn't sure he can sustain the intensity. "Oh God, it's killing me," he said. He knows he has only so much more in him and fears it won't be enough.

it's because they over train by a very small amount at about 28 they burnout, some players though not many have and are surpassing 28.

By zombie_bot (not verified) on 08 Feb 2009 #permalink

There is the possibility that eye sight deterioration has something to do with it. Tennis, more than most sports, depend rather critically of being able to estimate speed and direction of a small projectile very quickly and accurately, and it wouldn't take a lot of system deterioration (lens hardness and permeability and surface characteristics; increase in "floaters" in the eye ball; focusing error, or focusing speed reduction; decrease in cone density) to interfere with the game.

Cricket is also an endurance sport (test matches last for 5 days!), and a sport that is in large parts a mind game between the batsman and the bowler (much like tennis). If any sport was going to be affected by crises of confidence it would be cricket.

The Australian cricket team has recently had a period of 10 years or so where it was almost unbeatable by the rest of the world. During this period, the average age of the team hovered around 30 or so - almost all batsmen, especially were older than this. The point at which their reflexes historically seem to desert them is 36-38 years old.

E.g., the batsman Matthew Hayden has just retired after a run of 6 months where his form was dismal, at the age of 37. He was 29 when he first became a regular part of the Australian team, in 2000.

Because a lot of the players from the glory years of the team have retired in the last 2 years, the average age of the Australian team has dropped dramatically - additionally, perhaps as a result, the team has struggled to win matches.

By Tim Byron (not verified) on 08 Feb 2009 #permalink

Do your homework nerd. How many 33+ male tennis players have won a grand slam event?

Interesting premise. I suspect it's a combination of less endurance and the effects that has on one's psyche.

I would also recommend Infinite Jest to anyone with an interest in tennis, among other things.

To extend David Dobbs remarks on your article: We know from Kandel's slug studies that brains rewire based on periods of extended stimulation and that the brain does not fully recover to the baseline when the stimulus stops, in other words, for things like fear there is a permanent readjustment to the set point. It is possible that there is neurological rewiring that changes the amount of intensity necessary to stimulate and sustain the amount of drive and desire to win.

Are you suggesting a causal relationship between increased meta-thinking/loss of auto-pilotness and an absolute age--28ish? My guess is there are points in one's career, be it tennis or other, at which various physical and "mental" skills begin to diminish; partly to do with absolute age but perhaps moreso, at least on the mental side, to do with length of career. So, I'll bet 6:5 that Nadal doesn't win more than 2 grand slams after he turns 26.

By John Lingelbach (not verified) on 09 Feb 2009 #permalink

The first thing a boxer loses as he ages is speed. And when do testosterone levels begin to drop? How would that affect both desire and physical attributes? Also, ANY high impact sport is going to inflict injuries that accumulate and affect performance.

With few exceptions, basketball players peak around age 25, hold that level for two seasons, decline slowly to around age 31, and drop off more rapidly after that point.

As always, there are exceptions. Players who depend on size, strength and stealth rather than athleticism (speed, quickness, vertical leap) often play at peak longer, Utah's Karl Malone is Exhibit One. Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish are good Exhibits also, and help explain why the Boston Celtics were so successful over the long stretch that ended the Larry Bird era.

Kobe is somewhat the exception, although under detailed analysis, you might find that he is not performing at this peak. Instead, he is benefitting from both the brand affect of being Kobe Bryant, and from the vividness effect of fans seeing him make so many game-winning shots. This leads fans, in fact, to say that if you could choose just one NBA player to take a last minute shot, it would be Kobe. At least nine in ten fans would agree with you. There's a problem with this however: Over his career, with his team down by one or two points with less than 24 seconds left in game, Kobe has taken that game-winning attempt 56 times, and made. . .14 of them. 25 percent--a woeful percentage by any measure in a league where players average over 45 percent. (Travis Outlaw of the Portland Traiblazers, by the way, has made six of seven such shots in his career, and his teammate Brandon Roy is nearly perfect, including his shot last night against the Knicks.)

Endurance athletes are different. Marathoners peak at around age 32, drop off slowly until 38-39, then decline more rapidly. Endurance, up to point, grows with age, which makes sense, of course, and may explain why NBA players don't peak until later, achieving more of the endurance needed to play 82 48-minute games just during a regular season.

This weekend, I read your entire archive. Nice world we live in when people like me can get access to thoughts like yours so easily. Thanks, Jonah.

Pete Sampras (the epitome of will and determination) has thalassemia minor, a genetic trait that sometimes causes anemia. That he persisted in the face of this condition gives me incredible respect for him. There was speculation that this led to his retirement.

Tennis is an anaerobic sport, requiring spurts of play that depletes oxygen reserves, I would suspect different from an endurance sport like marathon running.

That said, much of any athletic competition seems to me to be mental, in attitudes, ability to keep focused, ability to strategize quickly and winning temperament.

As a tennis player and a neuroscientist, I disagree completely. Tennis is mostly about 1) hitting winners (while minimizing errors) 2) retrieving balls hit by your opponent all over the court. As such, these are the some of the attributes necessary for successful tennis at the world-class level:

1) Lightening-quick reaction times (to return 135+ mph serves, for volleying, etc)
2) Maximum quickness
3) Minimal amounts of excess weight (slows your movement)
4) Strong, healthy, flexible shoulders.

Of the 4 items listed, all tend to deteriorate with age (even relatively young age), notably 1, 3, and particularly 4. Despite often getting physically stronger with age, most older players lose significant speed on their first serve, most likely due to shoulder deterioration (while they don't suffer the same set of injuries as pitchers, tennis player's shoulders get tremendous use).

Note that generally, "strength" (which is one attribute that often increases with age, offsetting other losses in sports like basketball) is not listed. That's because tennis players don't need great strength, any more than, say, golfers do (very few lift weights, Nadal being the notable exception). Hitting a tennis ball extremely hard is much more about timing than strength, particularly with today's ridiculously powerful rackets.

Endurance is completely overstated as a necessity here. No doubt these players are in outstanding physical condition, and a player who focuses on conditioning will be more likely to win a 5 set match at Roland Garros, but conditioning is generally a very minor factor, even in slams when playing 3/5 sets.

I have a hard time imagining anxiety are a factor here. Golf places more pressure on players than any other sport (fine motor tasks and lots of time to stress over them), and while a number of golfers have fallen prey to the "yips", most improve with age, rather than deteriorate. Additionally, tennis is much more about reaction than planning and thought. Intelligence/planning is not necessary for success in tennis (see Becker, Boris).

By Crusty Dem (not verified) on 09 Feb 2009 #permalink

The decline in athletic performance with age was best summed up by boxer Willie Pep:
"First your legs go, then you lose your reflexes, then you lose your friends."

I thoroughly agree with Crusty Dem's take on tennis.

Tennis seems distinctive from other sports in its requirements, particularly its demands for sheer quickness in every respect: foot, hand, eye. It was not always this way, I believe; the changes in rackets changed the game by accelerating it significantly.

Also agree re anxiety. I've played many competitive sports, and some are almost immune to anxiety because anxiety requires a moment's contemplation, and tennis and football, among others, don't allow it. The most anxious things to do in sport have to include sinking (1) a critical putt under six feet and (2) free throw in the last minutes of a close game. Actually, my experience was that a three point shot is actually easier because it needs near maxumim exertion, while a 15 foot jumper requires you to finess the effort, and that moment of consciousness can be one where anxiety enters.

So many other activities in sports are so reactive that anxiety doesn't have a moment's space to intrude, although I suspect the second serve in tennis in a close match gets to a few players.

I agree that the mental advantage is by far the greater advantage - in tennis or any sport at the top level. No matter what the sport requires physically, there is no doubt that what separates #1 from the pack is a variety of mental advantages.

The confidence of maturity and experience can and will overcome the confidence of raw strength, reflexes, and endurance; but it is the rare individual who can overcome the internal head games and mental turmoil to sort out the difference. Look at Brett Farve, Kurt Warner, Lance Armstrong, Kobe, Shaq, and the list goes on and on. At its best, this is what coaches call "mental toughness". But the maturity/experience factor is a matter of individual perception. Another equally (physically) talented athlete could see his years of experience as a reminder of his physical age and deterioration instead of a reminder of his experiential and leadership advantage. The former is self defeating - defending your ground is ALWAYS mentally harder than the power of upward momentum and "nothing to lose" attitude.

I also think that athletes who spend too much time thinking/rationalizing end up answering the daunting "rational" question of "what are the odds?" The odds of making it into the professional level of any sport are really, really, low. The odds of continued success and breaking records are staggering. Any "rational" person would find it pretty easy to psych themselves out of winning at all and certainly out of continuing to âdefy gravityâ. It's best not to think about it. I've often wondered if this is the basis for the "dumb jock" stereotype?

I think if Federer always beat Nadal, and then tables suddenly turned, then one could begin to question why. But the fact is that Ferderer has rarely had the upper hand over Nadal.

In addition I don't think there's much evidence to suggest that Federer is worse than he was, if you look at the way he proceeds to finals.

It may thus simply be a case of Nadal at his best is a (marginally) better player (for psychological and/or physical reasons) than Federer ever was or is.

Following on from my last post, they've played 15 times, Nadal has won 10 of them, including the 3 first times they played. So the question "Why can Federer no longer beat Nadal?" is a misleading question.

re:"the by-product of age-related insecurity" Crusty dem came close to realizing that pain memory/injury history (time/age related) creates more anxiety than mental health issues ("see a shrink"), as in: "am I better than my opponent , right now?" or otherthoughts that pull you from the autopilot groove. Almost!
Age imposes a feedback that inhibits different "performance" routines and does so differently for a boxer than a guitarist in a "battle of the bands" duel. Tai Chi says develope inner strength because the body (outer strength) does weaken, but will/intent with body memory (training) can always win the contest.

Then there can be no doubt that after age 28, the only easy day was yesterday.

By OftenWrongTed (not verified) on 09 Feb 2009 #permalink

The interesting cluster of questions here, from a frontal cortex perspective anyway, relate to the factors that diminish (or increase) one's ability to access and maintain auto-pilotness--even if it turns out this has nothing to do with Federer/Nadal or grand slams after 28. I used to play soccer and was left footed but scored more with my right foot because my thinking brain turned off in those instances. Why? And "pressure" definitely constrained my autopilotness--big games/crowds and penalty kicks. But it wasn't always that my thinking got in the way, there weren't always words running through my brain. Sometimes it was still "quiet" inside, but frantic instead of calm. ...Just thinking....

By John Lingelbach (not verified) on 09 Feb 2009 #permalink

Jonah, I respect your intellect. I firmly agree with your assessment regarding the insecurity aspect of Federer's game "only when it comes to Nadal". The history leading up to the Australian Open final between Federer and Nadal created a perfect storm of nerve-wracking for Federer. With intense pressure from the expectations people have of Federer in upstaging Nadal and their past face-to-face record heavily favoring Nadal, it's natural for a player to be nervous. Besides, when it comes to hard-court, Federer being the heavy favorite, Nadal has nothing to prove. Plus, the media loves to tear-down the perceived alpha dog. Last year, the guy made to a grand slam semi-final, 2 finals and won the US open â while recovering from Mono for months. If thatâs not achievement, I donât know what is. Unfortunately, Fed listened to the naysayers and got himself convinced that he needs to prove himself to the world. Given all this, there's unreasonable pressure on Fed than Nadal ever did. I also agree with your assessment that he needs a shrink (although, I would say a mentor) more than a trainer.

Whether Federerâs anxiety is purely age-related, I'm not so sure. However, I disagree with your assessment that age (after late 20's) doesn't affect endurance in tennis. I have been playing tennis at club level for years. Although I canât claim the same personal experience as that of the Pro's, I have met several players who toured in their hay day and they consistently claimed that the Proâs peak in their performance and talent in their early 20âs and that their endurance starts slipping in their mid-to-late 20's. This clain is backed by stats. Your examples of endurance in other sports are valid. However, they are not tennis. Tennis takes a different kind of endurance than, say, marathon running. Besides, if endurance was not a factor, you would have given an example of a tennis player peaking at 38.

You cited Sampras' example. He went from achieving #1 year-end ranking for 6 years straight to never seeing it again after the age of 27 - in spite of winning 3 more majors in his career. John McEnroe is a great example of a tennis talent, closing in at 50 years of age, still CONSISTENTLY wins "sub-pro" titles by beating players like Jim Courier, who is over a decade younger than Johny Mac. His achievement is an antithesis to your assessment of age-related self-doubt. McEnroe still has the confidence of winning matches. The only thing that kept him from regaining his #1 ranking after the age of 25, I believe, was his stamina.

Best wishes

By ATennisPlayer (not verified) on 09 Feb 2009 #permalink

The main argument, which has been largely missed, is simply whether Nadal is a better tennis player than Federer. Nadal won all his majors during the reign of a man described by many as the 'greatest tennis player ever'. In all of these majors, he has had to beat Federer to win it. Federer only has a winning record against Nadal on one surface, grass. Nadal has beaten him 11 times to 4 in finals, 13 times to 6 in all.

Federer had the luxury of winning the majority of his majors prior to Nadal's rise to world class all court player. For his early Wimbledon wins, Federer had to beat Philippoussis and Roddick, hardly names to strike fear in the hearts of any world great. His Australian wins came against Safin, Baghdatis and Gonzalez, his US against Hewitt, an aging Agassi and Roddick again. His more recent victories have been against a too young Djokavic and, due to TV influence, a totally knackered Andy Murray. With the greatest respect to the above players, bar Nadal and Agassi they have won five majors between them, all bar Djokivic and Safin's Aussie Open, prior to the rise of Federer. Four of them, Philippoussis, Roddick, Baghdatis and Gonzalez, are pretty limited players in world terms.

Take this against Sampras, who had to contend with late era Edberg and Becker and peak era Agassi and Courier, let alone the talented wildcards of Rafter and Ivanisovic. While Sampras was amassing his 14 majors, these guys quietly amassed 18 between them. Adding the clay court expertise of Bruguera, Muster and Kuertan takes this to 24. Borg had McEnroe and Connors, who then had to deal with Lendl. To be the best player in the world during an era of greats is a lot more difficult than being the best player in the world between such eras. Nadal and Murray both have significant winning records over Federer. That shouldn't happen to the best player ever.

I came here to comment about reading some of DFW's pieces on Tennis but it seems I'm not the only DFW reader here :P. I am surprised that no one mentioned DFW's piece of Roger Federer ( A great piece of sports writing, written when Nadal was just starting to challenge Roger.

Also I am surprised that you didn't mention relaxed concentration ( which nicely sums up the idea of self-consciousness negatively affecting performance in Tennis.

By Eric Allam (not verified) on 10 Feb 2009 #permalink

Nadal and Federer are both control freaks. The important difference is Nadal focuses his control habits exclusively on his rest sessions which facilitates his fluidity and dominance on court. Federer is only able to let his self control go when finally cracks and is unable to control anything. Different upbringing.

I'm a supporter of the argument of endurance mixed with bursts of energy. You make a good point about the marathon runners, but that is a constant pace of movement that becomes more of a mind-over-matter competition. In tennis, you have the endurance factor, but you also have to be able to mix in frequent changes of direction, quick sprints to the ball, etc. The nuanced footwork suffers as the contest drags on. And athletes often say the legs are the first to go.

Could it just be that throughout the whole tournament Federer plays one way beating opponents gaining confidence as he goes through each man and then in the final he has to change his entire game, not hitting the shots that got him there against other players, like the short slice that righties have trouble with but Nadal murders that shot.
It must be maddening for Federer to have to change his game in the final. Unfortunately, I think it makes him think too much and affects his confidence. Meanwhile Nadals game plan stays the same as always as he grinds down each opponent.

Great topic and some great comments. My 2 cents is that tennis competition is the most unforgiving of all professional sports. Kobe is great basketball player, but he doesn't play great, nor does he have to play great every minute of every game. I'm not talking about timeouts or getting a break on the bench. He can and does take plays off during the course of the action. In tennis, if you take a play off, you lose a point. Since it takes four or six (if you go to deuce) points to win a game, points are valuable. Add to this the fact that your opponent is doing everything imaginable to take advantage of any and all weaknesses at all times, and you have (analogous to Jonah's description of poker tournaments) natural selection in fast forward.

The relationship between Nadal and Federer is similar to that between Federer and Roddick. Roddick can't beat Federer because they have similar games, but Fed is just a bit better in every way (except first serve which can only matter once in any point). Fed now can't beat Nadal because, despite the fact they both play all court games, Nadal does everything just a bit better, again with the exception of first serve.

It's not about conditioning. It's about making shots and making you opponent make tougher shots. Maybe it is all confidence, but Nadal knows he can handle Fed's best often enough to beat him and Fed knows that Nadal knows this too.

In addition I don't think there's much evidence to suggest that Federer is worse than he was, if you look at the way he proceeds to finals.

It may thus simply be a case of Nadal at his best is a (marginally) better player