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The Graying of Tennis?

November 25, 2016 | 03:00 PM

For what I believe is the first time in any era of tennis, more than half of the men ranked in the top 32 are at least 30-years-old. Barring injury or some ranking change in early January, 17 men over 30 will be seeded at the first major of the year.

The oldest is 37 year old Ivo Karlovic, a man with a playing style even older than he is. Without a serve that stands atop all ratings, Ivo's game would barely stand up in Division III tennis. He is currently ranked 20th in the world (his highest ever year end ranking). Has he merely endured until experiencing a little more of 'the luck of the draw'? Has he actually improved at his age? Or, has the field weakened with the rust of age?

Roger Federer, at age 35, is ranked squarely in the middle of the top 32. At 16th, he may hold on to an important seed in Australia if he has then recovered enough to return to tennis after six months absence from the game due to injuries (his ranking was earned with only six months of play). While this was his first year in this century without a title, he reached the final of Wimbledon, a feat equaled by very few players at his age (he lost to the man who was number one for most of the past five years). Was that feat a last gasp, or will he continue to confound his naysayers until he retires (assuming at some point he really does retire, which I am beginning to doubt). By all rights, his ranking should continue to drop, but the same could have been said - if anyone had thought it necessary - for Venus Williams over five years ago when at age thirty she was diagnosed with a serious autoimmune disease. Today, at age 36, she is ranked 17th in a top thirty crowd of women whose average age is now more than ten years younger than she is.

The highest ranked man under 30 is Milos Raonic, age 25, whose serve is second only to Ivo's. He has improved his mobility both on offense and defense, and according to those who seem to be in the know, no player today studies and thinks more about the game.

And yet Milos is now #3 in the world without having reached a major final or won a high level event (the biggest of his titles is Washington, a 500 level event). In only one year has he won more than a single title (2013), and five of his eight titles have been won indoors. All have been on hard courts.

By contrast, when Djokovic reached #3 in August of 2007 at a age 21, he had won two Masters 1000s (one on clay) and reached two 1000 finals in the previous six months.

When at 21 Andy Murray reached #4 in September of 2008 (the beginning of the 7-year era when the top four would have a lock on important titles), he had just won the Cincinnati 1000 beating Djokovic in the final (who he'd beaten the week before in Canada to reach the semis) and beaten Nadal to reach the final of the US Open.

The lock these two with Nadal and Federer had on the top four was so tight that not even a US Open title and reaching the quarters or better in every important event in 2009 including the year-end Masters (he didn't play Cincinnati) was enough to push Del Potro higher than #5 in 2009. For three weeks in February of 2014, when Federer had dropped to #7 after fighting a back injury in 2013, and Murray was still struggling to regain his form after back surgery, Del Potro rose to #4 for 3 weeks after Wawrinka had gone to 3rd following his Australian Open title.

While Raonic and Nishikori have improved and advanced toward what may be their prime, notching wins over the top four players, they've yet to demonstrate the ability to re-define the top four or establish a new era. Younger men coming up behind them have promise, but many believe that a new era will have to wait, both for the fall from the top two spots of Djokovic and Murray, and for others to have time to mature (Zverev, Thiem, Pouille, Kyrgios, Coric and Fritz).

Meanwhile, we can expect others to vie for the top four as it is vacated, including: Cilic, Del Potro, Tomic, Dimitrov, Goffin.

Interesting, maybe, but lacking the talk of greatness and GOATs. The women are already there.

Rick Devereux

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