By Robert J. Lake
No story more captivated the tennis world in 2017 than the resurgence of some of the sport’s biggest stars. As Nick Wells and Eric Chemi reported, the average age of the four finalists at the Australian Open in January was 34 years old; Roger Federer, 35, beat Rafael Nadal, 30; meanwhile, Serena Williams, 35, beat her older sister Venus, 36. While Serena had held the top spot on the WTA tour for some time, the revival of the other three represented something of a throwback to an earlier period.
Federer had not won a grand slam tournament since 2012, when he beat Andy Murray at Wimbledon to become the first male player over the age of 30 to triumph there since Arthur Ashe in 1975. He maintained a top-ten ranking up until November 2016, but dropped to 16th at the close of last season. His performances since 2012 brought speculation that Federer’s career was on the wane and that he was on the slow but slippery slope toward retirement. Similarly Nadal had not been ranked world no. 1 since 2014, and a series of injuries that prevented him from playing his best tennis from this point onwards led many to believe his career was all but over. Venus Williams had spent much of the previous decade or so in the shadow of her younger and more successful sister Serena, but 2017 represented something of a comeback for her. After falling as low as 137 in the world-rankings in 2012, she recovered to break back into the top 10, only to struggle to maintain that position over the following years. Nevertheless, she began 2017 at no.17, and after two further finals at Wimbledon and at the WTA Tour Finals, she moved back into the world’s top-five.
After Australia, Nadal and Federer traded the other three grand slams: Rafa won his tenth French Open on clay in June and his third US Open in September, while Roger won his record eighth Wimbledon singles crown in between. While they commenced 2017 at 9th and 16th respectively, they both overtook their considerably younger opposition to finish as 1st and 2nd, with Nadal winning a total of six ATP tournaments and Federer winning seven. Their performances were comprehensive and dominant throughout, leading some to suggest they were playing their best ever tennis. Interestingly, they were not the only players enjoying an Indian summer in their playing careers. In fact, ten of the world’s top-20 male players at the end of the 2017 season were in their thirties, which is indicative of an aging trend in the men’s game. From an average low of around 24 for male grand slam tournament players in the late-1980s, they had seen a noticeable increase in average age, up to almost 28 in 2017.The women too, are getting older. Throughout the 1980s and early 90s, their average age was approximately 22, but by 2017 it had crept up to 25.
The reasons for these increases are likely found in a complex mix of socio-cultural factors, ranging from shifts in talent development practices within the sport’s national and international governing bodies, to the introduction of burnout- and injury-prevention measures among coaches, alongside changes to court surfaces and racket technology that have led to changing playing styles. I would also suggest that this development in tennis is indicative of – though perhaps almost entirely without intention – the triumph of Eastern over Western philosophy with regard to the aging process.
The Chinese philosopher Confucius profoundly influenced Chinese and other Asian cultures in their attitudes and beliefs surrounding “filial piety,” what is considered to be the duty to one’s parents or elders. Alongside the practice of ancestor worship common in many Asian cultures, this has brought greater respect for older adults and a more positive view of the aging process generally. In such cultures, generally speaking, aging is linked to assumed increases in wisdom, experience, knowledge and perceived respect; aging is an honour, and elders in their communities assume leadership and teaching roles as an outcome of the deference afforded to them. The same is also true of many native/aboriginal cultures in North America, but in Western culture these are often marginalized in favour of a belief system that tends to regard the aging process as one of an inevitable decline: of physical attractiveness, of physical ability and function, and of an ability to learn new things. Thus aging is seen as a problem, as “old people” are considered liabilities. Youth is celebrated, as the young are revered often because of their greater energy, and their confidence and fearlessness.
While in most other cultural domains, a man of 36 years old would hardly be considered “old”, sport has always skewed perceptions of aging due to the fact that in most sports, athletes peak in their 20s and retire in their 30s. Tennis, especially in the women’s game, is especially youth-oriented. Tennis history is replete with numerous child star prodigies like Lottie Dod, Suzanne Lenglen, Jennifer Capriati, and Martina Hingis, who reached their playing peaks before they were legally allowed to drink alcohol in most countries. As the game has become physically tougher and more taxing on the body, the assumed value of “youthful” energy has only increased. Injuries and pain increasingly plague the players of this grueling individual sport, where they cannot hide behind their teammates and succeed through mere experience and cunning; they also have to be agile, strong and aggressive. Thus, players sustaining high performances into their 30s are considered rare and, certainly since the 1990s, have been decreasing in number.
That said, the privileging of wisdom, experience and knowledge that comes with “successful” aging is now beginning to be more fully appreciated. Therefore, when Federer, Nadal, and Venus Williams step onto court against younger and less experienced opposition, having played hundreds of matches and won dozens of tournaments, they are able to bring all of their experience and knowledge of previous situations to the fore. Moreover, the respect their aura engenders – enhanced by their clothing lines, consummate fame and confident swaggers – must also be worth a few free points in each match. Such are the spectacular rewards now on offer in both men’s and women’s professional tennis, the risks of losing prize money and endorsements for young players have increased, and this might lead to them taking fewer chances and playing more cautious, but arguably less brilliant, tennis.
Just as traditional Eastern medicine has broadened contemporary Western approaches to healthcare and brought us alternative means of curing ailments and understanding the mind-body-soul complex, so too have Eastern philosophies of aging provided alternative understandings of how wisdom is cultivated from experience. While the collective resurgence of Federer, Nadal, and Williams might not necessarily be directly related to the greater acceptance of Eastern philosophies of aging within Western societies, their performances nevertheless should serve as an important reminder of their potency.
I wish to offer thanks to Omar Gonzalez for providing the inspiration for this piece.
Robert J. Lake is in the Department of Sport Science at Douglas College, Canada. He researchers historical and socio-cultural aspects of tennis and the areas of social class, gender, race, national identity, coaching, talent development, policy and politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.