* No Country for Old Men – Tennis is a young man’s game, everyone knows this. Of late Roddick and Federer are reminded at every turn that being the wrong side of 30 they’re doomed to live in the shadows of young kids out to spoil their fun.
Let’s ignore for a minute that the new generation of kids people are talking about are about 25 and look first at the age profile of the top of the men’s game.
Federer, Ferrer, Fish, Meltzer, Roddick, Stepanek, Ljubicic, Benneteau, Chela, Davedenko, Niemenen, Nalbandian and Ferrero – that’s 13 from the top 50 all aged 30 and over. Another handful will turn 30 over the summer.
There is one teenager in the top 50 (Tomic), another in the top 100 (Harrsion), the third ranked teenager is number 168 in the world, he’s a Ukranian-American called Denis Kudla and I’ve only heard of him because he played and lost to (33 year old) Tommy Haas in the first round of the Aussie Open this year.
It’s not the first drive at the Masters, but it’s hardly a frat-house either.
* Watson, Woods and Federer – Tennis might appear to be a young man’s game when compared to golf – in 2009 Tom Watson lost the Open on a playoff – imagine McEnroe (1983 Champion) re-entered Wimbledon in 2009 only to loses a tight final 3-2 to Federer. Impossible.
There are simply things can and do happen in golf that can’t happen in tennis – the comparisons are unfortunate and misleading.
The mental association of the two must come from somewhere though – both started as sports for wealthy white people in exclusive clubs – but more recently the association of Woods and Federer (in no small part thanks to Nike and Gillette) led to a perception that these two represented a new generation and new era of perfection and dominance.
What that ignores is that Woods is 5 years older than Federer, and that Woods had already amassed 7 Majors before Federer won his first Wimbledon. By the time Woods pushed to 10 Majors, in 2005, Federer was up to 5. By 2008, when Woods recorded his last and 14 Major, Federer was also on 14, 2 more would be added between then and 2010.
Woods won 14 Majors in 11 years, Federer won 14 in 5. Federer won all of his before he turned 30; Woods’s are split- 8 before and 6 after.
Nicklaus won his last Major at the age of 46, the oldest Grand Slam winner in recent Tennis history is Agassi who won the Australian at the age of 33.
While Tennis careers are elongating it’s a long way from being golf.
Look at it another way – Westwood is 39, and only in the last year are people starting to admit he might never win a Major – the Andy Murray clock has been ticking since he turned 24 (he’s 25 later this month). The window may be widening, but it’s still a frighteningly short career.
* State of the Nations – back to that list of players over 30 – you’ll notice that both the French and the Spanish (2 of the strongest nations in Tennis) have a few older players in the top 50 – let’s look a little more closely.
The Armada are lead by talisman Nadal – a man who’s been through so many wars that he seems much older than his 25 years. Nadal has spoken about stepping down from active Davis Cup play this year – he’s been on 4 winning teams already – but who does he leave behind?
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Nadal leads a column of young upstarts – the truth is that he’s the baby of the pack, at 25 Nadal is the youngest of the regular Davis Cup team.
In fact only one of the top 10 Spanish players in the ATP rankings is younger than Rafa – 4 are over the age of 30.
The highest ranked Spanish teenager is number 399 in the world – there are two 20 year olds in and around the 150s. Maybe Spanish dominance of Tennis will be short lived after all.
*Flashback – But maybe the world rankings isn’t where you should be looking to see the next wave of tennis superstars – each of the grand slams has a junior division (the US Open the last to add one in ’73) and many of the all time great players announced themselves to the world on quiet courts in the shadows of massive tennis stadia.
In 2009 I saw a young American in hitting practice with Roddick on the outside courts before the Wimbledon final – his name was Jordan Cox and he’d come out of nowhere to reach the final – seeing him return the Roddick serve was spectacular, at this point there was little on the horizon for American men’s tennis.
He’d go on to lose the final (though not as dramatically as Roddick did that day) to Russian Andrey Kuznetsov (who’d put Tomic out in the semis).
Both now play challenger level tournaments while Tomic (a year their junior) sits at 35 in the world and climbing. It doesn’t always go according to plan.
* Best Never – Many top players have glittering junior records – Edberg is the only one to win a grand slam, sweeping all four titles in 1983. McEnroe, Lendl, Federer and Newcombe all have junior titles, so do Gasquet, Meltzer, Murray, Roddick and Donald Young.
But not all players shine at the juniors – three of the hyped up and comers on tour– Tomic, Dimitrov and Saville – all have two each, while another , Raonic, never got past the second round at any of them.
And not all live up to the expectations either.
Take Gael Monfils – in 2004 he won the junior title at the Australian, the French and Wimbledon – it may not quite measure up to the Edberg junior slam, but it’s worth noting that in 1988 the Australian moved from grass to hard-court – Monfils is the only man to win three junior titles on three surfaces in one year.
So is Monfils the most disappointing prodigy in tennis history? Say what you like about Murray, maybe Monfils is the most talented player never to win a Slam?
So what changed? Why didn’t junior form lead to tour success?
* Nadal - that’s why.
In January 2004 Monfils won the junior title at the Australian open – in March of that year a 17 year old Nadal played Federer for the first time – on hard courts at the Miami Masters in the third round – Nadal won in straight sets.
By the end of 2004 Nadal would be the youngest Davis Cup winner in a generation and sit just outside the top 50 in the world. A year later he’d win 11 tour titles, including a first French Open, in one of the greatest seasons ever posted by a teenager.
Monfils never stood a chance – a handful of junior titles won in the absence of the greatest teenage sensation since Borg/Becker/Sampras was never going to translate to dominance of the professional tour.
And it could have been even stranger – Nadal missed a good portion of 2004 with injury, including the French Open, won that year by Gaston Gaudio, is it too fanciful to suggest that Nadal could have won the French open at 18? We might even have had a match between him and Kuerten – if only.
The image of junior champion Monfils posing for pictures with French Open Champion Nadal, a man only three months older than him, would have put an asterix beside Molfils’ win and tempered the expectations heaped on the young Frenchman.
* James Cecil Parke – Finishing with Nadal – he’s had some week. He now has 20 Masters titles, the most of any active or retired player, he’s snapped the losing streak against Djokovic and he’s won Monte Carlo for an 8th straight year – very few players have won any event 8 times, never mind in a row.
It seems appropriate that a history making achievement like that would take place at Monte Carlo, one of the oldest tournaments in the world.
In winning 8 titles at a single event Nadal joins a select group of players – one of whom managed that feat at an even older (though sadly less prestigious) event – the man is James Cecil Parke and the event is the Irish Open (or Irish Lawn Tennis Championships as it was in his time).
James Cecil Parke won his 8 Irish titles between 1904 and 1913 – the year he won the Australian Open. He won Olympic Gold in doubles and doubles titles at Wimbledon and the Australian Open and two Davis Cup titles.
That much might be enough to capture the title of greatest Irish sportsman, add to it that he played rugby at Trinity, for Leinster and for Ireland, played golf for his country and was an avid cricketer, chess player and track and field star at university and there can be little doubt that he’s company Nadal should be proud to keep.
Nadal is by all accounts an excellent golfer and almost chose a career in football over tennis at a young age, perhaps when his tennis career winds down he might consider following in Parke’s lead and taking up rugby, he’d make a phenomenal openside flanker, or maybe he could take his muscular lefty topspin into cricket? If the sun is setting on Spanish tennis I’m sure it will rise elsewhere, Nadal mostly likely at centre stage.
Maybe the more interesting question isn’t where will the next generation come from, maybe it’s where will this generation go?
Follow Declan Bruton on Twitter.