You look at some of the Tri-Athletes and Iron Man guys, they’re in their mid-30s and performing at the best, highest level. So I think what it comes down to is: The older you get, I assume you get wiser. You know, you just know what works best for you. When you’re 21, 22, 23, you’re still trying to get into your own body. Now with nutrition, the right training, the physios that you have. . . that’s why you see so many 30-year-olds now in the Top 100.”—Tommy Haas, who turns 35 tomorrow, on why so many 30-and-older players are doing so well on the ATP tour.
It’s been a slow-moving and counter-intuitive story in tennis, but a persuasive one as well: It seems that age, once seen as an enemy in this sport, has become a potent ally in the hunt for peak performance.
Now, maturity and full man- or woman-hood are increasingly perceived as an asset, and the message gleaned from players who are doing well at the age of 30 and beyond is this: If you can avoid burnout or serious injury, you may be able to play your best tennis—and enjoy life—well into your fourth decade.
As Haas said after his run to the semifinals at the recent Miami Masters: “You know, for me still to be doing that at a high level at this time of my career, celebrating some of my biggest wins, it’s fantastic. You can appreciate it more when you know what goes into it.”
Perhaps that, too, adds emotional fuel to the typical high-performing 30-year old’s determination. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying what you’re doing and actually being aware of it.
Haas notably made those remarks after losing an extremely close three-setter to another veteran, David Ferrer, who turns 31 today. That was not really an oddity or coincidence. Thirteen of the 66 titles on offer on the ATP tour last year were taken by players over the age of 30. And while there isn’t a single teenager in the Top 100, a fourth of the players in that group have already learned that life doesn’t end when you turn 30—not even in tennis.
Haas isn’t even the oldest of the 30-plusses still in the hunt at tour events, although at No. 14 he’s by far the most impressive. Marc Gicquel, who’s No. 114, is the granddaddy of them all at age 36.
The trend isn’t quite as pronounced on the WTA, even if two of the Top 5 players are over 31 (No. 1 Serena Williams and No. 5 Li Na). There’s just one teenager in the Top 20 now (No. 16 Sloane Stephens); two decades ago, four of the Top 10 were teenagers, led by Monica Seles.
Haas’ analysis seems to hit the mark. A man may not have quite the energy of a boy, but he’s got more strength and (presumably) experience—valuable assets at a time when the game is more physically demanding than ever before, and also more competitive.
Drawing a parallel between tennis players and Iron Man and Triathlon athletes at first seems like a bit of a reach, but it really is apt. Endurance and strength are enormously important these days, when slow courts help promote five-hour matches and 30-stroke rallies, strings help keep the ball in play no matter how big the cut, and nobody can simply serve an opponent off the court.
It’s hard to imagine a blithe 19- or 20-year-old blasting his way to a Grand Slam title the way Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras, or Marat Safin once did—not when you see the superbly-fit, strong, rangy men guarding the gates. But one thing that hasn’t been factored into this kind of theorizing is, well. . .genius. Let’s not forget that Rafael Nadal won Roland Garros when he was barely 19, and anyone who doesn’t think that can happen again is just an ageist—in reverse.
Read Peter Bodo's report on Haas' win over world No. 1 Novak Djokovic at the Miami Masters, which includes quotes from a sit-down interview with the German, here.