Marin Cilic at the moment is the youngest male player on tour to have a won a Grand Slam. The Croatian, who won the 2014 US Open, turns 30 at the end of September – an age considered to be the career twilight in most sports.
Cilic is emblematic of how men’s tennis is refusing to age. Only two male players born after 1990 have actually made a Major final. Milos Raonic and Dominic Thiem edged into the last two at Wimbledon and the French Open, but neither managed to win. The last young man to breakthrough and win a Major was Juan Martin del Potro, back in 2009. He beat Roger Federer in the final of the US Open at only 20 years of age.
Compare that to this year’s Wimbledon, where no one in the final four in the men’s singles – Novak Djokovic, Kevin Anderson, Rafael Nadal, John Isner – is a day younger than 31, and Milos Raonic was the only quarter-finalist born after 1990. This is an Open Era record.
However, it is not just the troika of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic who are continuing to dominate men’s tennis. The Big 3 are definitely increasing the age graph on the ATP tour, but so are their peers. Anderson and Isner, at 32 and 33 respectively, reached their first semi-finals at Wimbledon; Anderson is now in the final, where he will take on either Nadal, 32, or Djokovic, 31. Stan Wawrinka won his first Grand Slam at the Australian Open in 2014 at 28; Andy Murray became the world No 1 at 29.
In the Open Era, the average age for a Grand Slam winner is 25 and a finalist is marginally older. But today’s players are pushing that number up.
In the last ten years, the average age of a finalist or a winner has become 27. That reached a pinnacle last year when seven out of the eight Major finalists in 2017 were 30 year or older – only Cilic at Wimbledon was in his 20s – with Federer, 36, and Nadal, 32, winning two each.
The average age for a place in a final was nearly 32, a whole seven years above the Open Era average, an eternity for a tennis career.
Women’s game opposite, but for Williams
However, the women’s game has changed very little in the same period. There have been 19 Grand Slam final appearances by players born since 1990 and seven have successfully gone on to lift the title.
The exception to this rule is the combination of Serena and Venus Williams. Both continue to play exceptional tennis even in their late 30s. Venus Williams, 38, reached the final of the Australian Open and Wimbledon last year and this year’s finalist Serena is the third oldest female Grand Slam finalist in the Open era.
The 36-year-old will take on 30-year-old Angelique Kerber in the final. The beaten semi-finalists were 29-year-old Julia Goerges and 21-year-old Jelena Ostapenko.
This year, both the men’s and women’s singles finals at Wimbledon will be contested between players past the age of 30.
Players are smarter about schedules and fatigue, but now they’re moving into unfamiliar territory. Due to smarter diets and every major tennis player ageing with you, it’s become the norm for players to play longer.
But even so, the fact that the greatest in the game still remain standing in the face of time in a sport as gruelling as tennis, is happy anomaly.