Monday, 25 January 2010

Mens Tennis: An Old Man's Game

The Australian Open looks like it's shaping up for a fascinating second week, with Federer, Nadal, Murray et al looking more evenly matched than ever before. It's getting harder and harder to pick a Grand Slam winner these days, which is surely only a good thing.

Truth be told, though, the first seven days of the tournament haven't really generated a huge amount of excitement. The early rounds produced a few nice stories - a win for Louk Sorensen, the first Irishman to compete in a Grand Slam since 1985; victory too for Turkey's Marsel Ilhan, who followed up a win in the 2009 US Open first round with another against Sebastien Grosjean.

But there was only one person tennis romantics were concentrating on in Melbourne last week, and that was 37-year-old Fabrice Santoro. The Frenchman, of double-handed forehand fame, became the first man ever to appear in Grand Slams in four different decades. Okay, he kind of cheated, in coming out of retirement specifically to play in Melbourne. But still, such longevity is a true achievement, in an era when physicality, fitness and the demands of a worldwide ATP tour make youth a real asset.

But hang on.

A quick look at the ATP rankings suggests that perhaps youth isn't that much of an advantage in mens tennis. This may seem a surprise, but there isn't a single teenager in the world's top 150. The highest-ranked teen is 19-year-old Guillaume Rufin, at number 173 in the world. The young Frenchman's ranking shouldn't be sniffed at - but then again, to put things into perspective, he is positioned two places behind Great Britain's perennial underachiever and Davis Cup bottler Alex 'Boggo' Bogdanovic.

Rufin leads a pack of promising youngsters which includes Bulgaria's Uladzimir Ignatik (world number 193), compatriot Grigor Dimitrov (268), Finland's Henri Kontinen (293) and Argentine Guido Pella (319). There's even a Brit on the list, 19-year-old Dan Evans, who is current world 254 and thus next in line for the British tabloid media's title of Wimbledon-winner-in-waiting, worn with such aplomb by Andy Murray and Tim Henman before him.

But the best illustration of this seeming lack of teenage breakthrough talent, more than their relatively low ranking, is that few outside the hardcore of tennis followers will have heard of them. Perhaps the best known of the current crop of under-20s is Australian prodigy Bernard Tomic, who was defeated by another young gun, 21-year-old Marin Cilic of Croatia, in Melbourne last week. Tomic looks to have a bright future ahead of him, and is still only 17, but he is currently ranked 289.

And this lack of a teen presence among the world's top players does appear to be a relatively new phenomenon. As recently as January 2007 19-year-old Novak Djokovic occupied 14th position in the ATP rankings, while Andy Murray, a week older than the Serb, was one position behind him at 15th in the world. A year earlier it was French duo Richard Gasquet (16th) and Gael Monfils (30th) who were flying the flag for the acne-afflicted and the hormone-hampered (sorry).

Going further back, we have had the likes of Nadal, Federer, Hewitt - who at 19 became the youngest ever world number one in 2001 - Sampras, Chang and Becker, all breaking into the top 25 in the world in their teenage years. We're not just talking prodigies and Grand Slam winners either. Czech Tomas Berdych, 24, the current world number 21, entered the world's top 100 aged 18 - thus demonstrating that it isn't only once-in-a-lifetime players who can make the step up before the age of 20.

In addition, comparing the mens tour with that of the women puts the lack of teenage talent into stark relief. The current WTA rankings show 12 of the top 100 women in the world to be teenagers. These include the current world number 4, Dane Caroline Wozniacki, and American prodigy Melanie Oudin, ranked number 48. Although the headlines concerning the womens seem to be dominated by the return of a handful of older players - Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin, and, most sensationally, Kimiko Date-Krumm - the rankings show a concurrent trend in teenage talent breaking through.

So why the current lack of youngsters on the men's tour? The way the ATP rankings are worked out, while imperfect (the subject of a whole different article), don't seem to discriminate against younger players, in that they rely for the most part on the previous 52 weeks of competition. Even more counterintuitively, though there are far more successful teenagers on the WTA tour, there are limits placed on the number of ranking tournaments that young women can enter - while no such limitations exist on the mens tour.

Which leaves us with the only sensible conclusion. Mens tennis is going through a dry spell, with very few young players looking like they will make the grade at the top level. All of which must make happy reading for Fabrice Santoro's thirty-something contemporaries, who will all be relieved not to have to swap their tennis rackets for walking sticks quite yet.

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Always glad to hear your thoughts. Be nice now! James