Teens on tough terrain

Youngsters are finding it increasingly difficult to attain Grand Slam glory, with big guns holding sway

The last teenager in the men’s singles draw at the French Open lasted until 4:04 pm Paris time on Thursday, and Lucas Pouille, a young Frenchman, would have been eliminated sooner by Grigor Dimitrov if not for a couple of rain delays.

 As the years and the springs (yes, this is spring in Paris) roll by, it seems ever harder to believe that Michael Chang and Mats Wilander won this title when they were just 17 or even that Rafael Nadal — a clay court phenomenon if ever there was one — managed it when he was 19.

“Too good; yeah, Rafa, he’s another level I think,” said the Australian 18-year-old Nick Kyrgios, the youngest player in this year’s men’s draw.

Kyrgios, one of only three teens in the men’s event, lost in the second round to the 10th-seeded Marin Cilic. Asked if he agreed with the prevailing theory that a teenager could not win the biggest titles anymore, he took his time answering.

“I think the biggest difference with the juniors and teenagers at our age is that they’re a lot fitter and stronger than we are,” Kyrgios said of the veterans. “And yeah, jeez, tough question. I think belief is probably the main thing as well. I think today I was a bit overwhelmed in the first game. As soon as I walked on the court, he just seemed so professional. I think I was a bit focused on what he was doing rather than what I had to do out there.”

Nadal was the last teenager to win a men’s Grand Slam singles title, taking the first of his seven French Open titles in 2005. The last teen who even managed to push deep into the second week at a major was Krygios’ Australian compatriot Bernard Tomic, who reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon in 2011 at age 18.

Meanwhile, the statistical evidence against prodigies doing prodigious things in men’s tennis keeps piling up. Greg Sharko of the ATP Tour said the average age of players in the top 100 in the men’s rankings has increased from 24.92 years in 2003 to 27.13 in 2012. Sharko said the average age of players in the men’s singles at the French Open has increased from 25.20 years in 2003 to 26.78 years this year.

What is remarkable is how steady the rise has been: The average age of the top 100 has increased every year without fail for the last decade.

At the moment, there is not one teenager in the top 100. The three who made it into the 128-player draw did so through wild cards or qualifying.

“I see two reasons for all this,” said Fabrice Santoro, the retired French player who had plenty of tour success as a teenager. “The first reason is that the average level of play is higher now than ever and so for a young guy to get ranked 150 or 200 is harder than before.”

But Santoro says the principal reason is that today the physical level of the top players is so high, it is a level that is beyond most 19-year-olds. “You have to work for this kind of level for years,” he said, "and in my view you can’t come into a Grand Slam at that age and beat David Ferrer the Wednesday in the quarters, Rafa Nadal in the semis on the Friday and Novak Djokovic on the Sunday.

“You’re dead if you do that, just dead,” Santoro said, dragging out the final “d” for emphasis. “Even to win one of those matches is a colossal effort.”

Patrice Dominguez, the former national technical director for the French Tennis Federation, said in the 2000s when the French analysed player development, their conclusion was that anyone who was not in the top 100 by age 20 would have no chance to make the top 10.

“We did the research; there wasn’t anyone, it did not exist,” Dominguez said. “Now I really believe that is no longer true. Players are coming to the fore later, at 23 or 24.”
One suspects that the push to increase rewards for rank-and-file players, which has resulted in all four of the Grand Slam tournaments dramatically increasing prize money for early-round losers, will only increase career lengths for veteran players who might not once have seen the economic sense in continuing.

 “You can play longer,” Dominguez said. “But there is also the injury issue. You are injured for 2-1/2 years out of 10 years in tennis.”

But that extra money also pays for what once was only available to the stars: fitness trainers, physiotherapists, sophisticated medical advice. That world has already been democratised even if no one outside the top 10 can match the means of Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray when it comes to a support structure.
The barriers to youth do not exist to the same degree in the women’s game, where there were 15 teenagers in the French Open singles draw, including the 16-year-old Donna Vekic of Croatia and 17-year-old Ash Barty of Australia. But the only teen into the third round as of Thursday afternoon was Monica Puig, a 19-year-old from Puerto Rico.

 But the average age of the women has been moving steadily upward as well. According to Kevin Fischer of the WTA, the average age of French Open singles players has rising by about one year per decade since 1993. The average was 22.56 years in 1993; 23.3 years in 2003 and 24.54 in 2013.

That is still more than two years younger than the men.

“All we have to do is say that the teens can’t do it, and there will be a new Wilander or Chang or Nadal who will come and win something at 17 or 18,” Dominguez said with a laugh.

"But overall there’s no question it’s much more difficult. The process of developing mentally and physically and psychologically is more complicated.

“But what I don’t think is a big problem is the technical side. You can have the technique you need to win a Grand Slam at that age.”

 Jim Courier, a French Open champion at age 20 in 1991, believes that the trend is clear but that the possibility for teenaged exceptions remains.
“I have no doubt it will happen again,” Courier said, “when a very special player comes along.”

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