Maybe, Finally, The Next Generation is Here

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Tennis News / General Sport News 156 Views

Alexander Zverev is winning Masters titles. Stefanos Tsitsipas is beating top ten players. Denis Shapovalov, Frances Tiafoe, and even Alex De Minaur are making life more difficult for ATP veterans.

For most of the last decade, the story of men’s tennis has been the degree to which the game is getting older. Even now, thirty-somethings hold half of the places in the top ten. Wave after wave of hyped prospects have failed to take over the sport, settling in for a long fight to the top.  On Monday, Juan Martin del Potro, once hailed as the man who would topple the Big Four, will reach a new career-best ranking of No. 3 … six weeks away from his 30th birthday.

At last, though, men’s tennis appears to be getting younger. Teenagers Shapovalov, Tiafoe, and De Minaur are rising just as some of the game’s crustiest vets are on their way out: 36-year-olds David Ferrer and Julien Benneteau are calling it quits this year, tumbling in the rankings alongside the likes of Feliciano Lopez and Ivo Karlovic.

The result is that the average age of the ATP top 50 is falling–something it hasn’t done for a really, really long time. The following graph shows the average age of the top 50 at the end of every season since 1983, plus–the rightmost data point–the mean age of the current top 50:

At the end of 2017, the average age was 29.0 years; it has since fallen to 27.75. That’s bigger than any single-year swing (up or down) in the last 35 years. As the graph shows, there were plenty of “down” years in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but none of them had even half the magnitude of the current drop.

There’s still an enormous gap between the current state of affairs and the days when men’s tennis was young. If we expand our view to the top 100, this year’s shift is less dramatic–with Ferrer, Benneteau, Lopez and others ranked between 51 and 100, that average still sits at 28.1 years, only about seven months younger than the corresponding number at the end of last season. But even that weaker evidence of a youth movement points in the same direction: 28.1 years is the youngest the top 100 has been since 2012.

Barring fundamental changes in rules or equipment, we’re unlikely to return to the teenage-driven game of the early 1990s. But after a decade of waiting, watching, and wondering, we can see some cracks in the greatest generation of men’s tennis. And finally, there’s a group of young players ready to take advantage.

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