French Open: Getting better with Age

French Open: Getting better with Age
Novak Djokovic (32), Roger Federer (37) and Rafael Nadal (33) are currently ranked numbers 1, 3 and 2 in the world respectively.  

Tennis. The young man’s game.

Or at least that’s how it has always been known.

But a peek this year’s French Open men’s draw reveals nine out of the last 16 to be aged at least 30, with another two (Kei Nishikori and Jan-Lennard Struff) at 29.

That makes it one of the most mature lineups I’ve seen in a sport where the top stars peak in their early to mid-twenties.

Has tennis seen a shift towards older champions? Well, the most telling stat is the ATP rankings. Last year saw the most players aged 30 and over ending the year ranked in the Top 10 – Seven.

And since 1975, there has not been more than two players over 29 that have ended the year in the Top 10.

At this year’s French Open, Kei Nishikori, aged 29, lasted two consecutive five set matches only to lose to another ‘oldie’, Rafael Nadal, in the quarter finals. The Spaniard, incidentally, faces off Federer in the final four.

So how then, are the older players still playing at the top level? Better nutrition? Possibly, but it can’t be the only reason. Improvements in sport science? Certainly. But very likely only the top players in the game can afford to buy the expertise that can provide state-of-the-art training and recovery techniques.

What then, is the one common denominator that all the players share?

I would think, in my humble 35 years of tennis experience, that it would be racket technology.

Let me explain.

Back when I picked up my first tennis racket in 1984, it was one of my father’s old wooden one that he had sawn off at the handle. I later found out it was because my Dad had broken the racket off an overhead—that’s right, rackets could and would break in those days.

They were cumbersome and would warp if you didn’t clamp the frame, especially if you left them in the car under the hot sun. Racket heads were small and sweet spots were just that – they were no bigger than your fist.

Wooden rackets dot the history of the game but became obselete in the 80s as they gave way to metal, and then graphite types.

When the late 80s and early 90s came along, so did the graphite frames: wide-bodied, lighter, and with much more forgiving sweet spots. They were more powerful while allowing more control.

Rackets would then continue to improve over the next 30 years—something I learned the hard way when I finally switched my 12-year-old Wilson K Factor KSix-One 95 X for a brand new model, the Wilson Blade 98. Let’s just say I rolled back the years that first night I took to the court.

But it would only last the next week or two.

The Wilson K Factor K Six-One 95 was a great all-round racket in its time.

I got hurt. My shoulder and elbow started to protest with every shot. My string tension, as my brother and father would tell me (they are teaching pros, so they would know) was way too high. How was 53 pounds too high? Was I getting that old?

A modern day weapon, the Wilson Blade 98.

As it turned out, while racket technology was improving, so was string technology. The combination of the two meant that ideal string tensions could be lower without compromising on control.

Up until about 2010, if you were a competitive player, you would want your racket strung tight because you could generate power, letting your strings do the work when it came to spin and direction. Looser strings meant more power due to a “trampoline effect” (which you did not need), while sacrificing spin and therefore control.

For example, the Great Swede, Bjorn Borg, was well-known for stringing his rackets at 70 pounds. Pete Sampras was known to prefer the 75-85 pound range. Andy Roddick was meek by comparison, usually stringing his rackets at the 60-plus pound range.

Enter the current generation of oldies. Roger Federer’s current preferred tension is around 47 pounds. Rafael Nadal is even more astonishing, going as low as 45 pounds. Novak Djokovic is the highest of the three, but even then, he only hits the mid to high 50s.

Mantis Tour Polyester String is a durable co-polyester monofilament string.

So I did what the pros did (as one does when looking to improve one’s game), dropping my own racket tension to 45 pounds. My shoulder and elbow have never been happier, while I have been able to maintain control of my shots and actually increasing power on the ball.

I have to be honest, when I was younger, I always thought that my level of play would definitely drop off as I got older. And while this has proven true (especially when it comes to footspeed and stamina—but this is probably due to the lack of any training whatsoever), in many aspects I have been able to maintain a semblance of skill. And I really believe this is due to advancements in racket and string technology.

Again, I would look to the pros. They do what we mere mortals can do but on the level of gods. So if I can be 40-years-old and still feel great about my game, then it would seem that the pros playing at the top level well into their 30s would not be a problem at all.

The best part is us regular Joes get to sit back, relax and completely take in this super generation of tennis stars. We’ve had almost 15 years of Federer-Nadal-Djokovic—I wouldn’t complain if we had another 5 to 10 years more.

*At press time, Rafael Nadal outlasted Roger Federer in straight sets to reach his 12th French Open Final. With 11 titles won, he has never lost a single one. 

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