Commentary

Thirty no longer a death sentence

Updated: August 28, 2012, 7:28 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Andy Roddick, the hard-serving kid from Nebraska who won this U.S. Open nine years ago, turns 30 on Thursday.

Asked in an on-court interview after Tuesday's first-round victory what he wanted for his birthday, Roddick answered, "I just want to be around until the next week. Then we'll renegotiate."

For so long -- even in non-tennis circles -- 30 was a daunting line of demarcation. Well, good news, tennis fans: Three decades is no longer a death sentence.

In fact, 30 is the new 25.

• The No. 1 men's seed, Roger Federer, is 31 years old. His six titles lead all players this year; 11 titles have gone to 30-and-over players. Last year the number was five. The favorite among women, Serena Williams, was born less than two months later than the Swiss champion.

• At this year's French Open, 37 players in the men's draw were 30 years or older, the most in Open era history. A decade ago the number was 11. And there was quality in that quantity: Eight of the 32 seeds were 30-somethings. Each of this year's Grand Slams set a record for most 30-and-over players. On the women's side, 15 30-somethings at Roland Garros set an Open era record. Then there were 16 at Wimbledon.

[+] EnlargeRoger Federer
Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/GettyImagesRoger Federer, you could say, is playing with more youthful legs than he has in years.

• American Michael Russell, 34, pushed Gilles Simon, the No. 16 seed, to five sets late Monday night. Bob and Mike Bryan, the Olympic doubles gold medalists, are also 34. So is Tommy Haas, who beat Federer in the final at Halle, Germany, and has won 12 of his past 16 matches. Haas, currently ranked No. 21, was a top-10 player for the first time 13 years ago.

"Seeing how well Tommy Haas is playing, how many of my generation are still playing and playing well, it's nice to really see," Federer said. "I think it's really good times in tennis. But I do hope we get even some more better juniors coming through in the next couple of years."

Federer is trying to finish the season as the oldest No. 1-ranked player in the ATP World Tour since the current system was instituted in 1973.

The graying of professional tennis has accelerated dramatically in recent years. The numbers are remarkable:

• The average age of the current top 10 in men's tennis is 27.0. A decade ago, it was 24.6; 20 years ago it was 23.2. Ten years ago, four still-active players -- Federer, Lleyton Hewitt, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Roddick -- were already in the top 10.

• Today's top 10 women average 25.1 years in age. That's up from 22.0 in 2002 and a wet-behind-the-ears 21.7 in 1992. A decade ago, Serena and Venus Williams, Kim Clijsters and Daniela Hantuchova were all in the top 10 -- and today they're all still playing good tennis.

• The youngest top-10 players today are Caroline Wozniacki and Petra Kvitova, who are both 22. Twenty years ago, there were four teenagers in the top 10: Monica Seles, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, Jennifer Capriati and Magdalena Maleeva.

"And today," said U.S. women's Olympic coach Mary Joe Fernandez, who was ranked No. 6 at the age of 21 at the time, "there are four teenagers in the top 100."

Fernandez, also an ESPN analyst, thinks the WTA's aggressive eligibility restrictions are one reason it's harder for young players to break in.

"As much as I agree with the principles involved -- let's not burn out our young players -- some girls are ready to play right away," Fernandez said. "When they have limited opportunities early on, they press more and it's hard to improve your ranking."

This isn't a trend exclusive to tennis. It's a fact of life: People are living longer. Senior citizens are a powerful lobbying group; nursing home stock is soaring. Baby Boomers worry about taking care of their aging parents -- and making enough money to sustain a successful retirement.

Just as many of us will work five, 10 years longer than our parents, tennis players are just trying to hedge against the future.

"All of us feel like we're seeing more physicality in the game," said Jim Courier, who was ranked No. 1 at the age of 22 some 20 years ago. "It's far more demanding than it was when I played. As a result, it's harder for younger players to come through.

"I'm looking forward to your piece because I hope someone comes up with a better answer than me."

There are more incentives to play longer these days. In a word, money.

"This is what I do best," said gifted doubles player Daniel Nestor, who turns 40 next week. "I'm going to try and do it as long as I can. This [financially] is as good as it's going to get.

"You see a lot of players leave the game too early, and then they come back six months later. I think [money] is a big factor in this."

A better understanding of the importance of fitness and nutrition also helps players to last longer. Advances in kinesiology -- suddenly, the blue and black trainers tape is ubiquitous -- internal medicine and surgical procedures have made it easier to play into the 30s.

"I think you have to be a fully grown human to deal with kind of the ins and outs of the physical grind," Roddick said. "I think that's probably why you're seeing what you see now. I mean, you have to kind of be able to kind of take a beating week in and week out.

"It's not as much about shot-making now as it is about movement and that sort of thing."

Everyone concedes the game today is more physically demanding, which would seem to make it harder for old folks to succeed. Truth is, in response to those demands, the top players have by a broad consensus worked harder than previous generations to become fitter and stronger than ever. Federer, for example, sometimes employs as many as three top-level hitting partners -- for a single session.

Although Courier acknowledges these factors, he believes that the greatest advances have come in the area of recovery.

"The players go to the icepacks more, oxygen tents, they hire their own physios," the U.S. Davis Cup captain said. "They have teams now that watch after them.

"With more dollars among players at the top, comes more sophistication."

In many sports, 30 is considered the peak of an athlete's physical powers. It may not be the case in tennis, but players certainly have been able to extend their range. Bjorn Borg famously left tennis at the age of 25 -- after making six straight major finals in his last six appearances.

Today, the only guy in the top 10 younger than 25 is Juan Martin del Potro, who is 24.

James Blake, who turns 33 in December, said he hopes his surgically repaired right knee will allow him to play a few more years.

"I'm getting the old jokes, the grandpa jokes," he said, "and I'm OK with that. I deserve it, because if I dish it out, I've got to be able to take it."

Ten years ago, Nestor and Mark Knowles finished as the No. 1 doubles team. Today, Knowles is still playing -- and coaching Mardy Fish, who turns 31 in December.

"He's like 20 years older than me," Fish explained. "Just kidding."

After winning Roland Garros with doubles partner Max Mirnyi, Nestor is again ranked No. 1. Earlier this season, doubles specialist Lisa Raymond became the oldest No. 1-ranked player in WTA history.

"Doubles is a lot less strenuous than singles," Nestor said, "but for sure there are days when you feel your age. I think in doubles it's almost more of a mental thing."

Nestor's success, according to the Bryan brothers, is one reason they think they can play through the Rio Olympics in 2016.

"Yes," Nestor said, "you see guys in other sports playing into their 40s. Why not tennis?"

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.