The Age of Peak Performance in Tennis

The Age of Peak Performance in Tennis
by Ryan M. Rodenberg

The vast majority of college tennis players are 18 to 22 years of age. However, there have been notable outliers. Earlier this decade, current ATP World Tour player Travis Rettenmaier competed for the UCLA Bruins as a 16-year-old freshman. On the other end of the spectrum, there are numerous examples of players in their mid-twenties who competed in college tennis after brief stints playing professionally. Given the wide range of ages found in both college tennis and the professional tours, I decided to inquire if there is any consensus as to what the peak age of performance is in our sport. My findings were interesting, but non-conclusive.

In a non-tennis study that differentiated athletes depending on the sport-specific skills used, Bradbury (2009) found that “the evidence indicates that athletes peak in their mid-to-late twenties” (p. 2). Bradbury’s finding was not surprising. Schulz and Curnow (1988) were more specific. Using various performance records, they pinpointed the most likely age at which athletes achieve peak performance in a variety of sports. For men, Schulz and Curnow found the peak performance age to be: (i) 22 for sprints (100 and 200 meters); (ii) 24 for middle distances (800 meters and mile); (iii) 27 for long distances (5000 meters to marathon); (iv) 28 for baseball; (v) 24 for tennis; and (vi) 31 for golf. For women, the authors concluded that “the age of peak performance is consistently younger than that of men” but did not provide any details (p. 116). Schulz and Curnow opined that their findings are “consistent with the idea that for tasks requiring complex cognitive skills [such as tennis and golf], it may be possible to lower the age of peak performance through improved skill acquisition strategies” (p. 120).

Peak performance and age research focused specifically on tennis is slight. Without citing any authority, Coyle (2007) opined that “in tennis, girls peak physically at around 17, so they ought to start [training] by 7; boys peak later, so 9 is O.K.” Galenson (1993) investigated male American tennis players. Citing teenage wins by Boris Becker at Wimbledon in 1985, Michael Chang at Roland Garros in 1989, and Pete Sampras at the U.S. Open in 1990, Galenson concluded that there are:

intriguing questions concerning possible changes in the relationship between age and performance in competitive tennis. Specifically, the economic and technological innovations of the past three decades may have resulted in changes in playing techniques and training methods that have lowered the optimum age of tennis players. Thus, the lure of large financial rewards appears to have led to intensive coaching of more players at younger ages, which may lead to earlier success than in the past, and the greater speed of the game associated with the new rackets may have shirted the competitive advantage to faster, younger players (p. 128).

Galenson noted that the average age of the top five ranked American male players in 1987 (27.6) declined sharply to 20.2 in 1991, causing him to postulate that “recent years have seen the establishment of a new relationship, in which the very best players tend to be younger than the rest of those ranked” (p. 133). In explaining the relative absence of ranked players over the age of 30, Galenson posited that it is not evidence of “a decreased ability to compete, but rather of a decreased desire to play: wealthier players can now afford to retire at younger ages” (p. 135-136).

The non-continuous nature of some tennis players’ careers, presents a challenge in attempting to pinpoint the age of peak performance in tennis. For example, in writing about Jelena Dokic’s return, at age 29, to elite-level tennis at the 2009 Australian Open, Wertheim (2009) anecdotally observed a twist to the generally understood career track in tennis:

While Dokic’s circumstances are extreme, the trajectory of her career is not. As tennis becomes ever more taxing, both physically and emotionally, the sabbatical is almost de rigueur. If the typical career arc once resembled a parabola, it now resembles an M, as players rise, crash, heal, and stage spirited returns. Few stars can survive without interruption – take Maria Sharapova, whose bum right shoulder has kept her from playing for six months – but they eventually reappear, adding a few years to their careers on the back end.

In a future column, I will provide a modern update to the research of Schulz and Curnow. In the interim, I would be curious what your thoughts are regarding the age of peak performance for both genders. Feel free to send me a message at the email address below.

References

Bradbury, J.C. (2009). Peak athletic performance and ageing: Evidence from baseball.

Forthcoming in Journal of Sports Sciences.

Coyle, D. (2007, March 7). How to grow a super-athlete. The New York Times. Retrieved March

27, 2009 from

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/04/sports/playmagazine/04play-talent.html

Galenson, D.W. (1993). The impact of economic and technical change on the careers of

American men tennis players, 1960-1991. Journal of Sport History, 20(2), 127-150.

Schulz, R. & Curnow, C. (1988). Peak performance and age among superathletes: Track and

field, swimming, baseball, tennis, and golf. Journal of Gerontology, 43(5), 113-120.

Werthem, L.J. (2009, February 2). Return game. Sports Illustrated, 71.

Ryan M. Rodenberg teaches sports law at Indiana University-Bloomington and is the volunteer assistant women’s tennis coach for the Hoosiers. He can be reached at rmrodenb@indiana.e
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