The year is 2001. Pete Sampras, 29, is chasing a record eighth Wimbledon title. He faces a pony-tailed teenager in the fourth round. After three intense hours, the Swiss player drops to his knees and sheds tears of joy.
Despite Roger Federer’s eventual exit from the tournament, the moment is widely regarded as an inflection point, a passing-the-baton moment. This isn’t new to tennis. Grand Slam history is dotted with such moments.
Except, it seems to have stopped on the men’s side — Federer and his great rival Rafael Nadal have combined to win the last five Majors.
The story is similar, though relatively less stark, on the women’s side, with Serena Williams pushing the limits at 35 and winning the Australian Open in 2017.
Is this new to tennis? We attempt to find out.
To get a sense of the relationship between success and a player’s age, we begin by plotting the average age of Major champions — since the 1877 Wimbledon event for men and the 1884 Wimbledon tournament for women.
The age curve has trended upwards since 2012, above the historical mean of 25 years and three months. The steep climb since 2016 has no precedent in men’s tennis.
- 1908 – The triumphs of 40-year-old Arthur Gore (Wimbledon) and 35-year-old William Larned (US Championships) make it the year with the highest average age (34 years, 4 months).
- 1938 – Don Budge wins the first-ever calendar year Grand Slam (all four Major titles). At 23, he is the youngest man to achieve the feat.
- 1962 – Rod Laver claims his first calendar year Grand Slam, celebrating his 24th birthday before collecting the US Open.
- 1969 – Laver completes his second calendar year Grand Slam at the age of 31.
- 1974 – Jimmy Connors’ breakthrough year. He turns 22 during his US Open triumph, his third Major win in the year. An 18-year-old Bjorn Borg wins the French Open.
- 1985 – Becker wins Wimbledon at 17 years, 227 days — he is, at this time, the youngest-ever Major champion.
- 1989 – Michael Chang triumphs at Roland Garros at the age of 17 years, 110 days, breaking Becker’s record.
- 2016-18 – Stan Wawrinka (31), Roger Federer (35-36) and Rafael Nadal (31) combine for a streak of 6 straight Slams between the 2016 US Open and 2018 Australian Open.
Average age of Grand Slam champions — women 2015 was only the third time in the history of the women’s game that the average champion’s age breached 30. And only once, in 1908, has it been higher.
- 1887 – Lottie Dod wins Wimbledon at 15 years, 285 days, a record that still stands.
- 1908 – 37-year-old Charlotte Cooper Sterry (Wimbledon) and 38-year-old Maud Barger-Wallach (US Championships) make it the year with the highest average age (37 years).
- 1953 – 18-year-old Maureen Connolly claims all four Majors, becoming the first woman to win the calendar year Grand Slam.
- 1970 – Margaret Court, 28, completes the calendar year Grand Slam.
- 1988 – Steffi Graf collects all four Majors in the year she turns 19. This is the sixth and most recent instance of the calendar year Grand Slam (men & women).
- 1997 – Martina Hingis wins three of the four Slams at 16.
- 2015 – Champions Serena Williams (three Slams) and Flavia Pennetta are both 33.
Both graphs suggest that champions are getting older. Additionally, the average-age data of the last 30 years can be sectioned into two distinct time-periods:
Between 1988 and 2005, the men’s game favoured the young, the average age of winners just 23 years, 10 months. But between 2006 and 2018, it was pushed up to 26 years, 9 months — a near three-year hike. This was largely due to the Federer-Nadal- Djokovic- Murray-Wawrinka quintet winning 43 of 45 Majors since 2007, incrementally upping the average age
Between 1988 and 2005, the women’s game favoured the young as well, the average age of winners 21 years, 3 months. But between 2006 and 2018, this increased to 27 years, 1 month —a five-and-a-half-year hike. This was despite Serena’s break from the game to give birth and 20-year-old Jelena Ostapenko winning Roland Garros 2017, both of which brought the average age down over the last year
The 30-and-over equation
Tracking the average age of champions captures the broad sweep of tennis history, but the relationship between success and a player’s age requires deeper examination.
One way to do that is to measure the success of players over 30. How many unique winners of Slams each decade were aged 30 or older? And how many Majors did they win?
The men’s game had the fewest unique 30-plus winners and Slam wins in the 1980s and 90s. It picked up slightly in the 2000s before the 2010s high-water mark: the 8 Majors claimed (Federer, Nadal, Wawrinka) are the joint most in history.
|Number of Majors||Number of unique winners over 30||Majors won by unique winners over 30|
In the 2000s, the women’s game had no unique winners aged 30 or more! In the 2010s, on the other hand, there were three (Serena, Li Na, Flavia Pennetta), their 12 shared Slams the most in history.
|Decade||Number of Majors||Number of unique winners over 30||Majors won by unique winners over 30|
A little about breakthroughs
Another gauge of the success-age relationship is the timing of breakthroughs — when a player wins his or her first Major. The following graphs present a decadal breakdown of the ages at which breakthrough wins occurred.
The generational change in the men’s game has come to a shuddering halt. In the 2010s, there were just 3 breakthroughs, the lowest in history. What’s more, none of these were achieved by players 21 and under. The 2000s, in comparison, had seven 21-and-under breakthroughs. Every preceding full decade had at least one
There were two under-21 breakthroughs in the women’s game in the 2010s — the lowest since the 1940s, which were curtailed by the World War. And one (Ostapenko) came in Serena’s absence; the other was Petra Kvitova at Wimbledon 2011
How well have tennis’ finest champions endured? And how do Serena, Federer and Nadal compare with the greats of other eras?
After first winning at 21, Federer has continued his run till 36 despite hiccups in the middle. Federer’s winning span of 15 years is surpassed only by Ken Rosewall’s 19 years. The Aussie, who broke through in 1953 at 18, returned in the Open Era (post-1968) to claim the Australian Open, his eighth Slam, in 1972. Nadal (nearly 13 years) and Sampras (12) deserve mention, but the latter won only one Major after he turned 30.
(Note: Size of circle denotes number of Grand Slams won. Click here to explore the interactives for men and women )
In women’s tennis, Serena’s Major-winning span is 17-plus years. Only four others — Margaret Court (13 years), Chris Evert, Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova (12 each) — come close. But Serena blows the competition out of the water when you consider that 10 of her 23 Majors have been won after her 30th birthday!
The last few years have comprised a singular period in tennis history. What Serena and Federer — and Nadal, to a marginally lesser degree since he is younger — have achieved is truly remarkable. They’ve returned from breaks, injury-enforced or otherwise, to play at an incredibly high level, well into their 30s. This has made it difficult for the next generation, especially in the men’s game. There have been fewer breakthroughs. And even those breakthroughs have come at more advanced ages. Perhaps 30 is the new 25.