On Federer, and the Expectations of Aging

Posted by Brodie under: Australian Open, Federror

25 Jan 2014

Roger Federer Australian Open Nadal

Tennis hasn’t always been played this way.

The history of the sport of tennis is typically divided into two eras with the dawn of “The Open Era”, a sort of Anno Domini that began when Roland Garros became the first tournament to open its doors to professionals in 1968. However, the game that was played in 1968 hardly resembles the game that is played today.

We all know that the change from wooden racquets to modern technology in the 1980s had an incredible impact on the sport – perhaps an impact leading to the most significant change of any widely played modern sport. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that the ancient method of serving and volleying, a tactic that had brought so many so much success, was beginning to be viewed as an outdated strategy to win matches at the highest level of the sport.

This wasn’t just down to the new racquet technology. Yes, players were getting better at dismantling and expecting serving and volleying when returning, such as Marat Safin’s rout of Pete Sampras in the 2000 US Open final. But they were also starting to find more success by staying at the back of the court when serving. This has little to do with a purposeful tactical shift and everything to do with the increased strength, speed and stamina of players in the modern sporting age. Simply put, tennis players weren’t just great tennis players anymore – they were also elite athletes.

Perhaps the best example comes from Andre Agassi’s book “Open”, where he recounts his wild drop in ranking and success. Agassi wasn’t playing well, but above all else, wasn’t fit enough. His rise from the embers of the Challenger circuit were widely down to the success of his trainer Gil Reyes who had Agassi completing vigourous workouts specifically designed for tennis players, eating properly, and hydrating properly on court with something that Agassi affectionately called “Gil Juice”.

Today, the practices that Reyes employed are a given for all players (and still employed with the Adidas team). However, at the time, they were seen as progressive and even revolutionary. That was less than 20 years ago.

Today there can be no doubt that the top tennis players are among the upper tiers of the world’s best athletes.

In 2013, Roger Federer had his worst year since 2002. Was it the back? Was it the racquet? Could he find a way to play more aggressively? Could he improve his serve? People wanted answers. After his defeat of Andy Murray at this year’s 2014 Australian Open, the narrative was simple – the aggressive play we come to expect from Federer was back. Federer was back to his old self. Before his semifinal match against Nadal, commentator Nick Lester, while also stating Nadal’s blister and perceived lack of freshness, went as far to say “the way Federer has played here… I think he has a real shot here. If I was putting my money down, I’d be looking at Federer in 3 of 4 sets.” Federer was then dismissed with ease as Nadal won in straight sets.

We know that sports science has pushed the athletic heights of tennis into the stratosphere. Despite all of this, there has been little talk about perhaps the most obvious and least sexy topics when it comes to Federer: he’s getting older. So what can we learn from other major sports when it comes to aging and decline?

In my eye, tennis has the most in common with soccer and baseball when it comes to physical execution. You don’t have to know anything about either of these sports to be able to glean some knowledge from them and apply it to tennis.

What Can Tennis Learn From Baseball?

On the surface, baseball has very little in common with tennis. While it is a no contact sport, hitters simply stand in one place and there is zero footwork involved with hitting the ball.

However, what baseball hitters have in common with tennis players is timing. If a baseball player can hit the ball into play and successfully reach base 3 out of 10 times in Major League Baseball, they will be paid millions of dollars to do so. Hitting a 90mph baseball with a wooden bat isn’t easy.

Neither is hitting a 130mph tennis ball with a tennis racquet. It’s no coincidence that players able to hit some of the best returns are also some of the best players in the world. Tennis is a game of footwork, but the acting of returning a serve has much more to do with timing than footwork.

Minute, split second differences can make all the difference in both sports.

The great thing about baseball is that advanced statistic recording allows us to analyze production and age on a macro level. Let’s take a look at a couple of graphs. You don’t need to know anything about baseball to be able to learn from this. (All graphs courtesy of FanGraphs.)

This graph look at the most macro hitting stat (weighted Runs Created +) which attempts to rank your overall success at hitting into one lump stat. The higher it is, the better of a hitter you are. This graph shows us the curve of success we can expect from a hitter according to their age. In baseball, it has long been assumed that players tend not to come into their own until around 24 or 25, and usually hit their peak in their late 20s.

This graph supports that claim. It also illustrates the rapid decrease in hitting ability beyond the age of 30.

This second graph shows us the curve of strikeouts according to age, typically a good indicator of a hitter’s timing, particularly when recorded from such a large sample. (Remember that this is a percentage change from year to year, not a total number.) We can see from this that hitters find their timing largely improve towards age 24 or 25, and then decline from there, as well as rapidly deteriorating beyond the ages of 30.

This graph can teach us a couple of things. While strikeouts in baseball have increased about 3% since 2006 (the post-steroid era), this doesn’t necessarily explain the change in the curve, which is based off percentages change in the average player’s career. The argument on FanGraphs is that players are now entering the major leagues as fully formed players in their early 20s in ways in which they never were, hence the difference in curve.

Finally, a look at power numbers (the ability to hit home runs and extra base hits, highly correlated to strength) shows a similar trend.

I would argue that the same argument cannot be made of tennis players – they aren’t hitting their peak levels of strength in their early 20s in the ways that baseball players are beginning to do. It was widely assumed in the 1998-2005 period that baseball players would work on their power hitting and strength as they entered the major leagues in their early 20s. The curve for the correlating years shows us that players tend to hit their peak in strength around ages 24 or 25, gradually decline as they age. I would argue that the physical development of men’s tennis players is very similar to the 1998-2005 period of baseball, and that we can see that reflected in what is beginning to be a lack of success from players under the age of 24.

Once again, the rate of decline increases drastically beyond the age of 30.

What Can Tennis Learn From Soccer?

The physical stamina required from soccer is immense, and is certainly similar to that of tennis. It requires both stamina over large periods of time (45 minute halves) as well as speed in short bursts. As you are playing the ball with your feet, maintaining good stamina is key. Soccer is both an incredibly complex as well as technical sport. Many players enter top leagues as excellent athletes, but take time to learn how to play at the highest level. Likewise, players tend to develop their technical ability into their 20s.

What can elite soccer teach us? Let’s say that the position closely resembling tennis would be a central midfielder. These players largely take the most touches, make the most passes and run the farthest out of any of the 11 players on their team. Soccer players, and particularly midfielders, tend to peak for a 5 year period typically in the ages between 24-31. As their technical ability and knowledge of the game evolves, they become more comfortable on the ball as well as making key, decisive passes.

I would argue that the development of technical skills as well as the ability to consistently make excellent decisions and patterns of play largely mirrors the development of elite tennis players on the ATP. As midfielders age into their 30s their technical ability and ability to make excellent passes doesn’t always decrease, but they tend to need more time on the ball as they simply can not move and execute at the same speed they once did, and thus tend to stay much deeper on the pitch. While tennis players can make tactical changes as they age, there isn’t much they can do to try to afford themselves more time on the ball.

What Can We Conclude?

As elite level tennis players are now elite level athletes, we should expect them to age in a way that mirrors sports involving similar skill sets. Baseball overwhelmingly shows us that players who are still developing physically into their 20s are likely to see their peak years of both power and precise timing between the ages of 24-29. It also shows us that the decline beyond the age of 30 can be much more drastic than the rate of improvement early in careers. Likewise, soccer can teach us that it takes time for elite players to develop a consistent technical ability as well as knowledge of the game that sees them peaking in similar ages.

Ultimately, every athlete must see a decline in their abilities. The decline of baseball hitters does not necessarily mean that they stop being successful hitter. A 35 home run hitter at age 28 may become a 25 home run hitter at age 32 – still very impressive. I would argue that the rate of decline for Roger Federer is beginning to mirror that of baseball hitters in that the decline goes from gradual to drastic much more quickly. Federer will still be able to hit incredible shots, control rallies, and hit tons of winners. However, the timing on his return has declined rapidly, as seen in his Australian Open semifinal versus Nadal. Likewise, he is making many more poor errors as well as shanks.

In conclusion, Roger Federer may very well to continue to be an excellent, top 8 player for several years. Unfortunately, his increase in poor unforced errors and his deteriorating returning ability directly follow the paths of aging that we can expect from athletes in similar sports.

No one will deny that Roger Federer has been able to hit shots that we’ve never seen any human hit, but we should all stop denying what Roger Federer is doing along with all other humans – aging.

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