Mailbag: Tennis Is Aging; Has Grunting Gone Too Far?

Players are winning Grand Slams well into their 30's, meanwhile fewer teenagers are making deep runs at Slams. Why is this?
Publish date:

I’m on vacation this week so a petit-sized bag. Quick note: This week’s podcast will feature Kelsey Anderson—Kevin’s wife—a week after an unforgettable Wimbledon.


Why are player like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic so successful in their 30's, yet greats like Peter Sampras & Andre Agassi tailed off significantly once turning the big 3-0? And why are the young guys not breaking through like Boris Becker and Nadal did as teenagers?

• Writing this on the day Roger Federer withdraws from the Rogers Cup, this is as good a time as any to address the aging of the field. We joke about this topic. Remember when the cut-off for the Legends tour was age 35? Remember when players peaked at 25? Now, they play Bing Crosby in the player’s lounge and cut food into bite-sizes in the player’s cafeteria.

Seriously, this is a critical, transformative trend in tennis right now. When your career can span 20 years rather than 10, you approach the work—and the decision to enter the field—much differently. What accounts for this?

“The sports has gotten so physical,” is the top-line answer. The idea of teenagers—lacking in durability and leg strength—winning Slams is absurd. The tennis plutonium that is polyester string plays a big role here, prolonging points and enabling (encouraging?) players to take big cuts at every ball. Look at Pete Sampras at age 19 when he won the U.S. Open. Imagine that physique in a best-of-five battle of attrition with the men of today. (Likewise, Tracy Austin weighed less than 100 lbs. when she won the U.S. Open in the early 80s.) This is to detriment of the young, but benefit of the mature. 

Why else has the field aged? Players can pick their schedules and make adjustments to the unsustainable tennis calendar, as Federer and Serena rightly do. Taking off blocks of time—whether to recuperate from injury or recharge mentally—is no longer taboo. As rational actors, players weigh risks and rewards, all in service of maximizing value. If playing Davis Cup, for instance, is going to take mileage off my tires, maybe I only play once every three years.

Mailbag: Wrapping Up Wimbledon, and the Case For a Fifth-Set Tiebreak at 12-12 in the Slams

Related to that…gauche as it is to go here, I think a huge factor, though, is….money. Players today have unprecedented levels of disposable income. They can use this for the equivalent of R/D. The stars can fly privately and hire nutritionists and full-time, traveling physios. The journeyfolk can upgrade to business and take full-time coaches on the road with them. There is also economic incentive to continue playing. If I’m say, Sam Stosur or Feliciano Lopez and can make well into six figures deep into my 30s, why stop?

All of this is healthy. All of this is progress. Players of yesterday marvel at the wealth. “We used to share station wagons to get from tournament to tournament,” they reminisce. It’s remarkable that these Barnstormers were able to play so well under such adverse circumstances. Players today owe them a debt. But if Roger Federer and Rafa were sharing station wagons and barely earning a subsistence level income, we wouldn’t have progressed much.

An earmark of an evolved society is prolonged—and increasing—life expectancy. When players peak later but compete into their late 30s, it speaks well of the tennis society.

If players were so concerned about their health, you know what they could try doing? Breaking serve. Why doesn't anyone ever take John Isner to task for not being (or becoming) good enough to do that? Tennis was not invented with a tiebreak for any set, and the players should count themselves lucky that it's used at all. Yes, you can already theoretically win without actually breaking your opponent, but at least the onus is on the men to make sure that they get it done in four sets or fewer. By the fifth, they shouldn't be let off the hook anymore. By the way, last time I checked, the rules still allow points to be won with as few as one shot. Maybe the players should rediscover a more Edbergian and less Nadalian approach to the game.
Sean, San Diego

• I’m not sure what Edbergian and Nadalian means here, but that’s a fair point. If you want the match to end, break serve. And if you can't break serve, why do you deserve a bail out? I don't dismiss this, but two huge factors here: 1) There’s something sadistic about failing to give athletes a clear finish line. Again, I bring up the social science that shows again and again that people need a task terminus. 2) Consider the impact of these epic matches on the rest of the field and the schedule. If we’re just punishing the players who can't break serve, fine. But these epic matches impact so many more players. At Wimbledon 2018, the women’s singles final did not start at a fixed time. Why? Because Anderson-Isner bumped the Friday men’s semi, which needed to be finished Saturday before the women’s final. 

Dear Jon,

Here is a fun statistical comparison:

Player A: 6 GS titles, 19 GS SFs, 79% GS winning percentage, 75% overall winning percentage.
Player B: 7 GS titles, 14 GS SFs, 80% GS winning percentage, 72% overall winning percentage.
Player C: 7 GS titles, 19 GS SFs, 82% GS winning percentage, 82% overall winning percentage.
Player D: 6 GS titles, 18 GS SFs, 83% GS winning percentage, 77% overall winning percentage.

You probably can guess the first three players are Stefan Edberg, Mats Wilander, and John McEnroe. But what about the fourth?

The fourth is one Rafael Nadal, if you took away every match he has ever played on clay.
Jesse, Wisconsin

• Well done. Let’s just be clear: Rafael Nadal never sets foot on a claycourt and he still goes down as an all-time great. Federer keeps off the grass, as it were, and he is still a tennis legend. Djokovic never plays on a hard-court and he is a five-time Grand Slam champ.

Five Thoughts From the Six-Hour Semifinal Between Kevin Anderson and John Isner


Any word on what injury Ryan Harrison suffered in Newport that caused his retirement last week?
Mark L.

From the horse’s mouth:

Doing much better this week. I had back spasms last week that were the result of some misaligned discs. My back locked up and I was pretty scared that there could’ve been some other stuff going on too. All the scans were good and after the week of doing acupuncture, cryotherapy, massage etc... I was able to practice pain-free (for the most part) the last two days. I got the green light so I’ll be good to go for Atlanta.


In your last Mailbag, the Wimbledon curfew was asked about (and vented about) a few times and not once did you mention the reason for the curfew. The curfew was implemented when the roof over Centre Court came in. The curfew was set by the Merton Council to ensure local residents didn't see too much disruption. In general, outdoor events usually have an 11 p.m. finish under UK licensing laws because of health & safety concerns.

True, and maybe I should not have been so dismissive. I am curious: What sanctions would Wimbledon have faced had the tournament simply decided to disregard the curfew?

Hi Jon,

Just wondering why the tours and the powers that be refuse to do anything whatsoever about grunting in tennis. Admittedly I did find it tolerable during the Seles days, but the shrieking these days is so much worse...and frankly offputting. Why are they willing to go with the wretched time clock (!!!) but still allow screaming? I don't get it. Tennis needs to get some guts and stop it.
Keith Jacobson

• Ah, yes grunting. The usual points:

1)  It’s not gender specific.
2)  I encourage us to differentiate between players who grunt involuntarily, who grunt as a byproduct of exertion (Nadal) and those who use it as gamesmanship.
3)  With Sharapova and Azarenka in decline, I wonder if this hasn't fallen out of vogue.
4)  This doesn't particularly bother me, but I recognize how many fans are turned off (offended, even) but all the HEEEE-URGGGHHG-ing.
5)  At some level this is a business decision. The WTA in particular decided that it would rather risk alienating fans than alienating top stars.

Hi Jon,

Here's a thought. How about allocating a podcast to talk to a random mailbag contributor? There would obviously need to be some vetting to make sure the person was well-spoken and knowledgeable, but it seems to me that podcast listeners would enjoy a show in which "one of them" gets a chance to have a tennis conversation with you.
Just a thought.
Miles Benson, Hudson, MA

Thinking out loud: I wonder if there isn’t some sort of silent auction whereby any interested party makes a charitable contribution and we draw from those? I’m happy to do it. And if one of you wants to come up with a philanthropic angle, so much the better.

Shots, Miscellany

• Here's a trailer for the new documentary, John McEnroe: In The Realm Of Perfection

•Kelly Clarkson will headline the opening-night concert at the U.S. Open, Arthur Ashe Stadium on Aug. 27.

• The U.S. Fed Cup Team will host Australia in the first round of the 2019 Fed Cup on Feb. 9-10, as the 2019 draw was revealed this morning in London. The USTA will commence with a request-for-proposal process in the coming weeks. For potential host sites via

Oracle announced today it is adding a Chicago event to the Oracle Challenger Series, to be held at XS Tennis Village September 2-9, 2018 in conjunction with the ATP and WTA.

• Bradley Klahn and Nicole Gibbs, both former NCAA singles champions from Stanford, shot to the top of the US Open Wild Card Challenge standings after Week 2, with Klahn winning the singles title at the $75,000 ATP Challenger in Gatineau, Quebec, and Gibbs reaching the final of the $60,000 USTA Pro Circuit event in Berkeley, Calif.

Your serve, Bruce Lipka