Teen phenomenons are on the verge of extinction in tennis. It has been a while since a young annihilator has actually challenged the big fishes. The last male teen to win a Grand Slam was Rafael Nadal, at 19, in 2005, in Roland Garros; the last female, was Maria Sharapova, at 19, in 2006, in Flushing Meadows.
In an interview to tenis world magazine, former World No: 1 and French Open champion Carlos Moya has opined that ‘there will not be another Rafael Nadal’. The veteran Spanish player, who also hails from Mallorca, had known Nadal since the latter was 12 years old, used to be his mentor, and is also a good friend of his.
Moya’s inference was based on the dearth of young champions these days. One of the reasons, according to him, was that the players have become stronger and more prepared with the game becoming more demanding. Besides, the advancements in training method have helped in optimising the endurance levels of the players, so that their bodies can withstand matches that sometime stretch up to five or six hours.
With the evolution of the game, the players’ bodies have also evolved and it has become a matter of ‘survival of the fittest’. Not so long ago, players used to make a mark at a fairly young age. We had teenage champions as well as players in their early 20s dominating the circuit before.
But now, a player usually peaks at around 25. The average age of the current top 10 players is 27.5; except for Grigor Dimitrov (23), Milos Raonic (23) and Juan Martin Del Potro (25), all are above 25. Dimitrov and Raonic haven’t won any Grand Slam titles yet.
In case of Del Potro, he won his first Major - the 2009 US Open - at 21, but that remains his one and only Slam as of now. Novak Djokovic, who won his first Major at 20, had to wait three more years to establish himself as a threat to Federer and Nadal.
During that transition phase, Djokovic significantly improved physically and mentally. Even though Nadal could maintain the consistency since winning his first ever Slam in 2005, it was not until 2008 that he won a Major other than the French Open.
Federer, comparatively, had a steady career, dominating all the surfaces except for clay, once he established his presence. Ever since the homogenisation of courts, talent alone isn’t enough to guarantee the top spot.
Slower courts mean longer matches, which in turn demands greater strength and stamina. That’s the reason why Nadal and Djokovic can come back from the brink of defeat, turn the course of match, even while trailing by two sets.
When these two players take on each other, the match usually extends to almost 5-6 hours. Who can forget the 2012 Australian Open final where Djokovic beat Nadal 5–7, 6–4, 6–2, 6–7(5–7), 7–5.
The match lasted for 5 hours, 53 minutes - the longest ever final in the history of tennis.
For a teenager, it is hard to keep up with the prowess and tenacity of players like Nadal, Federer or Djokovic, although there are singular incidents like that of Nick Kyrgios, who defeated Nadal at Wimbledon this year (7-6, 5-7, 7-6, 6-3).
Interestingly, before Kyrgios, the last time a teenager toppled a World No: 1 at a Grand Slam event was in 2005, when Nadal crushed Federer in the semifinals at Roland Garros. Jim Courier, a former world No:1 and also the winner four Majors, remarked once:
“I certainly think these guys at the top, they have very large teams they work with.
They have become very scientific about their sweat loss and replacing the minerals very specifically with what’s coming out of their bodies. And I think they’ve really taken the science on the legal side up to the next level, which is interesting.
I think they also have gotten much better at recovery.” (Courtesy: The New York Times)
Moya too, was stressing on this aspect. Whether you like it or not, brilliance alone doesn’t help a young player to establish his name in the circuit nowadays.
He will have to wait for a considerable time to gain a footing. But then, there are, and will be exceptions. Will there be another teen Grand Slam champion like Rafael Nadal? May be, some day. But that wouldn’t be easy though.