Wimbledon 2016: Federer and Wawrinka spearhead record number of over-30s

Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka are among a record number of over-30s competitors at Wimbledon 2016

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the average age of tennis players is getting higher with every passing year.

Already this year, Roland Garros achieved a new record before a ball was played: there were 51 men aged 30 or over in the main draw, a record for a Grand Slam.

This week, at the All England Club, a new Wimbledon record has been set with 49 over-30s. Perhaps more significant, though, is that these evergreen men are not just here to make up the numbers. Five of the top 10 are over 30, nine of the top 20, and 13 of the 32 seeds.

Compare that with the number of under 21s in the men’s draw: There are just four of them, only two making the top-50 cut, just one—Alexander Zverev—seeded at 24. Yet only three decades ago, teens like Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg and Mats Wilander were stacking up repeat Majors, and 10 years before, Bjorn Borg was doing the same.

Many reasons have been put forward to explain the trend, which is also conspicuous in the women’s game, where Serena Williams is the sport’s oldest No1 and Major winner. For she is targeting a record-equalling 22nd singles Major title and a fourth Olympic gold medal in doubles with her 36-year-old sister Venus, who is seeded No8 here.

Ever-evolving materials in rackets and strings, greater attention to diet and training regimes, better educational preparation, and improving prize-money to underpin the support systems around the players.

The leading exponent of this evolution in the men’s game has been the soon-to-turn 35 Roger Federer, father of four, ranked No3, owner of more Wimbledon and grass titles than anyone in the Open era, playing in his 18th Wimbledon, and targeting his fourth Olympics.

After winning a record seventh title in his home-town Basel last year, he admitted: “I don’t know exactly what the reason is. [Perhaps physically stronger], or there’s also a lack of pressure from the next generation. There are some good players [among the 25-year-olds], but there wasn’t like a wave of 20 guys coming through. So that maybe allowed the generation of 30-year-olds to figure their game out, and to sort of reinvent themselves a bit more.”

“It is also a good generation, a generation in the transition of becoming really professional, understanding that we needed to change our life around.”

“Good generation” is an understatement. Such has been the quality of the rivalry between the top four—Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray—that each has made the others better in their attempts to find an edge. Their superlative physical and mental fitness has also inspired colleagues. Stan Wawrinka, David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych, Richard Gasquet and more all continue to enjoy impressive rankings and expectations of deep runs at the biggest tournaments.

So how have the 49 done so far at Wimbledon?

The 31-year-old No4 seed Wawrinka, who bided his time before winning his two Majors in 2014 and 2015, reached his first two quarter-finals here in his last two visits, and many have tipped him as one of the dark horses to challenge the status quo of Djokovic, Murray and Federer.

He took on one of the big teenage prospects, Taylor Fritz, and although the tall and powerful American nabbed a set after a wayward tie-break from Wawrinka, the Swiss advanced, 7-6(4), 6-1, 6-7(2), 6-4.

Wawrinka’s comment about the man 13 years his junior was spot on: “Everybody’s looking for the new generation. [Fritz] is already No60 in the world. It’s quite impressive to be there already. He has a lot of potential and a big chance to be higher in the next few years.”

The Swiss next plays one of the very few men to buck the trend by winning a Major while still under 21, Juan Martin del Potro… though the Argentine has suffered years of absence from the tour with wrist injury since that 2009 breakthrough. Now age 27, is he ready to make a comeback to the top of the game? Many hope he is.

Also flying the flag for the over 30s, Gasquet—a semi-finalist here last year—won his 20th match of the year in beating Aljaz Bedene, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3, and next plays another over-30 man, Marcel Granollers.

No12 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, age 31, hit 41 winners in beating Inigo Cervantes, 6-4, 7-6(5), 6-4 victory. He next plays 32-year-old Juan Monaco.

No25 seed Victor Troicki took just an hour and half to set a second-round match against Albert Ramos Vinolas, while No10 seed Berdych, a runner-up here six years ago, had to return to finish his match against another of the over-30 brotherhood, Ivan Dodig, after they were halted by rain. He finished the job in a fourth-set tie-break to set a second-round meeting with 33-year-old Benjamin Becker.

There were more moving onwards and upwards. Feliciano Lopez, 34, Dustin Brown, 31, Ferrer, 34, Edouard Roger-Vasselin, 32, Nicolas Almagro, 30, Andreas Seppi, 32, Gilles Simon, 31, Sergiy Stakhovsky, 31, Julien Benneteau, 34, and Ivo Karlovic, 37, all got past their first-round opponents.

Philipp Kohlschreiber, finalist in Stuttgart a fortnight ago, Gilles Muller, finalist in s-Hertogenbosch, Florian Mayer, winner in Halle, and Nicolas Mahut, winner in s-Hertogenbosch, also built on their grass-court form to make the second round.

But what of the leader of the over-30 pack, seven-time champion Federer himself?

Well despite a season blighted by injury and illness, and playing just four tournaments since reaching the semis of the Australian Open—and looking more than a little rusty in his two pre-Wimbledon grass events—he did not face a break point in beating Guido Pella, 7-6(5), 7-6(3), 6-3.

He began the tournament adamant that he had no expectations of repeating his previous triumphs, for he had spent too little time on court since back injury hit him in May to yet feel 100 per cent: “Clearly I’m not thinking of the title right away. It’s too far ahead.”

That is probably true, especially in the face of the form of the man who beat him in the last two finals here, Djokovic.

But such is his aura and status in tennis, and especially at Wimbledon, that he was making one man’s day in what already had become the story of the Championships. Qualifier, and pre-qualifier, Marcus Willis, ranked No772 in the world and into the second round courtesy of his first-ever main tour match, could not believe his luck: Federer, on Wimbledon’s Centre Court, in front of his home crowd.

Theirs would be a match to decide a Round 3 place—familiar ground to Federer, perhaps, but unheard of territory for Willis. That, though, was a pleasure yet to come.

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