Over the weekend, Andy Murray became world No. 1 for the first time in his career. It’s been a while coming. The Scotsman entered the ATP rankings more than 13 years ago.
As a younger man, Murray was best known for his on-court temper. In a nod to that reputation, Murray joked ahead of Sunday’s final at the Paris Masters that he needed “to keep my racquet in my hands.” (Had he been ejected from the match, he’d have lost all his rankings points from the week, and No. 1 as well.)
Instead, Murray was the man we’ve grown used to in recent years – grim, stolid, middle-aged. He defeated John Isner and so rises to the top in quiet style.
Murray will officially replace Novak Djokovic at the top of the rankings when they are published on Monday. Djokovic, 29, was ranked No. 1 for 122 weeks since July of 2014.
At home, Murray’s ascension prompted a debate about whether he is the greatest British athlete ever (he isn’t). It’s got people wondering if the Big Four era in men’s tennis has ended (it hasn’t). It’s being played as if No. 1 matters more than major titles (it doesn’t).
If anything, Murray’s feat puts the focus on just one micro-trend in sports generally and tennis particularly – that it’s a good time to be old.
Murray is 29. In traditional tennis years, that’s about 50.
Nonetheless, this past year has been far and away his best. In the middlebrow tradition of the aging athlete, Murray has put a lot of that down on his changing life – he’s married now, and a father. Wiser, less wound up, all of that.
I’d rather guess that it has more to do with the small army of coaches, trainers, physiotherapists, practice partners and health experts who stand behind him. Like every modern tennis star, Murray is a corporation. The product is his performance, but the capital is his body.
A great many people depend on that body holding up to earn their livings. Little wonder it’s in such tip-top condition.
In the past, you played hard, got little support and broke down quickly. For instance, Bjorn Borg won the last of his 11 Grand Slams at the age of 25.
Murray’s coach, Czech legend Ivan Lendl, was functionally done as a player by 30. Lendl is renowned as the man who introduced modern fitness techniques to the sport, but they didn’t save him from a bad back. He refused to give in, hobbling on excruciatingly until he was 34. That long decline is the reason few people now remember him as one of the greatest players ever.
At that time, tennis prodigies were given little time to mature at the lower levels. Instead, they were rushed up to the pros with the expectation that if they did not win right away, they never would.
John McEnroe made a Wimbledon semi-final on his first try at 18. Boris Becker won the tournament at 17 years old. Martina Hingis won one at 16. None of them would win another past the age of 25.
The expectation was that the human soil of tennis would be turned over constantly, that people get bored and want new champions with new stories. Though they wouldn’t see it that way, most athletes cleave to the expectations of their times. If everyone’s done in their late 20s, they expect to be done in their late 20s as well.
That changed with two players – Roger Federer and Serena Williams.
Because they present so differently, too little is made of how intertwined these two stars are. They were born a few weeks apart. They both first rose to world No. 1 at the age of 21. Williams’s attention wandered for a while. Federer’s never did. She advanced more forcefully in her 30s than he did. But they’ve blazed new, parallel paths.
At 35 years old, they are both still near enough to the peak of their games. Not there, but near. Certainly good enough to win on a given week.
What makes them different? It’s an expectation.
Williams and Federer are also conglomerates – two of the biggest athletic ones of all time.
Hundreds of millions of dollars depend on their continued success. From the perspective of the tennis establishment, this money game is potentially zero sum. There is no one quite like either of them standing in the wings waiting to take over (quick – name the No. 1 women’s tennis player in the world).
Tennis has roped itself to the familiar. You can see this in the pain with which it is letting Rafael Nadal – already ancient at 30 – slip slowly toward injury-abetted retirement.
The Big Four era – and Nadal versus Federer in particular – pulled tennis to the centre of world sports. Nobody wants to give that up. Even if they have to push Nadal onto the court in a wheelchair, they’ll make it happen for a few more years.
Because once Williams, Federer and a few others who’ve become intimately connected to their era fade away, a financial ecosystem goes with them.
Just as much as any training regimen or innate competitive drive, this marketing expectation has driven their long careers. It’s drawn all those behind them in their wake.
The average age of a current top 10 men’s tennis player is 29. On the women’s side, it’s 27. It seems a long time since women’s tennis was shot through with 14-year-olds so spindly, it appeared the racquets were in danger of swinging the players. Those players have disappeared.
Murray’s long rise gives hope to a tween generation behind him (the most notable of whom remains Milos Raonic). It’s getting harder to see where the “young” players in the game (none of whom would have been considered as such until quite recently) fit.
Maybe this is why the people who run tennis are so visibly frustrated with a nitwit like Nick Kyrgios. He’s one of the few sub-25 talents capable of killing his fathers. Instead, all his on-court efforts are pointed toward self-immolation.
Why is that? Because Kyrgios has instinctively absorbed the new wisdom – that, at 21 years old, he’s still got a long time to figure this out. Why bother rushing?
Instead, he can do what Murray did – wait for better players to begin flagging and then take his chance.
In that sense, tennis has become less exciting, but also more like real life.Report Typo/Error
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