The Rule of 22: Why Grigor Dimitrov (nor anyone else from his generation) is the future of tennis

I can’t imagine what it would be like to know exactly what the ceiling is on your career by the age of 22. If that was the case for writers like me, it would probably mean the best I can hope for is a future as a serial underachiever and grade-A procrastinator. But I’m 21, and thankfully there is no metaphorical clock on reaching my dream of covering the Australian Men’s Netball Team full-time.

Unfortunately for professional tennis players, I can’t say the same. Because there’s a pretty harsh reality about men’s tennis in the Open Era: being ‘great’, or even ‘very good’ essentially comes down to what inroads you can make by the age of 22. At the very least, that means a grand slam final appearance.

In a time when the current hierarchy of men’s tennis has remained remarkably stable, with the Big Four followed by the Berdychs, Tsongas and Ferrers of the world, it’s become apparent that the game is about to endure a crisis of game-changing young talent. If you were to trawl through various articles from actually-respected tennis commentators, or listen to the talking heads on TV, you’ll hear names like Raonic, Janowicz, Nishikori, Dimitrov and even Tomic when discussing the next crop of tennis stars. At 23, 23 and 24 respectively, the first three are out of time, 22-year-old Dimitrov just missed his last chance, and Tomic, at 21 has just under 18 months to prove he can go down as more than the second coming of Mark Philippoussis.

Maybe you don’t believe me, that’s fine. Here’s a list of every winner of multiple major titles in the open era*.

Player

Titles

First final appearance (age)
Guillermo Vilas 4 1975 French Open (aged 22)
Bjorn Borg 11 1974 French Open (aged 18)
Jimmy Connors 8 1974 Australian Open (aged 21)
John McEnroe 7 1979 US open (aged 20)
Johan Kriek 2 1981 Australian open (aged 23)
Mats Wilander 7 1982 French open (aged 17)
Ivan Lendl 8 1981 French open (aged 21)
Stefan Edberg 6 1985 Australian open (aged 19)
Boris Becker 6 1985 Wimbledon (aged 17)
Pete Sampras 14 1990 US open (aged 19)
Andre Agassi 8 1990 French open (aged 20)
Jim Courier 4 1991 French open (aged 20)
Sergi Bruguera 2 1993 French open (aged 22)
Yevgeny Kafelnikov 2 1996 French open (aged 22)
Gustavo Kuerten 3 1997 French open (aged 20)
Pat Rafter 2 1997 US open (aged 24)
Marat Safin 2 2000 US open (aged 20)
Lleyton Hewitt 2 2001 US open (aged 20)
Roger Federer 17 2003 Wimbledon (aged 21)
Rafael Nadal 13 2005 French open (aged 19)
Novak Djokovic 6 2007 US open (aged 20)
Andy Murray 2 2008 US open (aged 21)

*For obvious reasons, this list does not include players who played in the open era, but turned 22 before its inception

As you probably noticed, two players on that list did indeed make their first final appearance past age 22 – Kriek and Rafter. Yet they are essentially exceptions that prove the rule – Kriek won both his Aussie Opens in the same calendar year, at a time when most top-level pros skipped the tournament altogether. Similarly, Rafter’s titles came during the notoriously weak period of tennis in the late 90’s that saw Slam-less Marcelo Rios ascend to number one in 1998.

Furthermore, I think it’s particularly interesting that in this contemporary era where the top players tend to skew older, and in terms of rankings and major titles we’ve seen the two most dominant players of all time, Djokovic and Murray still managed to break through at supposedly precocious ages. For as much as Federer and Nadal have dominated the winner’s list, the fact remains they’ve more-often-than not played other people in those finals, giving ample opportunity to prospective champions.

The reality for guys of Tomic’s generation is, history is not on their side. While it’s certainly true that there are more players having success into their 30s, that hasn’t changed the fact that most players go pro between 16 and 18. Experience certainly isn’t a problem, nor is fitness – tennis is one of the most demanding sports on the human body, requiring great use of the fast-twitch muscle fibres that begin to decay in your late 20’s. Moreover, the amount of work tennis players have to put in from a young age can cause burnout or injury well before then. As much as people might point to guys like Tommy Haas and Andre Agassi (whose extended layoffs in their 20’s allowed them to find success as 35-year-olds), the reality is still closer to Fernando Gonzalez, who went from the ’07 AO final to retirement in 2012 at age 31. When it comes to the lack of success for the young guns, the only explanation lies between the ears.

Tomic’s transgressions are well known – he’s admitted publicly to not trying during slams nor training between them, while Dimitrov and former Latvian hope Ernests Gulbis are similarly notorious for their pursuits off the court. Janowicz is crazy. Nishikori lacks the shot-making to transition from defense-to-offense as easily as the modern game demands.

Of course, this by no means suggests a player’s career is a failure if they don’t win multiple titles – after all, someone has to be ranked number one, and maybe after 50 years this rule will succumb to the talent delta it appears we are on the cusp of reaching. However, for a sport that already has slam finals nearly banished mid-match to the doldrums of ESPN Classic, how can it expect to remain relevant with no truly great figures to prop it up?

Because the truth about tennis is, no one values parity over quality. Watching someone of Federer or Nadal’s ability dismantle a relative unknown in the final has always been a more attractive proposition than watching two perpetual also-rans in the top 20 slug it out. And yet in the near future, when it comes to the upper echelon of men’s tennis, that might no longer be an option.

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One thought on “The Rule of 22: Why Grigor Dimitrov (nor anyone else from his generation) is the future of tennis

  1. Pingback: Life at the Top: Previewing the Big Four’s Second Quarter | benstevensblog

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