Just one generation ago, professional tennis players were considered over the hill at the not-so-old age of 30.
Today, many of the sport’s biggest stars are nearing 40 — an achievement that would have been unimaginable in previous eras.
“These players are playing for records that we never thought could get broken,” says Lindsay Davenport, 43, a triple Grand Slam Winner (one each at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open). She joined fellow former tennis pro Jim Courier, 48, a four-time Grand Slam winner, for a recent Q&A at Wimbledon to kick off this year’s tournament as part of a VIP experience hosted by the American Express By Invitation Only program available for Platinum Card members.
When Davenport and Courier were ranked No. 1 in the 1990s and early 2000s, retirement age rarely extended past 30. But now reigning superstars like Serena Williams and Roger Federer, both 37, continue not just to compete but to dominate. The reasons are multi-fold, explain Davenport and Courier.
For starters, “these players are taking care of themselves, doing a lot more pre-and post-stretching,” says Courier, now a tennis commentator who lives in Orlando, Fla. “They have a lot more knowledge [because of] their phsysio [therapists], who travel with them.”
Another key reason: “There are more financial incentives,” he adds. “If you were the 80th player ranked in the world in 1995, your economic incentive to stay on the tour at the age when most people would like to start a family was not there. Economics drive a lot.”
Davenport, now a coach and mom of four, notes that as more players extend their careers, others follow suit.
“It’s also a little bit contagious,” she says. “I think it resonates with all the players. You’re not the only over 35-year-old player out there. When we played in the ’90s, top players were very stressed about playing their matches and getting out. Roger [Federer] changed that. I think it’s the mindset of this generation. Because they’re able physically and because there’s some [financial] incentive there, that all kind of bought in together.” Pointing to the recent stunning match between American newcomer Coco Gauff and seasoned pro Venus Williams, she adds, “A 15-year-old versus a 39-year-old. How awesome is that?”
Of course, with age comes an increased risk of injury, something Serena has battled in recent seasons. “It’s natural when you have the amount of mileage, you’re going to be more injury prone,” says Courier. But he notes that mentally, it’s become easier for players to travel the world and still feel connected to their friends and family at home.
“I’d be waking up in the morning in London to buy USA Yesterday,” he jokes. “You were detached. These days when the players travel around the world, they’re still home. They can use FaceTime, watch Netflix.”
As a result of all those factors, “We’re the better for it as fans of the sport,” says Courier. “We get to see players for longer, see records fall. I thought [Pete] Sampras’s 14 [Grand Slam Singles titles] would never get touched, and along comes Federer and sprints past it. Serena’s at 23, I didn’t think anyone would get past Steffi [Graf] at 22.”
Adds Davenport: “Serena is scratching and clawing for 24! Every Grand Slam, it’s like we reset. It’s awesome. What this players are playing for is so beyond are wildest dreams when we were playing.”
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