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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Précocité rime avec succès

by Nicolas Guillermin

Precociousness Rhymes With Success

Translated Saturday 4 June 2011, by Marie-Thérèse Slorach and reviewed by Henry Crapo

A study jointly led by Inserm and IRMES shows that tennis players are starting to play earlier and earlier in life, which impacts upon the rest of their careers.

Agassi picked up his first racket at 4 years of age, Djokovic was 2 years later. The rest is history… Is learning to play tennis at an early age synonymous with better performance? That is the question asked by researchers from Inserm (Institut de la santé et de la recherche médicale - National Institue of Health and Medical Research) and IRMES (Institut de recherche biomédicale et d’épidémiologie du sport - Institute of Biomedical Research and Sport Epidemology), in an article published in April, in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.

In order to answer this question, these researchers have analysed the careers of all tennis players featured in lists of top ten international players (male and female), since the start of the Open era, in 1968; this included 241 champions and more than 142,000 matches. First outcome: the top ten players of the past 25 years started their career, on average, at 17.1 years of age for men (versus 17.9 years pre 1985) and at 15.2 years for women (16.5 pre 1985), however, this precociousness has not increased winning potential.

When all generations are looked at together, this study also shows that women reach their highest level 2 years before men (the world no.1 female players attain their maximum percentage of victories, 82%, at 21.5 years of age, whereas the figure for the world no.1 male players is 78%, achieved at 23.8 years of age). “The hypothesis taken from these results is that women have an earlier biological development and mature psychologically at an earlier age”, suggests Marion Guillaume, a researcher for IRMES. Men do, however, mature at an earlier age than before, which is probably the result of tennis schools, “but their potential to win remains the same”, emphasizes Marion Guillaume.

The Inevitable Stage of Decline

In order to back up these results, the researcher recalls the 2008 Wimbledon Final, where Rafael Nadal beat king of the turf Roger Federer in five sets, to become the world’s number one player. “Nadal, then aged 22, was in a very progressive stage of his game, whereas Federer, who was 27 years old at the time, had already reached the inevitable stage of decline in his career”. Another example is that of Djokovic, who celebrated his 24th birthday on May 22nd, and was undefeated in 2011 with 38 victories, playing against Nadal, who is about to turn 25, four times. “Given his age, Nadal now has a lesser chance of winning matches than Djokovic. His potential to win is weaker.”

The average length of a career in tennis is 16 years for the Top Ten male players and 15 years and 9 months for women. The age of retirement age (31 years and 2 months) comes 2.5 years earlier now than it would have for players starting their careers pre 1985. “We assume that psychological stress and physical wear and tear are responsible. In the study, we questioned when Nadal’s career would end, as he had a very early start to his career. Has he already spent the majority of his ‘tennis capital’? Is he going to drop out early?”

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