One of my favorite topics is the relationship of age and career performance, questions such as: What are the different phases of a career? When is the most common peak range? Are players peaking later now? Etc.
For the sake of context and perhaps a taxonomy that would be useful for discussion, as I’ve written quite a few times before, I’ve posited that the historical norm has four general phases:
Developmental Phase: Age 17-21. Player rises towards peak level.
Peak Phase: Age 22-26. Player maintains highest level of career.
Plateau Phase: Age 27-31. Player remains at a very high level, but slightly below peak, with gradual decline.
Decline Phase: Age 32+. Player declines rapidly and/or retires.
Again, these are the norms, or the averages if you will. Every player is different – but historically, those are the general ranges that most players fall into, or near to.
Now what is interesting in recently years is that quite a few players seem to be peaking later, more in what would normally be their plateau phase. David Ferrer is an example, with his best years being 2012-13 when he turned 30 and 31. Despite beating Andy Murray today, Ferrer has showed signs of slowing this year, so he may be entering his decline phase – or he could simply be dropping to a plateau.
And then we have the inspiration for this thread, Feliciano Lopez, who is 33 years old and possibly having the best year of his life. While his highest ranking was achieved a couple years ago in 2012 (No. 15), he’s at No. 14 in the live rankings now and has a good chance of having his best year-end ranking (which is currently No. 20 in 2011).
And then of course there is Stan Wawrinka, who won his first Grand Slam at age 28 and is amidst his best year at age 28-29, and will probably finish the year ranked No. 4, better than last year’s career best of No. 8.
Marin Cilic is still in what is normally the Peak Phase, but he won his first Slam just before turning age 26 – on the older side.
And then we have young players like Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov. Grigor is 23 years old, having his best year, but there’s also the sense from many that he’s another year or so away from his peak. Milos is also 23, turning 24 in December, and may or may not be at his peak.
One thing that strikes me is that these outliers from the career norms are all non-elite players. Roger Federer’s career follows the averages quite closely, as does Nadal’s, Djokovic’s, and Murray’s – although it is still too soon to tell if and when they’ve entered their Plateau. Certainly it seems that Rafa and Andy have; Novak had his best year in 2011 at age 23-24, but I’d have a hard time saying that he’s not still in his Peak phase (that is, best year shouldn’t be equated with Peak phase; the best year usually comes within the peak).
Those are just some examples. A few questions to consider/discuss:
- Are players really peaking later?
- If so, why?
- Is there a historical precedent for players having their best years in their 30s (e.g. Ferrer and Lopez)?
- Is it only “second tier” talents that are peaking later? (As it certainly seems like we’ve seen the best of Nadal, Djokovic and Murray)
And so forth. Any thoughts?
Cover Photo: Kiu Kaffi, Tennis Frontier Correspondent