Out with the young, in with the old
PARIS -- The upset in Sunday's French Open match between Venus Williams and Belinda Bencic was not that that Venus beat an opponent almost half her age in straight sets, but that the 17-year-old Bencic didn't send out a single tweet or even post a selfie on her Facebook page while playing the first set.
"OMG! I'm beating Venus Williams 3-2 in the first set at Roland Garros! This is so AWESOME!!! Whoops, she just came back to tie me -- I better go!!''
When Bencic was born in 1997, Venus already had been a pro for two-plus years and the French Open final was between two teenagers (Martina Hingis, 16, and Iva Majoli, 19). That year's US Open final also was the youngest matchup ever in a Grand Slam (Hingis and Venus, 17).
Times have changed and so have tennis ages. The reigning French, US Open and Australian champs are all in their 30s now, while retired Wimbledon champ Marion Bartoli turns 30 in October. Maria Sharapova was the last teenager to win a Grand Slam (age 19 at the 2006 US Open) and the last teen to play in a Slam final was Caroline Wozniacki, who was 19 at the 2009 US Open.
Four of the past six Slams have been won by 30-somethings. There are twice as many female 30-year-olds as teens playing in this tournament.
What accounts for this age shift? Why do teenagers no longer win Grand Slams, other than the obvious reason that it's difficult to return a 100 mph serve when you've got your head buried in a smart phone?
"Yeah, young folks today, I don't know,'' Venus said, smiling. "I'm just trying to hopefully stay alive myself as an old player. That's a whole other conversation about different generations. I guess it takes younger people longer to develop. Maybe they don't get to play as much. I'm not sure. Things have changed but there's still a lot of great talent out there, that's definitely for sure.''
That young talent takes longer to develop though because the game has gotten more physical and bodies need to develop more fully. "Points are longer and I think it takes players a little more time to break through to the higher levels,'' coach and analyst Paul Annacone said. "Because of that, you're not seeing as many teenagers do so well so quickly.''
"We've also seen the length of careers increase,'' analyst and coach Darren Cahill said. "Players can play into their 30s. The money has increased, the players can take bigger teams on the road, they can look after their bodies better. They're in better shape in their 30s. All those little things that make a 2 percent difference here, 3 percent there, 2 percent there -- they add up to being something quite big.''
Look at it this way. Serena is 32 and is the reigning French and US Open champion and yet she's so far from retirement that after breezing past Alize Lim 6-2, 6-1 Sunday she said she is already planning her tournament schedule for next year.
"I feel like people don't want to stop,'' she said. "When I was growing up I thought I would have to retire long before 30 because it's just what everyone did. It was just perceived that a tennis player's career was over at 30, or before 30. That's just what I thought. But when I got to be 30, I didn't want to stop. I just wanted to keep going. I think more people are feeling that way.
"Also, technology has changed, training has changed, people's bodies are better. People are healthier for a longer amount of time. Careers are able to just last longer.''
Despite the recent age shift, Cahill says there are several upcoming teens who could make their mark, including Bencic., who won the junior title at Roland Garros and Wimbledon last year. She played Venus once before in 2012, with Williams winning that match 6-3, 6-1. Bencic was quite competitive in Sunday's first set against Williams, breaking Venus' serve in the fifth game before losing 6-4. She didn't fare so well in the second, losing 6-1.
"Well, I'm not winning Grand Slams yet,'' Bencic said of teens not having as much success these days. "I think it's a more physical game. And also, the older players are more experienced and we also have limited number of tournaments we can play. So it's just harder.''
While Bencic is out, the 30-something Williams sisters advance. If they win their second-round matches, they will play each other in the third round. If so, that would be their first match at a Grand Slam since 2009, providing the older demographics something to look forward to.
As for the teenagers? Well, maybe they can satisfy themselves by playing the Grand Slam tennis video game while listening to Justin Bieber.