Murray and Nadal past peak age, but don’t write them off yet

Showing signs of age? John Walton/PA Wire

Two of Wimbledon’s top seeds crashed out of the tournament to players some years their junior. First, the world number one and second seed, Rafael Nadal was knocked out by new kid on the block Nick Kyrgios, a player John McEnroe has compared to Boris Becker, and title-holder Andy Murray fell to the 23 year old Dimitrov. Their early exits have led to many heralding an uprising of youth in the men’s game.

Both Murray and Nadal had their games dismantled by members of a new generation of big hitters. Perhaps Wimbledon was the ideal place for this to happen. Played on grass, it is the fastest surface and so requires greater reflexes and speed from players.

In many respects, Nadal (aged 28) and Murray (aged 27) can still be considered young. But not for professional athletes and especially not tennis players. Tennis is unique in that it is not unusual to find teenagers lifting grand slam trophies. Boris Becker and Martina Hingis won Wimbledon at the ages of 17 and 16 respectively – ages that would have them categorised as “juniors” in many other sports.

Peak age

Even with the huge developments in sport science, particularly in coaching science and physiology, age remains a limiting factor when it comes to the longevity of a sportsperson’s career. Athletes do have longer careers than ever before, but the idea of an athletic peak remains. So what research has there been into the optimal age for players?

One study, conducted by the Institute of Biomedical Research and Sports Epidemiology in France, concluded that the best age of performance for athletes in track and field, swimming and even chess is 26.1 years. An earlier study by academics Richard Schulz and Christine Curnow found that top tennis players reach their highest levels of performance at the age of 24. Both these studies would place Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal as past their peak.

A possible explanation for this is proposed by David Galenson, Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago. His work looked at the impact of economic and technological change on the men’s game. He found that innovations in these areas resulted in changes in playing techniques and training methods that have lowered the optimum age of tennis players.

Improvements in racket technology, for example, increased the speed of the game, giving advantage to speed, strength and agility over experience and tactics. The growth in prize money and sponsorship meant the game had increasingly large financial gains to be made. This may well have resulted in more investment in intensive coaching of younger players, which in turn leads to earlier successes. This provides some explanation for Kyrgios and Dimitrov’s success at Wimbledon this year (and the many young players that have done well before them).

Psychological factors

However, there is another angle that must be considered when it comes to age-related performance – the psychological perspective and, in particular, players’ motivation to win. Motivation can been defined as a force or influence that causes someone to do something. Within a sporting context this can be broken down further into two distinct components that of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation encompasses an individual’s desire to increase knowledge, feel accomplishment and the enjoyment of positive sensations associated with sport. Extrinsic motivation is simply the motivation drawn from the value of the outcome – things like prize money or recognition. This relates to Galenson’s suggestion that, as “they get older, players might not have a decreased ability to compete, rather a decreased desire to play.”

The reality of the situation is that it is likely to be a combination of physiological decline, technological advancement, reduced desire, a sprinkling of luck, or just being a bad performance. Plus, while older players like Federer, Nadal and Murray may be past their physical peak, their experience certainly stands them in good stead at tournaments.

And, considering Murray’s smooth run up to the quarter finals, perhaps we should believe him when he shrugged off the defeat as “a bad day at the office”.