Roger Federer is Defying Age

Over the past decade, one area of study that has come to the forefront of sports analytics has been the concept of the ‘Age Curve’. Because sports are dependent on physical activity, it is logical that there comes an age where athlete performance peaks and ultimately begins to decline. Eric Tulsky, who now works for the Carolina Hurricanes, determined that NHL players peak around ages 24–25. This analysis has also been conducted for baseball, basketball, and football. The Age Curve is not limited to team sports. In 2014, Colin Davy wrote an article for SBNation concluding that male tennis players peak just after the age of 23, a sentiment that runs parallel to conventional wisdom.

Roger Federer has decided that the concept of athlete performance deteriorating with age doesn’t apply to him. The 35-year-old star from Switzerland is in the semi-finals of Wimbledon for the 12th time in his career, attempting to win his 8th Championship at the All England Club. As the highest seed remaining in the tournament, this goal is all the more attainable. His 18 Grand Slam titles is more than any other male player in the history of the sport and his 302 weeks as #1 on the ATP is also a record, all achieved in what is widely considered to be the golden age of men’s tennis. Fed’s placement in the pantheon of all-time greats in any sport is undeniable.

However, what I believe to be the most remarkable and shocking aspect of his 19-year career is how he has remained so consistent with age. To succeed past the age of 23, especially for those considered to be elite, is hardly a tall task. However, the precedent for the stars of the Grand Slam Era to continuously excel as they grow older is rare. The question is just how rare it is to continue to play at an elite level for over a decade.

The Method

To put Federer’s incredible performance in the twilight years of his career into perspective, I wanted to compare his career against the elite players of the game, rather than against the average ATP pro. To do so, I compared Federer’s results in his Grand Slam appearances against all 23 players who have ranked #1 on the ATP & have also won 1 Grand Slam title since 1980. Doing so allows for Roger’s accomplishments to be contextualized versus legends of the sports, instead of against every player (that we already know he has greatly outperformed).

From there, I partitioned the ages into 5 categories: Younger than 21, 22–24, 25–27, 28–30, and older than 31. In each age group, I collected each player’s Grand Slam appearances and their matches played in the quarterfinals, semifinals, and finals (denoted QF, SF, & F respectively), along with their Grand Slam victories.I opted to look at Grand Slam performances instead of the whole sample of ATP tournaments, as Grand Slams are historically consist of the greatest participation rate, and also that every match is best-of-5 (instead of best-of-3 like some ATP tournaments, which are more susceptible to random results). It is also important to note that appearances in each round are cumulative, so a victory at the French Open for Nadal counts as a ‘W’, ‘F’, ‘SF’, and ‘QF’ appearance.

Finally, from the list of 23 players, I concluded the mean appearance % in each of the final 3 rounds (and the mean win%), along with the 25th and 75th percentile figures. This was only compared to players who appeared in at least 5 Grand Slams in each age group to prevent misrepresentations due to small sample size. I then compared Federer’s results to these figures to determine whether his success in his ‘old’ age is remarkable or simply a characteristic of all of tennis’ greats.

The Takeaways

Ages 16–21

Below are the results of the data collection from all 23 players’ performances in Grand Slams by the age of 21.

As evidenced above, Federer (highlighted in Red) began his illustrious career behind the pace of other greats of this game. While Federer’s Grand Slam appearances by 21 ranks behind that of Novak Djokovic (16), Mats Wilander (17), and Lleyton Hewitt (12), his 14 tournaments still ranks ahead of the average in this elite group. However, Fed reached just 2 quarterfinals and failed to reach a Grand Slam Final.

For the average player, to be in tennis’ version of the Elite 8 before reaching the age of 22 would be quite the accomplishment. However, reaching stardom at a young age has contributed to many of the greats’ Grand Slam victory totals. Bjorg and Pete Sampras reached the double digits of titles due in part to their early success. Nadal and Dojokovic, the only threats to Federer’s tennis throne, won titles as fresh faces on the tour. The fact that Roger has had such a prolific career despite emerging later than most makes his accomplishments all the more remarkable.

Ages 22–24:

Below are the results of the data collection for the 22–24 age range:

The graph above provides 2 interesting insights:

1- The Average Tennis STAR also peaks around age 23: The conclusions that Davy reached about peak performance for male tennis players also holds generally true for the elite. The average former #1 has won a greater percentage of their grand slams, made more finals, semifinals, and quarterfinals than in any other age range. Of the 23 players, less than half won more grand slams in another age band (with Roger being in this minority).

2- Federer lacked consistency but emerged here: Remarkably, this isn’t the time where Federer peaked. In 3 years, Fed had won 6 Grand Slams — as many as only 11 players in Open Era history — and it won’t be his best stretch of tennis. Federer’s win percentage of 50% between 22 & 24 is only rivaled by Borg, Nadal, and Sampras (which is good company to keep). However, Roger’s downfall in this time was that each tournament was hit or miss. In this age range, the average player in this group reached the quarters in 67% of their appearances. While this puts Federer at the average, his proficiency puts him in a special class where even being average among the best is disappointing.

Ages 25–27:

Below are the results of the data collection for the 25–27 age range & 28–30 age range (both with 22 data points, as Bjorn Borg retired by 25). The results in these graphs above help to contribute to the notion that Federer’s consistency with age is quite uncommon.

First, it is important to acknowledge that Federer’s play from 2006 to 2008 is arguably the greatest stretch of tennis by any individual in the history of the sport. Here is what Federer accomplished in those 3 years:

  • 12 Grand Slam Appearances, with 12 Semifinal births
  • 11 Grand Slam Finals
  • 7 Grand Slam Titles
  • 2 Year-End Championships
  • Olympic Silver Medal (singles) and Olympic Gold Medal (doubles)
  • Over 130 consecutive weeks at #1

This is where the current depiction of Federer as the pinnacle of consistency and excellence was formed. This standard did not fall when he turned 28, as shown in the second graph. By this age, most of the greats begin to falter. This is when McEnroe, Edberg, Kafelknjov, and even Nadal turned from regulars in the quarterfinals to occasional participants. This makes intuitive sense. Especially for those who have been playing professionally since they were teenagers, over ten years of an incredibly demanding sport takes a toll on the body.

This did not apply to Federer. Between the ages of 28 & 30, Roger played in all 12 Grand Slams (matched only by Edberg and Agassi), made the quarters in all 12 (matched by none in this group), made 6 finals (matched only by Djokovic), and won 3 (matched only be Agassi and Djokovic). This is where the mastery of Roger is really put into context. By age 30, he was the sole holder of the most grand slam titles in men’s tennis history and showed few signs of slowing down.

31 & Older

Hitting the age of 31 in professional men’s tennis is akin to playing past the age of 40 in the MLB: Some players do so, but very few succeed. Of the 23 players that began the sample, 20 are well past the age of 31. Of that group of 20, only 9 participated in 5 or more Grand Slams once they turned 31.

Since 1980, only four players have won a Grand Slam once they turned 31: Pete Sampras (age 31, won the last Grand Slam he participated in), Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi, and Roger Federer. Federer won his 18th Grand Slam at age 35, the oldest player to win at that level in this time frame. Currently, Federer is in his 20th Grand Slam since 31 and is in his 11th Semifinal (with a definite chance at his 19th title). The accomplishments Fed is seeing in his older age is only rivaled by Agassi (who was less consistent) and Connors (who did not reach as high of a peak).

One of the contributions to Fed’s recent spike in performance and ability to play longer than the legends of the past may be due in part to the developments in sports science over the last decade. There are 3 players who are still ranked inside the top 5 on the other side of age 30: Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray. Djokovic and Murray. Nadal won the French Open a few weeks ago, one week after his 31st birthday, and made the Australian Open final last January. However, this recent resurgence runs counter to his past three years, a stretch where he reached 2 finals and lift 1 championship trophy (with the lone victory taking place a week after his 28th birthday at Roland Garros). Nadal’s style of play has always left him susceptible to extreme pressure on his knees, and it seems unlikely he will play many more years.

The performances of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray will be quite interesting to watch. Djokovic had a more dominant stretch between the ages of 28 and 30 than any other player in men’s tennis history, reaching 7 finals and winning 5 championships. Murray, a spectacular player but a class behind the calibre of Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer, still reached 9 quarterfinals and 4 finals in the 28–30 age range, which is impressive. However, both of their 2017 performances have been below their standard. They have combined for just one Semifinal appearance, with both of them bowing out of Wimbledon today in the quarters, putting doubt on whether they can maintain their excellence in the years to come despite strong track records.

There are 4 players remaining in the men’s draw at Wimbledon 2017. There’s Sam Querrey, the 29-year-old who is participating in the first Grand Slam Semifinal of his career. He is playing Marin Cilic, the 28-year-old who is currently ranked 6th and is looking for his 2nd Grand Slam title. On the other side of the draw, there is Tomas Berdych. The Czech-born player, at the age of 31, had disappointing early exits at the French Open and Australian Open. History tells us that this Wimbledon will likely be one of his last shots at a Grand Slam.

Finally, there’s Roger Federer. He turns 36 in one month and people thought he would retire in 2013, at age 32 following a year where he did not reach one grand slam final. He now does not participate in the French Open (a tournament where he rarely prevailed), but his last 5 Grand Slam entries have seen him in 5 Semis, 3 Finals, and go home with 1 championship. Now entering his 6th Semifinal in the last 6 major tournaments, he has a chance to add to his prolific totals and continue to defy what we know about tennis players declining with age. This should be fun.