Is Roger Federer in his prime? Any fan of the superstar will tell you that he is not. There is a simple test that can be applied. Is he winning three Grand Slam titles a year? If the answer is no, then he is not in his prime. Federer won three GS titles a year in 2004, 2006 and 2007. We cannot include 2004 in his prime years, for then how would you explain 2005 when he did not satisfy the Fed test? Prime years are supposed to be continuous and we cannot have declines in between. So his playing years are classified as:
2003: Pre-prime; 2004 and 2005: Rise; 2006 and 2007: Prime; 2008 and thereafter: Decline.
This is neat and not only explains Federer's achievements but also explains why Nadal, Djokovic and Delpotro succeeded in winning titles at Wimbledon, Australian Open and US Open.
But while it is neat, my objection to it at first was that it took into account only Federer's level and not the level of the competition. For instance, Federer could have won three titles a year in 2006 and 2007 because of the absence of tough competition. His rate of title collection could have gone down in 2008 and thereafter because of the rise of other players. But my objections were met with shock and ridicule. Rivals, what rivals ?
As a tennis fan explained to me, Fed is a Chuck Norris kind of character and so there are Federer Facts. One of them is: Roger Federer can lose only to Roger Federer. In the light of this immutable truth, any talk of the rise of rivals capable of beating him is blasphemous and totally irrelevant.
Ok, granted the Fed test helps in determining his prime. But clearly we cannot apply this to other players. Most of them probably will not win even three GS titles in their whole career, let alone in one year. But obviously, though they are lesser mortals, they also have prime playing years.
So how do we find their best years? In general, for identifying prime of athletes, age is an important determinant.
Tennis is an individual sport. So unlike team sports where managers/owners are concerned about replacing aging superstars in time, in tennis it is generally only the player's concern. So while there are many studies of prime of athletes in team sports, there is not an abundance of literature specifically devoted to exploring a tennis player's prime.
However, by putting together some facts from studies of humans and athletes in general and also some articles about prime of players in other sports, I have gleaned the following:
Although improvement in nutrition, training methods, technology, etc have increased the level of peak performance and perhaps even lengthened the prime, the age at which an athlete peaks has remained virtually unchanged over the years.
Schulz and Curnow in their study of super athletes have placed the peak of a tennis player at 24.
Muscle mass peaks around age 25. This could therefore put an athlete's physical peak around that age.
Forensic study of bones for age determination reveals that ossification and fusion of growth plates takes place even up to age 30 in some cases, but usually most of the process is complete by age 21. As we may expect the bones of athletes to have the structural strength of mature adult bones by this age, 21 may be taken as the lower end of prime.
Speed, quickness, strength and power are critical attributes for tennis superstars and another sport where these are critical is football. It is significant that Nadal had to choose between the two. In this connection, one may refer to an interesting study of performance of running backs by Tristan Cockcroft of ESPN.com. It revealed a big drop in performance between 28-29 and 30. The critical attributes for a running back are specifically speed, quickness and power. This study may therefore be of relevance for tennis superstars too and we may take 29 as the upper end of prime.
The peak of a tennis player is around 24 or 25.
The prime extends a few years on both sides of the peak.
The prime years of a tennis superstar are likely to be between 21 and 29 with the peak around 24 or 25.
( I will present more on prime of tennis superstars in Part 2 ).
Some of the references for the conclusion above are listed below.
Peak performance and Age among Super Athletes : Track and Field, Swimming, Baseball, Tennis and Golf by Richard Schulz and Christine Curnow.
Science and Practice of strength training by Vladimir M. Zatsiorsky, William J. Kraemer
The demand in Forensic Medicine to assess the Age of Adolescents and Young Adults : Crime Procedures ( A contribution of the German Academy of Forensic Odonto-Stomatology)
Ageing and Human Muscle: Observations from Sweden:( Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology,vol 18(1), pp2-18,1993)
The Jock V. The Clock by Claudia Kalb (Newsweek, May 24,1999)
When does a footballer get old? - The Sport Digest
Breaking down thirty-year-old running backs by T. Cockcroft