Big Men, Big Results: The Zverev Effect and the Disappearance of the So-Called “Prime Tennis Age” (Part 2)

What happens when you take a backhand on par with Nishikori, the ability to move well on any surface, a surprisingly aggressive second serve, and place it inside a 21-year old. You get the future of tennis.

We don’t have to look much further than the dynamic Alexander Zverev to see the archetype of the future tennis body. Thin, athletic, 6’6”, formidable serve, beautiful groundstrokes, Zverev isn’t your typical big guy. A prolific player who has proven himself to be a multi-surface threat, Zverev has boldly announced himself to the professional tennis world time and time again. Three Masters 1000 Titles, two of them on clay, the traditional big man’s worst nightmare; back-to-back title runs at both Washington (ATP 500) and Munich (ATP 250); and arguably his biggest title to date at the Nitto ATP Finals a little over a month ago, the only thing Zverev is missing is a deep run in a Grand Slam (*a topic which will be discussed further in another article*).

In part 1, we touched briefly upon the idea of the experience of these very tall men in the top 10. In sports, the storyline typically states that with age comes experience. Del Potro is 30 years old, Anderson is 32, Cilic is 30, and Isner is 33. Zverev is 21, and his meteoric rise and subsequent stay in the top 5 has sent a message to the tennis world. Could it be possible, say, for his recent success to be a motivator or even a sign of a threat to the other four? Perhaps, a sort of Zverev Effect has taken the tennis world by storm, elevating the level of play of big men, perhaps attempting to mimic Zverev?

There is nothing more telling than the occurrence of a so-called Zverev Effect for these big men than an improvement in their return game. One of the cornerstones of Zverev’s success has come from his remarkable return game. For 2018, the ATP Stats Leaderboard rated Zverev as the eighth best returner on tour amongst all surfaces, excelling in categories such as percentage of return games won, percentage of 1st serve points won, and percentage of 2nd serve points won. Below is a table of the four other big guys and the transformation of their return games from 2016 to 2018, the years of Zverev’s meteoric rise.

  2016 1st serve return points won 2018 1st serve return points won 2016 2nd serve return points won 2018 2nd serve return points won 2016 Return Points Won % 2018 Return Points Won %
Del Potro 28.3% 30.5% 51.0% 52.8% 37.0% 39.1%
Anderson 23.3% 26.6% 47.1% 44.9% 32.4% 33.7%
Cilic 28.7% 30.5% 49.9% 50.6% 37.0% 38.3%
Isner 22.6% 22.8% 42.4% 41.4% 30.2% 29.4%
Figure 1: Difference of First and Second Serve Return Points Percentage
(2016 value subtracted from 2018 value)
Figure 2: Difference in Percentage of Return Points Won (2016 value subtracted from 2018 value)

Looking at the data, it appears as though all of the players upped their overall return games from 2016 to 2018, except for Isner. Isner’s great year, however, can be explained through some mind-boggling serving stats that can be accessed here. While the return statistics from future years will need to be analyzed to determine the validity of the Zverev Effect, for the time being, it appears to be strong in these tour veterans.

That being said, it isn’t merely the older tall men who seem to have fallen victim to the Zverev Effect. The younger ones, too: Karen Khachanov, Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Nicolas Jarry, Taylor Fritz, Hubert Hurkacz, Lloyd Harris, and Alexei Popyrin are just a few of the rising crop of tall youngsters taking the tennis world by storm. Each with their own unique playing style, these players have been redefining what it is to be a big man, following in the footsteps of their quasi-role-model in Zverev. Their potentials are sky-high, and their results have been up to par for the time being.

This Zverev Effect has effectively taken over the tennis world, spare one key age group. Zverev has seemingly inspired the younger and the older on tour, but what about the middle? The Zverev Effect hasn’t rubbed off on those players generally considered in the prime of their careers, the 26 – 29 age range. Before understanding the reason behind this occurrence, and the greater height trends of 2018, it’s important to take a step back and understand the changing dynamics, age-wise, of today’s top 10.

An astounding 7 members of the top 10 are above 30, an age often considered the twilight years of one’s tennis career. Zverev and Dominic Thiem are the only members of the top 10 25-and-under, the ages at which tennis players are most often considered “up-and-coming”. This leaves one player, 28-year old Kei Nishikori, in what is traditionally considered his prime. One player out of the top 10 being in the supposed prime of their career is quite a fascinating revelation. A demanding sport such as tennis, with round-the-clock travelling, conditioning, training, and playing takes a toll on players by the time they get to their 30s. It leaves little room for so-called “late bloomers”, with Stanislas Wawrinka and Kevin Anderson being but two in recent memory. Before we can make a conclusion on the effect of height in the modern tennis game, it’s worth looking at the effect of age.

Is the prime tennis age changing? It feels weird saying it, but it may well be happening. Below is a table showing the number of players 25 and younger and the number of players 30 and older in the top 10 on the ATP Tour over the past 26 years.

  Number of Players 25 and Under Number of Players 30 and Above
2018 2 7
2017 3 3
2016 2 4
2015 1 4
2014 2 2
2013 1 2
2012 3 2
2011 3 2
2010 4 0
2009 6 0
2008 6 0
2007 7 0
2006 7 0
2005 7 1
2004 6 2
2003 6 1
2002 5 1
2001 5 2
2000 4 1
1999 6 0
1998 7 0
1997 7 1
1996 6 0
1995 8 0
1994 7 0
1993 8 0

As we can see, 30 and above players have exploded in the past year, trumping the figures for all other years. Looking at this data, another interesting point can be noted. Out of the 25 years listed, players in the traditional prime years (26-29 years old) make up half or more of the top 10 in a grand total of 7 years (2000, 2010-15). Not only do we have to ask whether the prime tennis age is changing, but was it ever there in the first place?

Upon perusing tennis articles and looking for a reasoning for this fascinating data, I came across a blog post from Jeff Sackman at Heavy Topsin, titled: “Maybe, Finally, The Next Generation is Here”. In it, he discusses the aging trend, and mentions how it is not so much that new, older players are popping up out of nowhere, but rather that the best players are simply getting older. This reasoning goes perfectly with the 2016 – 2018 data, wherein which Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, undoubtably two of the best players since the turn of the century, both of whom are in their 30s now, have been in the top 10. 2018 was the first year Djokovic had the label of thirty-something in the top 10 (he’s 31 now), but rest assured, he too will take one of the coveted top 10 spots for years to come. Maybe Murray will join the party too, and make it a late-career reunion of the Big Four.

Aging greats in the top 10 has happened before, quite recently in fact, but on a much smaller scale. From 2000-2005, American legend Andre Agassi planted his spot firmly in the top 10. Pete Sampras was there with him, albeit he dropped out after 2001.

However sound the reasoning may be, it does not explain the whopping seven 30 and up players who made the top 10 this year. Three of these players are named Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer, and the other four, you guessed it, are the very tall players. We have Del Potro, once touted as the man who would break up the Big Four following his 2009 US Open title run before a series of heart-wrenching injuries set him back time and time again. There’s Anderson, on the comeback trail from an injury-filled 2016, seeing limited success in 2017, before exploding onto the scene in 2018. There’s Cilic, who has hung around the top 10 for pretty much the last two years, and had a phenomenal start to the 2018 season. And there’s Isner, a stalwart of the top 20 for the better part of the last 7 years, who took his serving game to a whole new level this year.

If you’re noticing a trend with these “old”, tall men, you’re not crazy. This was the year where things clicked for these guys. For Delpo, he managed to stay injury-free for the majority of the year, spare the patella fracture in the latter part of the season. For Anderson, he backed up his run to the 2017 US Open finals with a run to the Wimbledon finals in 2018. For Cilic, he had strong showings during his traditionally weaker clay season, along with making deep runs at several Masters 1000 events. For Isner, he took advantage of his favorite hard courts, winning the Miami and Atlanta titles.

As unsatisfying as this answer may be, this was just a good year for the big guys. This might have been a glimpse of what these guys might truly play like had they not suffered from injuries, slumps in play, and poor luck in tournaments throughout their career. The Zverev Effect is a possible explanation, but the validity of such an occurrence can only be determined through the following years. Based on this information, it is highly unlikely that we will see a number of tall guys this high in the next few years, until the next generation players start to shine, if ever. As frustrating as it is, this is the nature of tennis. Players get injured, players gear up for a comeback (Murray, Wawrinka), players have breakout seasons (Tsitsipas, Coric, Khachanov), players fall off (Dimitrov, Carreño Busta, Sock). While 2018 could perhaps be a sign of something to come, it is equally possible for it to be a mere anomaly. Thus is the nature of tennis.

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