Young tennis pair slay Wimbledon giants
Two young players have sent two of tennis’s biggest names, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, crashing out of the tournament. Does youthful exuberance have the edge over experience in sport?
The year before, 19-year-old Nick Kyrgios had been competing in boys’ competitions. Now, he found himself on the centre court at Wimbledon, facing off against the world’s number one, Rafael Nadal.
But rather than showing fear, Nick did the unimaginable. As the 14-time champion sent the ball hurtling towards him, he put his racket behind him and gently tapped the ball back between his legs over the net. Nadal was dumbfounded. Kyrgios went on to win in a stunning upset.
Another shock followed 24 hours later, as the 23-year-old Grigor Dimitrov sent Wimbledon’s reigning champion, Andy Murray, crashing out of the tournament. Two of the so-called ‘big four’ have been defeated by young players. How do we explain their giant-slaying?
A deflated Murray says players are simply improving all the time through better nutrition and training. A look at sports performance over the decades supports this. In 1904, the Olympic marathon winner’s time was 3 hours 28 minutes; in 2012 it was 80 minutes faster. A host of world records are rewritten every Olympics.
The young also have a physical advantage. Older hearts do not circulate blood as efficiently and as muscles age, they lose elasticity, making it harder to recover from fatigue and injuries. The US gymnastics team has an average age of just 16 because agility and flexibility are so important to the sport.
Yet many say youth’s greatest strength is its exuberance. Unlike older players, Kyrgios and Dimitrov have not experienced high-profile losses, so they play with the freedom of having nothing to lose. As one commentator said: ‘This new group is fearless and confident and believes, “We’re ready to take over”.’
Youth has also made a mark on this year’s World Cup. Whereas the older team of the Spanish champions seemed burdened by expectation, the younger squads of Belgium and Colombia have excelled, with the relatively unknown 22-year-old James Rodriguez rapidly rising to become one of the tournament’s stars.
So is the fearlessness of youth the key to success?
Flying close to the sun
Some say that once a young person reaches a certain level of skill, they have an advantage over their older competitors who have lost the fire and fearlessness that success requires. Both mentally and physically, youthfulness is the key sporting quality.
Yet others reply that experience trumps the qualities of youth. A day after his triumph, Kyrgios himself was swept aside. And maybe Murray lost because he had an off day. While age eventually always catches up with sportsmen and women, their experience allows them to keep calm in moments of pressure. Boxers peak physically in their early 20s, but become more effective fighters in their 30s.
- Which quality is more important in sports: the fearlessness of youth or the experience of age?
- Is the expectation that older players will continue to be successful a disadvantage to those who think that way?
- In pairs, draw up a list of the positive qualities of youth and the positive qualities of experience. Which do you think has more?
- Research what are considered to be the peak ages for athletes in four different sports. Write a presentation explaining what the key requirements are to be successful in each of your chosen sports, and how age affects performance.
Some People Say...
“Youth is wasted on the young.’George Bernard Shaw”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Isn’t it all a matter of training?
- Of course training is very important. For a gymnast to be successful, for example, experts believe they must start training very early. This is because younger children worry less about hurting themselves, so if they are taught how to do potentially scary moves at a young age, they will have mastered them by the age that self-awareness becomes a factor.
- What is the peak age for a sportsman?
- An athlete’s peak can vary from sport to sport and from person to person. In the relatively less strenuous sport of cricket, for example, studies suggest 33 is a peak age, which is double the age of many gymnasts. It all depends on the demands of the sport. Goalkeepers often peak in their mid 30s, at the time most other players are planning retirement.
- In 1904 Thomas Hicks was the first to cross the line and had been drinking rat poison mixed with brandy along the way in the hope it would boost his performance. He probably would have died if doctors hadn’t been present.
- Improving equipment also plays a part in improving results. Modern running tracks absorb far less energy than they used to in the past. After full-body swimming suits were introduced in 2009, top swimming times improved rapidly.
- Michael Owen is a notable example from football. He was the youngest player ever to represent England when he played in the 1998 World Cup and had an incredible tournament. However, after a series of injuries, his once blistering pace was lost, and he ended his career a vastly inferior player.
- Off day
- Rumours are circulating that Murray was mumbling angrily during the game about something that had occurred shortly before it started. Perhaps this explains why he was not at his best.