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French Open 2017: 30 is the new 25 in men’s tennis right now

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PARIS — The very top of men’s tennis has never been this old.

For the first time in the history of the ATP computer rankings, which date to the early 1970s, the men sitting at Nos. 1-5 are all 30 or older, the latest sign that the current crop of stars has enviable staying power.

It’s also the latest reason to wonder when a new face will emerge among the elite, because there eventually will come a point – yes, there really will – when the group that was once known as the Big 3, then came to be called the Big 4, and now is considered by some to be a Big 5, is no longer running the sport.

With the French Open starting Sunday, No. 1 Andy Murray, No. 2 Novak Djokovic, No. 3 Stan Wawrinka and No. 4 Rafael Nadal (No. 5 Roger Federer is skipping Paris) all have designs on another major trophy. But could someone such as Alexander Zverev, who just turned 20 last month, or the supremely talented – and supremely enigmatic – Nick Kyrgios, 22, or Dominic Thiem, 23, make a breakthrough for the up-and-coming kids?

“We’re probably coming to the end of one of the greatest eras of tennis that, certainly, I’ve ever seen,” ATP Executive Chairman and President Chris Kermode said, “and what we need to do as a sport is look to the next generation of players.”

Federer is 35, Wawrinka is 32, Nadal turns 31 on June 3, and Djokovic and Murray turned 30 this month. That quintet has won 46 of the last 48 Grand Slam titles, a dozen-year stretch of dominance.

Zverev’s victory over Djokovic in the Italian Open final last weekend might have symbolized coming change. Zverev was the first man born in the 1990s to win a Masters 1000 title, the youngest champ since Djokovic about a decade ago.

That title also pushed Zverev into the top 10, making him the youngest member since Juan Martin del Potro in 2008.

“It’s nice … for the tour, as well, to have a few younger guys, few younger girls, as well, to be able to play at the top,” said Zverev, who is German. “As I said many times, unfortunately for tennis and unfortunately for the spectators, the top four cannot play forever. So it’s good that younger players are starting to get through.”

So then the question becomes: Why has it taken so long?

Why does someone such as former player and coach Brad Gilbert, now an ESPN commentator, say, “Today’s 30 is like 25 used to be,” as he did this week? Why have these 30-somethings had such staying power? And why is it taking so long for newcomers to make a mark?

There is a similar situation in women’s tennis, where Serena Williams has kept winning Grand Slam titles into her 30s and is the oldest No. 1 in WTA history. Current No. 1 Angelique Kerber was the oldest woman to make her debut at that spot.

“Tennis has changed in the last 15 years … since they slowed down surfaces and there is not much difference in speeds of the surfaces,” said Patrick Mouratoglou, Williams’ coach. “You rarely have many easy shots now. You have to work the points much more, and one of the consequences is you need to be physically much better and able to play long rallies.”

He points out that when Wimbledon’s grass courts, for example, used to play much faster than they do now, a player could succeed there hitting aces by the dozen and going for one winner after another, because “you don’t need the same maturity and understanding of tactics” that are required today.

Gilbert points to Andre Agassi – a man he used to coach, and who is assisting Djokovic during this French Open – as an inspiration to the current old-timers still in charge.

“It used to be, you turned 30, you were completely on the downside of your career. A lot of these guys can remember Andre making a deep run at 2005 at 35 years old. I think that was the turning point in belief, that guys could play a lot longer,” Gilbert said. “You’re seeing Tom Brady be the best quarterback in all of football, maybe ever, and he’s approaching 40, which is dinosaur for a quarterback, but not anymore. Athletes are pushing the envelope all year round. There’s no offseason. Offseason is for more training, diet, technology.”

Nadal leads Djokovic, Murray, Thiem on French Open odds

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The overarching presence of Rafael Nadal, who has won a record nine times at Roland Garros, has inflated prices on the other top men at the French Open.

Nadal is listed as a better than even money -125 favorite on the French Open men’s champion board at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com. The Spaniard has won 17 of 18 matches on clay this year and will not have to worry about longtime nemesis Roger Federer, who’s saving himself for the grass and hard courts. The event begins in Paris on Sunday.

While Nadal is undoubtedly the most consistent clay-court player in the world, many threats loom. Novak Djokovic (+300) might be ready to come out of his lull now that he has swapped out his support staff, bringing on Andre Agassi as a personal coach. Nadal and Djokovic are on the same side of the draw, so either would benefit if the other falls prey to an upset.

Dominic Thiem (+900) could also be undervalued, given that he defeated Nadal in the Italian Open, one of the tune-ups for the French.

Top seed Andy Murray (+900) has not won an event on clay this season and his place on the tennis betting lines might reflect the notion that some bettors will always go for a big name with a track record of winning Grand Slams. In terms of someone who is coming into the tournament playing well, Stan Wawrinka (+1000) has had an impressive run at the Geneva Open after having so-so output for most of the clay-court season. Wawrinka is also a recent champion, having won in 2015.

It seems like it is just a matter of when 20-year-old Alexander Zverev (+1400) will win his first Grand Slam singles title. Zverev turned heads when he extended Nadal to five sets in a third-round defeat at the Australian Open in January, and he defeated Djokovic in the Italian Open final to become the youngest player in 10 years to win an ATP Masters event.

As far as the women’s champion board goes, Simona Halep (+450) has top odds but is battling an ankle injury. World No. 1 Angelique Kerber (+1600) has also been inconsistent throughout the season. Young Ukrainian Elina Svitolina (+700) is an intriguing possibility by virtue of her results (four singles titles already in 2017) and her strong return game, since the soft clay at Roland Garros dictates having longer rallies.

Garbine Muguruza (+900) is the defending champion, but it’s a little glaring that she has not reached a Grand Slam semifinal in three tries since that 2016 breakthrough.

Maria Sharapova retires from match after French Open rejection

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ROME — Maria Sharapova retired from her Italian Open match citing an apparent left thigh injury hours after learning she would not be granted a wild card into the French Open.

Sharapova was leading against Mirjana Lucic-Baroni 4-6, 6-3, 2-1 when she called it quits on Tuesday in the second round.

Sharapova had left the court for an injury timeout during the second game of the third set. She came back with her left thigh taped and managed to win a game despite serving softly then walked to the net after Lucic-Baroni held serve.

The retirement came 2 1/2 hours after French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli announced he would not invite Sharapova to Roland Garros because of her past doping ban.

“Must be tough for her, but it’s the way it is,” Novak Djokovic said after he overcame a challenging first set to beat British qualifier Aljaz Bedene 7-6 (2), 6-2 in his opening match at the Foro Italico. “In some tournaments she’s going to get that help in wild card and invitation; some not. Unfortunately, it’s Grand Slam, which is for sure for her a big one.”

The French Open starts in less than two weeks.

“She has to go through a tougher way back,” Djokovic added. “After being absent from the tour for a long time, she’s going to be patient, at least as much as she can, to slowly build her rankings and get back to where she has the quality to (enter tournaments directly).”

Sharapova returned last month following a 15-month ban for testing positive for the banned heart drug meldonium at last year’s Australian Open.

The Russian has accepted wild cards to enter all three of her tournaments since her return, attracting criticism from many players.

Sharapova reached the semifinals in Stuttgart, Germany, then was eliminated in the second round in Madrid last week.

By winning her opening match in Rome on Monday, Sharapova earned enough points to enter the top 200 next week and gain direct entry to the qualifying tournament for Wimbledon.

She won both of her previous matches against Lucic-Baroni, a semifinalist at this year’s Australian Open.

Earlier, Bedene frustrated Djokovic for long stretches with his foot speed, keeping the ball in play and whipping surprising winners.

At the conclusion of a tight first set, Djokovic served three aces in the tiebreaker then laughed to himself in apparent astonishment.

Also, David Goffin rallied past Fernando Verdasco 3-6, 6-3, 6-2; Tomas Berdych notched his 600th career win by beating qualifier Carlos Berlocq 6-3, 6-4; Jack Sock defeated Diego Schwartzman 6-4, 1-6, 7-5; and Alexander Zverev outlasted Kevin Anderson 6-4, 4-6, 6-4.

Nick Kyrgios withdrew from the tournament with a hip injury.

In other women’s action, last year’s finalist, Madison Keys, was beaten by Australian qualifier Daria Gavrilova 2-6, 7-5, 7-5.

Keys is still struggling to regain her form after left wrist surgery in the offseason. She also had opening-round losses in her previous two tournaments in Charleston and Madrid.

The 33rd-ranked Gavrilova had to come through qualifying because she forgot to enter the main draw.

Also, fifth-seeded Johanna Konta defeated Yulia Putintseva 6-3, 6-0; Ekaterina Makarova eliminated Roberta Vinci 6-2, 6-1; and qualifier Catherine Bellis beat Misako Doi 6-4, 7-6 (6).