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Age-related decline in elite tennis similar in male and female players

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The long careers of Serena Williams and Roger Federer show that, for many top tennis players, age is no barrier to success.

However, physical ability generally declines with age and a new study has found that male and female tennis players decline at the same rate.

Using data on first-serve speed and accuracy in the world’s top male and female players, researchers at the University of Exeter found clear peaks in power (at the age of about 26) and accuracy (about 28), followed by declines in both.

As men and women are known to have different patterns of ageing, the findings were unexpected.

“We know men and women age differently, and wanted to test when these differences start to emerge,” said Dr Ruth Archer, of the University of Exeter.

“We know, for example, that women live longer than men but have poorer health later in life. And studies in other sports have suggested women’s performances begins to decline earlier than men.

“However, we found remarkably similar patterns of performance decay in male and female tennis players.”

The analysis identified certain differences between the sexes, with men serving faster, but less accurately, than women.

Interestingly, in both sexes, as power declined, accuracy tended to increase. The researchers noted that experience may help players offset the effects of age-related deterioration.

However, in contrast to other sports, there were no sex differences in how either trait changed with age.

The findings have been published in the journal Behavioral Ecology.