What Serena Williams’ Retirement Teaches Us About Athletic Longevity

Apr 19, 2023

While she’s widely known as the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) in the world of women’s tennis—and in any and all tennis worlds, really—after more than 26 years on the professional circuit and with 23 singles Grand Slam wins under her belt, Serena Williams has retired. Like all jobs, a day comes when we call it quits, and a sporting career is no different.

Now in her 40s, Williams has managed to stay at the top of her game for significantly longer than studies into tennis excellence conclude is the optimum performance age – 24 years.

And yet. There are other notable athletes across a range of sports who are also now in their 40s including cricketer James Anderson, American footballer Tom Brady (granted, he just announced plans to retire for the second and perhaps final time) and surfer Kelly Slater. So, what’s their secret?

Three Key Factors

The general question that Serena Williams’ professional longevity provokes is this: why are more professional athletes retiring later these days? Afterall, Williams might have left the game 20 years ago, but her talents persisted well beyond traditional age-related expectations. Contemporary fitness experts say her longevity in the sport is down to three factors:

  • Better training
  • Improved nutrition
  • Enhanced recovery techniques

The issue is, how relevant are these insights for recreational athletes – whose ages may range from relative youth to relative old age – and can we learn from them? The answer to that is: absolutely.

Changes in Training Techniques

Back in 1988, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh set out to understand the peak age of performance for athletes across different sports. Their findings suggested that while professional golfers peak at about 31, and professional baseball players at 28, tennis players reach their highest levels of performance aged just 24 – as we mentioned earlier.

More recently, in 2018, a study conducted by the online platform Tennishead and as reported by ABC News, found that the average age of the world’s top 100 tennis players has risen sharply in the last 10 years.

The Tennishead research revealed the following. “Thirty years ago, the average ages of the world’s top 100 men and women were 23.74 years and 22.56 years respectively.”

“By the end of last year those figures had risen to 28.26 and 25.8 respectively. In the last 10 years alone, the average ages have risen by 2.67 years among the men and by 2.14 years among the women.”

Questions About High-Intensity Training

One of the key changes that has helped professional (and amateur) athletes to compete for longer has been in their approach to training, according to Gary Brickley, a Senior Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Brighton. As reported in The Conversation, Dr. Brickley stated:

“The ‘old school’ approach to training consisted of high-intensity exercise to failure or fatigue – essentially pushing an athlete until they couldn’t do any more during that training session. The main benefit of this approach is that it’s time-efficient, as the more intense the exercise, the less time is needed to achieve the benefits of training.”
Things have changed considerably, and there’s plenty to learn.

Coming Up In Part Two

Interested? Good! You can read about structured, polarised and concurrent training in part two of this series, our follow up blog about Serena Williams and what made it possible for her (and other aging players) to stay in the game for so long. Stay tuned!



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