An article over at CNN today formally advances a claim dropped casually by commentators, coaches, fans, and any crank with a taste for caricaturing a whole generation. Here goes: Smartphones are hampering tennis’s young players, which is why they can’t stop the Big Three in the men’s game, who enjoyed the advantage of growing up before this era. Without internet-induced brain worms, apparently, it is possible to rack up at least 16 major titles.
Why exactly does a phone pose a threat to young tennis players? The CNN piece gets its hypothesis from Judy Murray, coach, former player, and mom of singles star Andy and doubles star Jamie—and I should note, a wise and admirable person:
Tennis is so much about problem-solving, and working things out for yourself and thinking things through, and being able to understand what’s going on on your side of the net, but on the other side of the court as well [...] You really need to think quickly and act quickly, so decision-making is such a huge part of it. And nowadays, there are just so many gadgets that do people’s thinking for them. It just worries me, the over-dependence on gadgets.
As someone whose own brain has been liquefied by these devices, I am open to the notion that they make certain tasks harder. I have even written about a young player whose commitment to Digital Content is so extreme that it robs him of on-court focus on occasion—but Stefanos Tsitsipas is an edge case, not the representative sample of his cohort. (Let’s reassess if every kid on tour starts buying drones and producing 30-minute travel vlogs.) The oldest and best players may already believe something close to Judy Murray’s hypothesis. Roger Federer laughed when I asked him if technology posed new challenges to young players: “I’m happy I’m not from this generation. Let’s put it that way.” The results are beyond dispute: No man currently under the age of 30 holds a major trophy.
But if that were true, we should see the same dynamic play out in the WTA. Older players, free from the thrall of their notifications, should be enjoying the same dominance over the app-scrambled youth. Instead, nine of the top 20 players are under the age of 25. This year, 23-year-old Ashleigh Barty won the French Open. The profoundly online 21-year-old Naomi Osaka, who posts on Instagram every single day, won the last two Slams before that. The Big Three won all 11 majors played since the start of 2017; in that same span, six majors were won by women under 25.
Do women’s minds respond differently to smartphone overstimulation? That’s the gap in this logic. Maybe a follow-up report is coming from CNN, explaining that the female brain is uniquely resistant to the deleterious effects of TikTok. Otherwise, it’s hard to accept. It’s easier to accept this also strange but better supported account: The three best men’s tennis players of all time happened to be born around the same time; were spurred on by one another’s genius; and acquired previously impossible degrees of wealth, which could be reinvested in their training, health, and overall longevity. Smartphones probably do make certain forms of focus harder. Beating Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Rafael Nadal, however, requires way more than focus.