Carlos Alcaraz, Leylah Fernandez and Emma Raducanu. Eighteen, nineteen, and eighteen. All three have lit up New York at this year’s US Open with fantastic tennis. Alcaraz, absolutely exhausted after his early round heroics, bowed out via retirement against Auger-Aliassime in the quarterfinals. But both Fernandez and Raducanu are still competing in the semi-finals for a chance at their first Major trophy. Jenson Brooskby, at just 20 years old, also deserves an honourable mention for how he troubled Djokovic a few days ago.
Teenage success has not been that uncommon on the WTA in recent years. Bianca Andreescu and Iga Swiatek both won Slams as 19 year olds, Swiatek at Roland Garros in 2020 and Andreescu at the US Open in 2019. And most extraordinary of all, Coco Gauff wowed the world at just 15 years old by making the fourth round at Wimbledon in 2019 (along with continued impressive results at the Slams in the years since).
Recent teenage success on the men’s side has been less common however. Alcaraz is the youngest male quarter-finalist at the US Open since 1963, and the youngest men’s quarter-finalist at any Slam since Michael Chang at Roland Garros in 1990. This is partly because the ‘Big 3’ of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic (and Murray pre-2017) combined to form a tormenting gatekeeper of younger player’s hopes and dreams for most of the last 16 years. And also because it arguably requires more physical maturity and experience to beat the very best men over five sets in Slams than the women over three sets. One of the Big 3’s largest collective moats has been their experience, and management of level and exertion, over the course of a long five set match. Alcaraz did brilliantly to beat 3rd seed Tsitsipas in the 3rd round in a five set epic, and even pushed on into the quarterfinals. But you could see in the match against Auger-Aliassime that the young Spaniard’s body just wasn’t conditioned to run that unfamiliar gauntlet quite yet. The good news for Alcaraz, if you zoom out a bit, was that he got to play Tsitsipas in the third round at all, instead of one of a younger Federer, Nadal, Djokovic or Murray who almost uninterruptedly occupied those 1-4 seeds for so much of recent history. As we beat on, further away from the time when Federer and Nadal were the forces to be reckoned with, even as Djokovic impressively clings to dominance as the last gatekeeper standing, more opportunities for these rising teenagers will likely open up. Djokovic can only keep one half of the draw out of Slam finals, with the other side more up for grabs in the absence of the other two or three legends. The odds for teenage breakthroughs may have, rather suddenly, gotten a bit better.
One of the funny things that happens when young players like this go on great runs, like we are seeing in New York, is that some newer fans find it difficult to understand how on earth these suddenly unstoppable talents lost recent matches against less impressive opponents. Surely Fernandez, with this kind of level, shouldn’t have lost in straight sets to No.151 Harriet Dart in the first round of Montreal just a few weeks ago? And surely Raducanu, with this kind of level, shouldn’t have lost in a Challenger tournament in Chicago in the warm up to the US Open? But the temptation to think like this ignores two things. Firstly that it’s unbelievably hard for players to play their very best tennis week in, week out against a smorgasbord of differently demanding opponents and game-styles. And secondly that the depth at around the 50-150 ranking level in professional tennis is deeper than the Mariana Trench.
A potential pitfall for Raducanu, in the context of her breakout 2021 season, is that both Alcaraz and Fernandez’ ascents have been more gradual in comparison. Fernandez made her WTA main draw debut in 2018. The Canadian finished 2017 ranked No.728, 487 in 2018, 209 in 2019, 88 in 2020, 73 before the US Open, and is now guaranteed to be at least 36 in the world after New York. Alcaraz beat the Challenger tour in 2019 and 2020 and made his ATP main draw debut in early 2020. The Spaniard finished 2019 ranked 492, 141 in 2020, 55 before the US Open, and will now be 38 next week. Both players clearly rocketed up the rankings, but Raducanu’s trajectory is something else entirely. The Brit only made her WTA main draw debut in June this year. She finished 2018 ranked 692, 503 in 2019, and 343 at the end of 2020. Before Wimbledon this year Raducanu’s ranking was 338 in the world, but on the back of a wild card and a brilliant run to the fourth round in London, she jumped to 179, and then to 150 before the US Open. Next week Raducanu will be at least 51 in the world, and higher if she beats Maria Sakkari this evening. Two extraordinary Slam results, that outwardly seem to have come from nowhere, have propelled Raducanu from outside the top 300 to approximately top 50 or better. Sixty days ago Raducanu wasn’t even in the top ten ranked players from Great Britain. On Monday she will be British number one. This is tennis’ version of leaping from Everest base camp to camp four just below the summit.
Under that leap lies both the cruel and the kind sides to confidence and momentum in professional tennis. Having breakthrough results can do all sorts of things to a young star. It can propel the player to new heights of belief, crossing a ranking chasm where they suddenly find themselves with the earned privilege of playing lower ranked, or easier, players in the earlier rounds of tournament draws, setting off a chain of success-begets-more-success events. Or the rise can merely produce a greater fall when the brutally competitive reality of the tour marches on regardless of whether that player wins or not. History is littered with both scenarios playing out. The truly great players tend to use the extremely sudden ranking bump as instant validation of their ability, and push on to greater heights. The less lucky, either physically, mentally or both, toil, temporarily or permanently, in the knowledge that they can be that good, but wondering why those highs are suddenly so elusive.
There are plenty of good reasons for the sudden rise in Raducanu’s case however. Raducanu simply wasn’t playing international events until this year. A mixture of the impact of COVID and her exams in the UK meant that her rise went on pause just as her impressive 16 and 17 year old results were starting to create buzz. And fears about the effect of sudden success on Raducanu’s mindset will hopefully be somewhat allayed by the excellent team surrounding her, including delicate mentorship from a who’s who of British tennis athletes.
All three of Raducanu, Fernandez, and Alcaraz have talent levels and abilities that should allow them to continue climbing, should they navigate the above.
// Raducanu’s serve is already technically solid and has plenty more upside to be squeezed out of it. Her groundstrokes are extremely sound both from central positions, with good footwork and leg bend, and from wide positions with powerful, open stance shotmaking (her forehand in particular is endlessly repeatable, especially when moving forward). And Raducanu’s return takes a leaf out of Novak Djokovic’s book by aiming deep (effective) and central (safe) with brilliant consistency. The young Brit’s movement this week in New York has also looked orders of magnitude better and faster than when I watched her play in 2019.
// Fernandez has unusually great court awareness, a backhand that doesn’t break down easily and can change direction with effortlessly, and one of the most interesting and potentially devastating lefty forehands on the women’s tour that I’ve seen in a while. The Canadian can effortlessly create short angles, with massive high margin net clearance thanks to spin, that exploit her opponent’s lateral movement and force them to move forward as well as to the side to track down balls. Fernandez’s back-to-back three set victories over Osaka, Kerber and Svitolina, and the manner of those victories, were the biggest achievements of the US Open by far in my mind.
// Alcaraz is an all-round behemoth in the making, with brilliant forehands and backhands, both offensively and defensively, as well as tireless and explosive movement that reminds me slightly of a young Nadal in a straight line, and a young Djokovic laterally. His serve needs, and will get, work as that shot has been exploited by better returners than Tsitsipas, but the return of serve is already world class. At his best, in the sort of baseline flow state we saw against Tsitsipas last week, Alcaraz will be nearly unstoppable in terms of raw shotmaking power.
Tickets and teenagers
My thinking about why people watch and love tennis has evolved a bit over the last few years. The Big 3 of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic and the Williams sisters, have undoubtably brought tennis to new heights in terms of performance, attracted millions of new fans to the sport, and their rivalries have at times made the rest of the tour look rather pedestrian in comparison. This isn’t their fault, that they have been so much better than everyone else. These giants of the game are not called the ‘greatest of all time’ for no reason. But a side-effect has been the occasional suppression of new seeds of competitive life on the tours, especially on the ATP side given the Big 3/4 could more effectively gatekeep trophies as a collective rather than the more singular threat of Serena on the WTA. The ‘Lost-gen’ of Dimitrov, Nishikori, Raonic, and even Thiem et al are the most acute victims of this dominance. But even the supposed ‘next-gen’ of Zverev, Medvedev, Tsitsipas et al have been entirely foiled thus far by an aged, but deeply persistent, Big 3. Those three stars have decimated the progress of all who dare to surround them, by the simple virtue of being too damn good at this incredible sport. And while one of them remains guarding tennis’ biggest prizes, and the other two will try to come back from their latest injuries, previously rare opportunities are undoubtably becoming less rare in this fresh decade. And with these opportunities, new storylines are being allowed to emerge and grow, the seeds and even fruits of which you are seeing at this year’s, especially exciting and novel-feeling, US Open. While I think many of the hardcore fans of this sport love seeing these aged legends still beating the game, I’m convinced that the more compelling scenario for most newer fans is the gatekeepers finally being breached, even if it’s the inevitable march of time rather than competition that breaches them. Usurping players would like to believe that they're ruthlessly snatching the torch with unassailable initiative, because they're simply too good, rather than having to pick it up off the floor, dropped by a retiring, aged warrior whose time has come. By virtue of how great the legends of this generation are and were, this hasn’t been possible. But this no longer matters. Age is, or will soon be, winning. And the teenagers and twenty year olds look as hungry and compelling as ever.
Raducanu, Fernandez, and Alcaraz, along with a handful of others on either tour, have brought battering rams. The moats are shallowing. The gates are partly open on the women’s tour, and old and cracked on the men’s side. A few more blows and suddenly this decade will be awash with interesting adventure and chaos.
I wish all three players long and happy careers.
If you have any questions on the above, let me know in the comments. No question is dumb.
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