Teenage Aces: Tennis' New Generation

Teenage Aces: Tennis' New Generation

September 2021 | Sport

With ageing superstars close to retirement, Tennis is a sport in transition. Does the unexpected success of Emma Radacanu herald a new generation of superstars?

It's been a long time since the women's competition in a tennis grand slam has attracted more attention than the men's tournament. Yet, that is precisely what happened last week. The fairytale US Open final between Leylah Fernandez and Emma Radacanu attracted a higher television audience than Novak Djokovic's unexpected loss to Daniil Medvedev.

Ageing Stars

In the late 90s, the emerging battles between Martina Hingis, Maria Sharapova and the Williams sisters were judged to be more entertaining than the big servers on the men's side. Pete Sampras was a great tennis player, but he and his contemporaries were rarely fun to watch. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal changed all that, raising the men's game to an entirely new level in both skill and entertainment. No one on the women's tour could match them, not even an all-time great such as Serena Williams.

The impending retirements of Williams, Federer and Nadal mean that both tennis tours look bereft of star power, leaving Djokovic to sweep all before him as the youngest and fittest of the top four mens players. Last year's US Open champion, Dominic Thiem, was the first new grand slam winner since 2014 in the men's singles. At the age of 27, he was also the first man born in the 1990s to win a slam. Medvedev was just the second at the age of 25.

The women's tour has been more open in recent seasons. Serena Williams last won a grand slam at the 2017 Australian Open. Since then, there have been numerous new grand slam winners, but only one person has come close to matching Serena's star power. That player is Naomi Osaka, whose mental health struggles have eclipsed three grand slams this year as well as the Olympics.

A New Generation

Into this environment stepped two half Asian teenagers born in Canada in 2002. Radacanu moved to the UK when she was a baby but still values her Canadian links as much as her British upbringing and her Chinese and Romanian ancestry. Leylah Fernandez has a similarly cosmopolitan heritage.

They're not the first teenagers to reach a grand slam final in recent seasons. Bianca Andreescu won the 2019 US Open while still only 19. Like Radacanu, she won the tournament at her first attempt, completing a breakout season where she won several major titles, including Indian Wells as a wildcard. Andreescu ended that season as the world number 4 and is still in the top 20.

Similarly, Iga Swiatek was also 19 when she won last year's French Open. Swiatek was already a top 10 player when she won that title, following a strong clay court season. She was among the pre-tournament contenders as a result. The real surprise on that occasion was the dominance she showed, with the Polish player not dropping a set or losing more than 5 games in a set.

The Qualifier

That's a record matched by Radacanu, who also didn't lose a set during her US Open run, nor was she even taken to a tie break. That's a remarkable record for someone who had to go through qualifying just to get to the first round at Flushing Meadows. Fernandez had the harder draw, beating three of the world's top five. However, Radacanu still had to get past two of the form players on the tour, including the Olympic champion.

It's a remarkable achievement for someone competing in only her fourth tournament on the WTA tour. Of course, one of those other events was Wimbledon. Her run to the fourth round propelled her into the spotlight earlier this summer. She retired hurt on that occasion, overwhelmed by the pressure of a home crowd and the novelty of the experience. The fact she's come back stronger shows a mental resilience that could keep her at the top for a long-time. That sets her apart from many of the top British players from recent decades.

The Future?

The million dollar question is how her game progresses over the next few seasons. As a debutant, opponents haven't had the chance to identify her weaknesses. It's the ongoing quest for self improvement that sets the merely good tennis players from the greats. Otherwise, the flaws in her game will become weapons to be used against her in matches against the best.

There is a definite opportunity for one of the crop of talented teenagers to become the new figurehead for women's tennis. Radacanu has the talent and charisma to become that player, but so do Fernandez, Andreescu and Swiatek. Anything is possible with the talent they possess.