Young stars set to soar at AO 2021
Young stars set to soar at AO 2021
Steffi Graf, Boris Becker, Monica Seles, Michael Chang, Martina Hingis, Pete Sampras, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova… tennis has a rich history of teenage stars winning Grand Slam titles.
But more recently, teen success seemed destined to exist in the past, given the sport’s increasingly physical nature and lengthier pro careers.
However, tennis is skewing younger again.
In 2020, half of the ATP’s year-end top 10 and 14 of the year-end top 30 were aged 24 or younger, figures not seen in more than a decade. On the women’s side, Jelena Ostapenko, Naomi Osaka and Sofia Kenin broke through for Slam titles while aged 21 or under; Bianca Andreescu did so at age 19.
Since then, Iga Swiatek became a Roland Garros champion in 2020 at 19 years of age, making her the perfect player to head our list of five teenage talents who could have a major impact at AO 2021.
All possessing freakish abilities and striking maturity, plus an engaging presence on court, in person and through social media, these players represent Generation Z – a cohort who, according to the Washington Post, are “globally conscious and care about diversity, equality and inclusion.”
Just over two months ago, Iga Swiatek was ranked No.54 – until she suddenly became a Grand Slam champion, top-20 player and the game’s newest star.
And we say suddenly, because her achievements represented the sharpest of performance spikes; she had never previously been past the last 16 at a Slam, or won a WTA title.
But at Roland Garros, she demolished all before her – including major champions Kenin and Simona Halep – to win the title without dropping a set. And she re-wrote the record books in the process.
Power, athleticism, canny point construction and the heaviest of forehands are elements that, when combined with her mental work – she has a full-time sports psychologist in her entourage – make her formidable.
Her goal on court is to be consistently great, while off it, Swiatek gravitates to AC/DC, Pink Floyd and Guns N’ Roses, reads up on European politics and has university aspirations.
Another teenager making waves in Paris was Sinner, who became the youngest French Open quarterfinalist since Novak Djokovic in 2006 and first debutant to reach that stage since Rafael Nadal in 2005.
Slight and unassuming, the Italian dazzles with incredibly clean-ball striking, an early contact-point and fluid power – all stemming from textbook technique – plus a serene on-court presence.
Sinner did not have a singles ranking until February 2018; in the past two seasons he has vaulted from outside the top 500 to world No.37, and is now the youngest top-100 player.
In 2020 he truly broke ground; a month after Roland Garros he won his first ATP title in Sofia to crack the top 40.
He closed the season by winning 16 of his final 21 matches and should enter AO 2021 with soaring confidence.
Gauff deviates from her contemporaries on this list – and all other active pros – due to the age at which she began impacting the tour.
“Coco-mania” engulfed Wimbledon in 2019 when the then-15-year-old qualified for the main draw, upset Venus Williams then reached the fourth round, age-related Grand Slam feats not seen since Jennifer Capriati and Anna Kournikova in the 1990s.
She backed that up with a fourth-round run at AO 2020, stunning defending champion Naomi Osaka along the way.
Already, Gauff has beaten four top-15 opponents, won a WTA title (in Linz) and cracked the top 50 – the youngest player in this rankings bracket by several years.
Her maturity is striking, both in the way she plays on court – intelligent shot selection coupled with an impressive blend of offense and defence – and her social activism off it.
Three years older than Gauff, Anisimova was the leading teenager in the top 50 until Swiatek’s emergence.
And she’s already verged on the top 20 herself thanks to a semifinal run at Roland Garros in 2019, where she overpowered Halep to become the youngest major semifinalist in 12 years before very nearly upending eventual champion Ash Barty.
The American, whose idol is Billie Jean King, first announced herself at age 16 with a stunning defeat of world No.9 Petra Kvitova at Indian Wells in 2018, where she reached the fourth round.
Her success is built around purely-struck groundstrokes – her backhand in particular is a potent weapon – and a calm yet steely demeanour.
He may no longer be a teenager, but Auger-Aliassime sneaks onto this list because he was as recently as August – and is the second-youngest player in the top 100 behind Sinner.
He cracked the top 20 less than two weeks after turning 19, confirmation of why pundits rate this Canadian rising star so highly.
Auger-Aliassime is the archetypal modern player; tall yet an excellent mover, abundantly powerful yet a solid defender. Add to this an impressive work-ethic and commitment to improvement, and you have a pretty complete package.
Incredibly, he has already reached six ATP finals – he still seeks his first title – and recently made a Grand Slam breakthrough, overwhelming Andy Murray on his way to the US Open fourth round.
And like Gauff and Anisimova, he spoke out during the Black Lives Matter protests in mid 2020, with his video being watched more than 70,000 times on Instagram – a reminder of the power and reach of young tennis stars' platforms.