Conventional wisdom in the world of high-stakes professional tennis is that to win a title in one of the four major events, a player needs to have talent, of course, but also experience.
It’s hard to be a Grand Slam champion until your mettle has been tested and you’ve been through the tennis wringer a few times, before coming out the other side battered and bruised but battle-tested.
But right now, in the world of women’s tennis, an unflappable group of teenagers have decided to flip that script. Their attitude seems to be more along the lines of “How about we just go ahead and win right now, and not do that whole wringer stuff?”
Remarkably, three of the last eight Grand Slam events on the women’s side have been won by a teenager, after 13 years went by without a teenage champion. And it’s not just one once-in-a-lifetime super talent scooping up multiple titles, it was three different women.
This notion was hammered home last month at the U.S. Open when 18-year-old Emma Raducanu of Great Britain beat 19-year-old Leylah Fernandez of Canada for the championship. Raducanu became the first-ever qualifier to win a Grand Slam women’s singles title.
Iga Swiatek of Poland won the 2020 French Open at 19 years old, and Bianca Andreescu of Canada won the 2019 U.S. Open at 19 years old a few months after winning the BNP Paribas Open here in the desert as an 18-year-old.
It begs the question, why? Why are the youngest players on tour, and so many of them, having a moment right now?
Well, with all of these teen success stories in town for the BNP Paribas Open, including Raducanu, Fernandez, Swiatek, Andreescu and 17-year-old Coco Gauff, the top-seeded American, we asked them that very question.
“So many young payers, all of us are pushing each other,” said Raducanu, who took home $2.5 million for her record-breaking U.S. Open victory — a sum more than eight times her previous career earnings. “When you see another teen doing well, you are also competitive and want to do well. Just the women’s game in general is so strong right now. The level is high and almost anyone can win most tournaments. And to have so many young players is really good because the next generation is just so strong, and hopefully we can play each other in many more tournaments to come.”
Andreescu, now an old-timer at 21 years old, points to two things, one physical and one mental.
She said that it’s her experience, and she’s spoken with her countrywoman Fernandez about this, that players have better access to and more sophisticated knowledge of physical training at a young age these days. She said the organization Tennis Canada has really helped young players in her home country excel at a young age.
“Tennis has evolved so from a young age we are able to have fitness trainers, and Tennis Canada really helped provide us with coaches and trainers and we were able to travel, and they really helped us be able to accomplish things at a younger age,” said Andreescu, who has three career singles titles and has won more than $7.4 million in her career.
The other reason young players are soaring on the WTA Tour?
“We’re youngsters and we’re just, I don’t know, super fearless these days,” Andreescu said. “I don’t know why, honestly. But that is definitely a factor.”
Another thing working in the teens’ favor is that there is not an imposing force on the women’s tour right now, scooping up all the titles. Serena Williams was that player for several years, but there have been 18 Grand Slams since Williams won her most recent one in Australia in 2017.
It seems that every tournament, even the biggest ones, begins with almost every woman in the field believing they have a chance.
The BNP Paribas Open — considered by many to be the “fifth slam” — has been the perfect example of that recently. Andreescu won here in 2019 after entering the tournament as the No. 60-ranked player in the world. The 2018 champion, Naomi Osaka, was ranked No. 44 entering that year’s BNP.
At this year’s tournament, none of the top 10 seeded players have won here. So why wouldn’t every woman in the field believe they can be the one hoisting the trophy on Sunday, Oct. 17? Especially a confident teenager.
Fernandez said, for her, it’s about proving yourself against the best and a desire to entertain the fans of the sport she loves that drives her.
“We’re all so hungry to do something on tour,” Fernandez said. “I know from my own experience that I always wanted to do something special on court. To be able to play on court against these champions, these legends and just to put on a good show for everybody and have fun and compete as well as you can. Teenagers are doing so well. We’re just hungry to do something for the WTA. We just want to bring something extra special on Tour.”
The highest-ranked American player at Indian Wells this year is the 17-year-old Gauff. No American has won at Indian Wells in 20 years. Can Gauff break that streak? She has the game and the confidence, and now she has evidence that she doesn’t need to wait around.
Gauff, who was born in Atlanta and grew up in Delray Beach, Florida, said seeing her older teenage peers face off in the U.S. Open was motivating.
“It was definitely inspiring for me, especially since I’m younger than both of them,” Gauff said. “For me, it shows how much a year can make a difference and how much I can do next year. To see two competitors who just love the game. Watching them you would think that they’ve been on the stage for 20 years. For me, it was great to see that, and also gave me a little bit of fire that if they can do it, I can do it too.”
Shad Powers is a sports columnist for The Desert Sun. Reach him at email@example.com.