Squinting under the brim of her hat, Iga Swiatek hunkered down just off the dusty red baseline of Court Philippe-Chatrier.
With the Parisian sun glaring down on one half of the court, Swiatek could barely see the ball belting towards her as her opponent Sofia Kenin smashed serve after serve over the net.
But Swiatek continually returned the ball back to the American, almost effortlessly at times, pushing Kennin further and further onto the back foot.
Kenin responded well to Swiatek’s advances, but it was the 19-year-old’s superb accuracy and delicacy that ultimately enabled her to best the world No.6, winning 6-4 6-1 to become the 2020 French Open champion.
Winning an impressive streak of 6 games in the final set, the unseeded teenager played to her strengths, wearing down the American by placing some well-timed shots around the court only to then dispatch her opponent with a killer yet subtle drop shot to win the point.
Although it was ultimately her ability to capitalize on Kenin’s serve that really wowed us.
Winning 61% of her return points Swiatek had a response for almost all of Sofia Kenin’s power.
But there was a lot to admire on both sides and despite coming into the game with an injury to her thigh, Kenin used her experience and tennis smarts to ask questions of the Pole who had a lot to do to recover and return as the 2020 Australian Open champion went on the offensive.
Dropping just 28 out of 112 games during the tournament, Iga Swiatek’s dominance was something to behold, sweeping past Argentinian Nadia Podoroska and the current Wimbledon Champion Simona Halep en route to the final.
Her win signifies another triumph for a new generation of charismatic young tennis stars who have been fronting the headlines and dominating the tennis circuit for the past two years.
“Maybe it just had to be like that,” Swiatek said after the match. “Another underdog is gonna win a grand slam. In women’s tennis it’s so open right now that it’s crazy.”
7 out of the last 8 grand slam titles have been won by players under the age of 23, with the latest of those being contested by two players aged 21 and under. We couldn’t agree with Swiatek’s sentiment anymore that the women’s game is in a very healthy position right now.
Although the last ten years have definitely belonged to Serena Williams, who won 26 singles tournaments between 2010 and 2020, we’re now on the cusp of a new era of tennis fronted by young players like Naomi Osaka (23), Bianca Andreescu (19), and Ashleigh Barty (24) who have all broken through over the past few years to lead this new generation of young players.
And with the tennis circuit expected to return to some normality next year, it is a truly refreshing and exciting time for the sport.
The future’s bright
A commonality we’ve noticed in all of these rising stars is the inspiring ambition and self-belief they all show on the court.
Each has challenged the conventions of tennis bringing modern styles of play into the game, while also showing that tennis isn’t the be-all and end-all in life.
Perhaps the first of the new age of player to break onto the scene was Naomi Osaka, who won back-to-back major championships at the 2018 U.S. Open and then again at the 2019 Australian Open.
Osaka, who idolised Serena Williams as a junior player, rose to the top of the game to actually defeat her idol to claim her first major championship.
Speaking at the start of the year at the Brisbane Open she quipped that her goal was, “I think just to try as hard as I can every match, because for me I feel like when I do that I somehow end up winning the match, no matter – oh, that sounds really arrogant. (Rather) I put myself in a position to win the match.”
“For me, I feel like all I need is like a chance or a couple of chances. I think I just need to believe in myself and fight for every point.”
It’s that self-belief and ambition that has driven Osaka to the top, not settling for anything less than a win.
Osaka had also notably hired coaches and trainers who had experience working with the Williams sisters until she realised she wanted to beat them and hired a new coach Wim Fissette who has successfully coached several players to beat Serena Williams 5 times in the last 11 years.
And Fissette was wowed by the ambition of Osaka stating, “With a player like Naomi, you go to tournaments to win them, not to play finals or semifinals. That’s the ambition, and I love that ambition.”
But success hasn’t come easy for the 2020 U.S. Open Champion who battled through a tough shoulder injury in 2019 to come back and perfect her service game this year, hitting an impressive 141 aces, while also winning 75.4% of the time on her first serve.Embed from Getty Images
Like Osaka, Canadian Bianca Andreescu has shown a similar drive to get back to peak performance after having to sit out the 2020 season due to a knee injury.
19-year-old Andreescu also had an awesome breakthrough year in 2019, using her power and precision to do the double over Williams, beating her in both the Canadian Open final and in the U.S. Open final.
The Canadian demonstrated the composure and resilience of someone much more experienced than her in the U.S. Open final against Williams.
Andreescu spoke in a post match press conference of the pressure she faced while on the court, “at that point, you can only try to focus on the things you can control, and that was my attitude towards it and I just kept my composure, which is why I think I dealt with that scenario really well.“
And it seems the Canadian will be back with a bang next year stating in an interview with Tennis Majors, “I’m waiting for 2021, that’s going to be the year.”
World No.1 Ashleigh Barty has also missed out on the majority of this season after choosing to remain in Australia due to the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
But 2019 French Open champion, Barty, has made it clear that there are things in life that transcend tennis, which as a professional sport, can take over your life.
After suffering from the stresses of the constant touring lifestyle, the 24-year-old took some time away from the sport in 2016 to spend time with her family and address personal matters following an extended period of time away from home.
During that hiatus she actually had a 9-game stint in the Women’s Big Bash League, scoring 68 runs for the Brisbane Heat and came back to climb the rankings, with wins in Miami, the WTA Finals, and at Roland Garros in 2019.
“Mentally, I think it finally came together for her,” former world No.9 Daniela Hantuchova said of Barty’s 2019 season. “We’ve all been there. Everyone tells us how good we are, but we have to believe it ourselves. And she does now.”
From hitting sixes to hitting Aces, world No.1 Ashleigh Barty looks to have enjoyed her time away from the tennis circuit, celebrating Richmond Tigers 2020 AFL Grand Final win in October, while also turning her hand to golf and mastering that too, winning the Brookwater Golf Club women’s championship.
Disappointed to have missed out this season, there’s no doubt the ever-competitive Aussie will be back next year as she looks to secure her first major on home soil.
Someone who will also be looking to win in Australia is reigning champion Sofia Kenin.
With the chance to win back-to-back Australian Open titles, and with the French Open loss still fresh in her mind, Kenin will be giving everything to retain the Daphne Akhurst memorial cup this January.
Speaking on the new generation of tennis players coming through, Kenin stated, “I think it’s great, a new generation coming up. It’s a bit more competition on us… But it’s always good to see youngsters taking over and playing great tennis,“
Although she admitted afterward that she was part of that generation of young players, spearheading an exciting trio of players coming through the U.S. tennis ranks, with 16-year-old Cori “Coco” Gauff and 18-year-old Amanda Anisimova both following in her stride.
It’s a bright future for the Americans, with Gauff becoming one of the youngest players to win on the WTA tour, beating Jelena Ostapenko in Linz, while Amanda Anisimova clinched her first win at WTA level in Bogotá last season.
This generation of rising stars also includes Aryna Sabalenka (22) who won in Dubai this year, Dayana Yastremska (20) who holds 3 singles titles on the WTA Tour, and 2017 French Open winner Jelena Ostapenko (23).
Looking at the young players currently coming through the WTA ranks, a clear trend starts to show itself. There is no denying every one of these rising stars has a wealth of self-belief and ambition to achieve greatness.
“Even though you’re really young and you’re an underdog, you can do a lot in a sport like tennis,” Swiatek spoke after her French Open win. “On the one hand it’s pretty inspiring. Sometimes I caught myself visualizing that I’m also winning a Grand Slam. But on the other hand, it was also really far away. Right now I’m here and I’m a Grand Slam champion. It’s crazy.“
For the time being, the spotlight will remain on Iga Swiatek, who has further bolstered the emergence of this new age of tennis stars.
“Somewhere in myself, I always believed I could do great things.”
But as we look ahead to the future, we are filled with optimism at what will be an extremely bright and competitive decade for women’s tennis.
With two months to go until the Australian Open, we can’t wait to see what this generation of young players will bring to the blue courts of Melbourne Park.
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