The big story of this year's US Open has been the two teenage phenoms taking over the competition. Canada's Leylah Fernandez, who turned 19 this week, and Great Britain's Emma Raducanu, who's just 18, took the US Open by storm with their fearless play and surprise upsets of top-ranked players.
Seeing them take down some of the best women's tennis players in the world almost feels like the start of something bigger. Not just the beginning of Raducanu and Fernandez's careers, but in women's tennis itself.
Both Fernandez and Raducanu made it through to the finals — they were the last two women standing out of a field of 64. The two faced off in the finals on Saturday, with Raducanu coming out on top to become the first qualifier to win a US Open title.
On her way, Fernandez beat Naomi Osaka, the No. 3 seed, Angelique Kerber, the No. 16 seed, and Elina Svitolina, the No. 5 seed. Raducanu, who played through the qualifying rounds to earn her spot in the main draw, beat Shelby Rogers, who had taken down No. 1 seed Ashleigh Barty, and Belinda Bencic, the No. 11 seed and the reigning Olympic gold medalist in women's singles.
It's made for extremely exciting tennis. The Flushing Meadows crowd loves underdogs and Cinderella stories, and Raducanu and Fernandez haven't been shy about getting them involved in their games.
The star-bright glow of the young phenoms is obscuring an important fact, though: for five years, women's tennis has been an exciting, entertaining, all-out brawl for superiority.
A new level of competition
With an 18- and 19-year-old commanding the big headlines, it's tempting to call this a changing of the guard. And their stories certainly represent some of the more compelling headlines from women's tennis this year. But when you take the long view, you can see a larger storyline.
Ever since Serena Williams' period of overwhelming dominance ended — after she won her last Grand Slam in early 2017 and then took a break to give birth to her daughter — women's tennis has been extremely competitive. Instead of one player being the main focus, the focus has massively expanded.
If you look at the Grand Slam winners since the start of 2017, this couldn't be clearer. Between then and now, 18 Grand Slams have been held (not including the current US Open), and there have been 13 different champions. Only three women — Naomi Osaka, Ashleigh Barty and Simona Halep — have managed to win more than one title, and only Osaka has managed to win more than two (she's won four).
While men's tennis has been and will continue to be mired in the Big Three GOAT debate — which is what happens when three men dominate nearly every single Grand Slam for 18 years — women's tennis has been a constant, ever-shifting battle between a large number of players. We don't see the same handful of competitors in every semifinal and final. Instead, we could see any combination of at least 20 different players. There's no single dominant force. There's no overwhelming favorite. Every tournament is a blank slate, and let the best woman win.
The 2021 season is a great example of that. In January and February, which encompasses four completed WTA 500 tournaments and one Grand Slam, no woman made a repeat appearance in any of the finals. It was a different pair every time. In March and April we start seeing some repeats (Ash Barty starts showing up a lot), but this trend has largely continued through the US Open. And when you start looking at the semifinals and quarterfinals of major tournaments this year, you see an enormous rotating cast of players.
Maria Sakkari, Karolina Pliskova, Elina Svitolina, Belinda Bencic, Barbora Krejcikova, Coco Gauff, Ons Jabeur, Aryna Sabalenka, Jennifer Brady, Jessica Pegula, Simona Halep, and Angelique Kerber all made it to at least the quarterfinals in January and February, and that's just a partial list from the first two months of the season.
It would be a mistake to characterize this as a lack of consistency or a lack of talent. Instead, it's a mark of the high level of competition. The entire field is so strong, no one player has been able to dominate.
The story of many
The lack of a single dominant force in tennis has made room for stories like Fernandez's and Raducanu's. And it started way before them. In 2018, not a lot of people outside dedicated tennis fans had heard of Naomi Osaka. She was ranked 68th in the world at the end of 2017, and made it to the third round at a few Grand Slams, but it wasn't until she won the 2018 US Open at age 20 that she became a household name. Her meteoric run at Flushing Meadows that year, culminating in her (very eventful) finals match against Serena Williams, stole all the headlines.
The very next year we saw two teenagers make stunning statements at the final two Grand Slams of the year. Coco Gauff, just 15 at the time, became the youngest qualifier to reach the Wimbledon main draw in the Open Era. In her debut match, she upset Venus Williams, one of her idols, and finally lost in the fourth round to eventual champion Simona Halep. Then at the final Grand Slam of 2019, 19-year-old Bianca Andreescu burst onto the scene. She made it all the way to the final without facing a top ten opponent, but beat Serena Williams to take home the trophy.
In the story of the last five years of women's tennis, Fernandez and Raducanu represent the newest chapters, and they also represent the expanding diversity of women's tennis (which is happening slowly, but is still happening). Instead of the same handful of players every time, viewers get to experience a wide range of stories and backgrounds.
Ash Barty has played professional cricket and has Australian indigenous heritage. Bianca Andreescu was born in Romania and raised in part by her Romanian grandparents. Naomi Osaka is both Black and Japanese, chooses to play for Japan, and has become a vital advocate for athlete mental health. Coco Gauff continues the Williams' sisters legacy of strong Black women in American professional tennis. Ons Jabeur is the first Arab woman to make the quarterfinals at a Grand Slam. Fernandez's father is from Ecuador, her mother is Filipina, and she speaks fluent French, Spanish, and English.
Instead of being dominated by one or two players, women's tennis is the story of many. And it's the story of change. While it's tough (and a little sad) to admit, the era of Serena Williams, and the Williams sisters in general, is over. This is the first period in decades that the sport hasn't been ruled by one or two players. Tennis went from Margaret Court to Billie Jean King to Chris Evert to Martina Navratilova to Steffi Graf to Venus and Serena over the span of 50 years.
As of now, this era won't be defined by one or two players. It'll be defined by the many women who have found success in such a seriously competitive landscape. Women like Fernandez, Raducanu, Gauff, and Andreescu who swept into a Grand Slam and blew everyone away. Women like Osaka, who is using her platform to change how the world treats athletes. Women like Jabeur, who is blazing a trail for all the female Arab tennis players that will come after her.
This is the era when the word "success" can take on a new meaning. It can stop being about Serena-like domination, and instead be about taking advantage of every opportunity you have to play the best tennis you possibly can. And there's no limit to how many players can be part of that story.