Discussions at Grand Slam tournaments often focus on the so-called new generation of male tennis playersthe young males who for years had to pasture Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. As noted by Alex Zverez ahead of his semi-final against Nadal on Friday, he is no longer 21 and feels equipped to win a slam. If he hadn’t suffered a terrible ankle roll in the second set on Friday, he might well have done it at Roland Garros. Nadal is the ultimate competitor but has a chronic foot injury and had come through the ringer against Djokovic in a late-night session, giving his young opponent more recovery time. Hadn’t Zverez slipped… who knows? What is certain is that in women’s football, the Next Gen has already arrived. On Saturday, 18-year-old Coco Gauff will face world number one Iga Swiatek in the French Open Final. The Pole is already a WTA Tour veteran at the age of 21 and the defending champion is on a 34-game winning streak, putting her level with the best of Serena Williams and a short of the 21st century record held by Venus Williams.
Swiatek set to replace Barty
After Ash Barty decided to retire following the Wimbledon and Australian Open triumphs, the WTA summit was open for takers and Swiatek stepped up in style. Such is the number one’s dominance that Martina Navratilova’s all-time record of 74 straight wins is not out of the question, although she will have to navigate the grass season first. As a junior champion at Wimbledon in 2018, her all-court credentials are pretty solid.
Saturday’s game will be Swiatek’s second Grand Slam final since bursting onto the Tour in 2020, winning a French Open, she started as the world’s 54th, and Gauff’s first, making the American the youngest major finalist since 2004. The American’s previous best performance at a slam was fourth-round appearances at the Australian Open and Wimbledon. Swiatek enters the game the big favorite, but Gauff has the full game, the athleticism and the ability to hustle from the baseline cause problems at the Pole, something she has largely become unaccustomed to in Paris, the loss of a plateau in favor of another precocious talent, Zheng Qinwen, aside.
Hingis the pioneer
If Gauff wins on Saturday, she will join a long list of women’s singles players to land a Grand Slam as a teenager, but she is still much older than arguably the greatest player in history to handle a racquet in this age bracket, Martina Hingis. The Swiss won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open in 1997 aged 16 and added two more titles in Melbourne over the next two years to take his tally to five Grand Slams shortly after his 18th birthdayat almost exactly the same age as Gauff is now.
Besides being the youngest Grand Slam singles champion since Lottie Dod won Wimbledon in 1887, Hingis is the youngest Grand Slam champion in history (singles and doubles) after pairing Helena Sukova to the doubles title at Wimbledon in 1996 at the age of 15 years and nine monthsedging out Dod, who was 15 and 285 days old when she first won Wimbledon, by a few days.
The first three of the youngest men’s champions in history were all active in the 1980s. Michael Chang holds the overall record, the American winning the 1989 French Open aged 17 years and three monthsa tournament memorable for his bizarre victory over world number one Ivan Lendl, when the youngster played moon ball, served under the arms and generally went out of his way to put the unflappable Lendl out of his game. Chang is closely followed by Boris Becker, who won the Wimbledon title in 1985 at 17 years and seven months, and Mats Wilanderwinner at Roland Garros in 1982 at 17 years and nine months.
Among the current big three, Roger Federer won his first Grand Slam at Wimbledon in 2003 at 21, Djokovic scored his first success at the 2008 Australian Open at 20 and Nadal made his way to the first of his 13 triumphs at Roland-Garros a few days after his 19th birthday in 2005, becoming the first male player to win a Slam as a teenager since Pete Sampras at the US Open in 1990.