It was quite a run for the teens at the US Open, especially for a cheerful and seductive troika who managed to make the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center his personal playground.
Like young stockbrokers who haven’t seen a bear market yet, Emma Raducanu, Leylah Fernandez and Carlos Alcaraz experience the best of tennis life: match after match of exuberant crowds chanting their names and asking for selfies, shots passing the back of the line, and the freedom to swing their rackets on a stage where they can’t lose, because no one was counting on them to win.
And yet they don’t have to look far to see how quickly it all derails.
“Brace yourself, it’s a long drive,” Shelby Rogers, the US veteran and Raducanu’s latest victim, said Sunday when asked what advice she might give the trio of teens when their US Open runs end.
Naomi Osaka just came out of her teens three years ago when she upset Serena Williams to win this tournament. Three years, three Grand Slam titles, nearly $20 million in prize money and tens of millions more in sponsorship later, this time the Osaka tournament ended with a loss to Fernandez, followed by a tearful announcement that she will retire from tennis indefinitely. . Iga Swiatek, the Polish star who won the 2020 French Open at 19 without losing a set, spent much of her upset loss on Monday against Switzerland’s Belinda Bencic, yelling at her coach and the sports psychologist who travels with her.
By now it is generally accepted that tennis tends to eat its young like few other sports. Managing life as a young star on the tennis tour is a physical and mental test that stumbles almost every player at some point, especially those who break through early and then are suddenly expected to hit the pitch almost every time they step onto the pitch. compete at the highest level.
A ranking and seeding system puts a number next to their name so that they and the world know in the grimiest way who should win a particular match. Guaranteed payments from sponsors can ease the burden of playing for your next meal or plane ticket. However, these contracts are often loaded with incentive bonuses for winning tournaments and climbing the rankings. There is an implicit agreement that the contract will be shortened at best and not extended at worst if players fail to maintain a certain skill level.
The attention, from millions of fans but also from family, cuts both ways, say sports psychologists, especially in a sport with so many parent coaches. Fernandez’s mother has sat front row for her daughter’s feuds with Osaka and Angelique Kerber, the former world number 1. She leaned over the rails and screamed as Fernandez triumphed on the biggest points. Success brings that kind of enthusiasm, of course, but it can also generate the fear that love will disappear when the winning stops.
Fernandez’ father, Jorge, also acts as her coach. He’s at home in Florida with her younger sister, she said, but he calls every day with a game plan for the next game, “just tells me what to do the day before, and then he trusts me and my game, that I will carry it out as much as possible.”
They may show less balance under pressure than when playing without pressure, allowing them to swing freely without the fear of falling short of expectations.
“I think it’s only the young people” who can play this way, Kerber said on Sunday after Fernandez defeated her in three sets with blistering forehands and fearless serves at the corners of the service box. Kerber, 33, has won three Grand Slam titles and was only number 1 in 2017. She has been battling injuries, inconsistency and the idea that she should still be at the top of the sport for several years now.
“To play completely without pressure, in this position, is impossible, but I would like to,” she said.
Oddly enough, for most of the past decade, players, coaches and tennis officials accepted that the sport had moved beyond teens. Equipment that enabled powerful shots from previously impossible angles expanded points and matches, accentuating the importance of adult strength and conditioning to an extent that made it too difficult for teens to compete at the highest levels of the game, especially at the men’s side.
Then Coco Gauff, the up-and-coming American, started winning matches at Wimbledon in 2019, when she was just 15. Now a collection of her physically advanced peers is making their mark.
Raducanu defeated Rogers on her debut at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Monday. On Tuesday, Fernandez will face Elina Svitolina from Kazakhstan in the quarterfinals, while Alcaraz will face Felix Auger-Aliassime from Canada.
Raducanu, who plays at the highest level in her first summer, impressed again on Monday. She dropped the first two games, then won 11 of the next 12 games and won 6-2, 6-1, showing off her exquisite combination of graceful athleticism and smooth, tight foundations. She lost a total of just four games in her last two games. When Rogers’ last ball landed in the net, Raducanu dropped her racket, fell to her knees, covering her eyes in disbelief.
Martin Blackman, the general manager for player development at the United States Tennis Association, said that in recent years, the better and more physically developed older teens have begun to shun junior tournaments, instead sinking their teeth into low-level professional events while playing still find a balance between competition, training and rest.
“So they come in under the radar and then they show up on the big stage,” he said.
There’s nothing quite like a guarantee that they won’t succumb to the challenges of the game – spending months on the road, meeting rising expectations and dealing with the inevitable losses and physical ailments.
“It’s a dangerous prospect,” David Law, a BBC tennis commentator who previously worked for ATP, said Sunday as he geared up for Raducanu’s match. “It can go wrong. We have seen it go wrong.”
The law does not have to look far to be reminded of that. One of his BBC colleagues is Laura Robson, who reached the fourth round of the US Open in 2012 at the age of 18 with victories over Kim Clijsters, one of the best players in the world, and Li Na, the Chinese star. She appeared on her way to greatness. Two years later, she suffered a wrist injury from which she would never fully recover.
Frances Tiafoe, the 23-year-old American, spoke Sunday night after his fourth-round loss to Auger-Aliassime about his efforts to work his way back from the hype surrounding his meteoric rise into the top 50 in 2018, when he was seen as the savior of American men’s tennis.
“I thought I’d just keep going,” he said. “It doesn’t work that way. The same work you did to get there, the same work you need to keep going, keep working harder.”
Despite the cautionary tales, it’s nearly impossible not to get caught up in the excitement of watching new talent take the stage at one of the sport’s biggest showcases. It’s a breathless experience that tennis has long thrived on.
Alcaraz, a Spaniard already entrusted with the nickname ‘the next Rafa’, a reference to his compatriot, 20-time Grand Slam winner Rafael Nadal, said he knows he has become a subject of fascination at home in recent days. .
“I try not to think about this,” he said on Sunday after beating Germany’s Peter Gojowczyk in the fourth round, his second straight win in five sets. “Just focus on New York, on every day here.”
That’s a good start, said Mary Carillo, the tennis commentator and former Grand Slam doubles champion. Carillo has seen tennis crack so many rising stars, from Andrea Jaeger, who tanked matches, to Mardy Fish, who struggled with anxiety and mental illness at the height of his career. Her heart sinks every time she sees players checking their phones at what is being said about them on social media once they leave the field.
Survival, she said, boils down to the things we learn in preschool: get enough sleep; do not talk to strangers; don’t listen to what they say about you; keep away from bad people.
“You better make sure you have the right people on your ball club,” said Carillo. “People who understand your values, your ambitions, how much you can handle and most importantly when you need some time to distance yourself.”