The Next Generation of Tennis Is Here
Issue 2, Volume 112
By Krish Gupta
In the weeks leading up to the 2021 U.S. Open, big-name players dropped out of the tournament like flies. Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Ashleigh Barty, and Simona Halep are just a few names that didn’t make appearances at Flushing Meadows due to injury or COVID-19 concerns.
As the stars dropped out, they opened the door for a new generation of players to take center stage. On the men’s side, both Federer and Nadal dropped out, leaving Novak Djokovic on a clear path to the first Grand Slam (winning all four major titles in a calendar year) since Rod Laver over half a century ago. Spoiler alert––he was unsuccessful in joining the Grand Slam club. On the women’s side, a weakened draw left Naomi Osaka as a big fish in a small pond, but a final between teenagers sent shock waves rippling around the tennis world.
Here are the biggest breakout stars from this year’s U.S. Open:
At the dawn of the U.S. Open on August 31, 2021, not even the most devout tennis aficionados had heard of Emma Radacanu. She was hovering at past 150 on the Women’s Tennis Association rankings and had never made the finals in any event, big or small, let alone faced a top 10 player. Two weeks later, she became a household name.
Radacanu made history as the first qualifier to ever win a U.S. Open, and in the process, she became the first British woman to win a slam singles title since 1977. She didn’t drop a single set en route to her title, and the last person who completed this feat was Serena Williams in 2014. Radacanu jumped into the top 25 on the Women’s Tennis Association rankings, displacing Johanna Konta as Britain’s top player.
She had to defeat three players to even qualify for the first round of the U.S. Open, winning all three matches in straight sets, of course. She continued to cruise past her opponents into the first and second weeks of the tournament, gaining traction and fans at every step. This path included a sweep of the fourth-ranked Belinda Bencic for her first win against a top 10 player.
Oh, and she’s 18 years old.
On the other side of the final between teenagers was Canadian Leylah Fernandez, who had a significantly more difficult path to the final. She ultimately lost to Radacanu in a game closer than the 6-4, 6-3 score indicates.
Fernandez turned 19 during the tournament, and in her run to the final, she faced three of the top five players: defending champion Osaka, number two seed Aryna Sabalenka, and number five seed Elina Svitolina. She also faced former champion Angelique Kerber. Fernandez may not have had the straight set domination that Radacanu maintained, but it was possibly a more impressive feat to make the final given her schedule. The future is incredibly bright for Canadian tennis, and Fernandez will surely return with respect to her name in 2022.
The biggest story on the men’s side was undoubtedly Djokovic getting his Grand Slam denied by number two Daniil Medvedev in the title game. But next up had to be the improbable run to the quarterfinals of Spanish 18-year-old Carlos Alcaraz, who many have now dubbed the heir to Nadal. Premature? Probably. Exciting? Without a doubt.
In a men’s field that has been dominated by three of the best tennis players of all time for well over a decade, it’s rare to see up-and-comers find success. Alcaraz, not even expected to make it out of the first round, conquered the odds and stunned number three Stefanos Tsitsipas in a five-set thriller in the third round. He proceeded all the way to the quarterfinals, in which he had to retire in the second set against 21-year-old Felix Auger Aliassime due to an injury. This retirement was no doubt a let down and a surprise, but Alcaraz won the hearts of tennis fans around the world. The hype only built later as the older Spaniard fell out of the top five after the tournament and the younger Alcaraz rocketed into the top 30.
After many years of questioning who will come after the current generation of tennis G.O.A.T.s, if this U.S. Open was any indication, the sport is in good hands.