In Naomi Osaka, tennis has a first multiple Grand Slam winner from the next generation. To top it off, the 21-year-old has become the youngest since Caroline Wozniacki in 2010 to claim the World No 1 spot. And it all came at the Australian Open last week.
While Osaka may have topped the list in the most convincing way possible, there were a few more young players who left their mark during the fortnight in Melbourne. As the game has become more physical, tennis has been particularly punishing on the youngsters in the past decade or so. But the first Slam of the year unearthed some fresh talent, many of whom recorded their best finish at the Slams so far.
After Osaka, the biggest result came in the form of 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas’ run to the semi-finals in the men’s singles event.
The winner of the second ATP Next Gen Finals caused arguably the biggest upset of the tournament when he ousted defending champion and third seed Roger Federer in four thrilling sets. The young Greek, who is now ranked 12th in the world, saved 12 break points and did not drop serve as he matched the 20-time Grand Slam champion shot for shot.
In the quarter-final, he won another four-setter against the gritty Roberto Bautista Agut before losing out, rather tamely, to Rafael Nadal in the semi-final.
Another first-time semi-finalist, albeit not a next-generation sensation, was Danielle Collins. The Australian Open was a breakthrough performance for the American, who despite being 25, is relatively new to the tour. She came through the college system in the US, graduating from the University of Virginia before turning professional in mid-2016.
Prior to her sojourn in Melbourne, she had competed in the main draw of a Slam only on five occasions, but had not won a single match. At the Australian Open, she managed to get the better of 14th seed Julia Goerges in the first round, 19th seed Caroline Garcia in the third, before pulling off a stunning 6-0, 6-2 win over 2016 champion Angelique Kerber.
In the semi-final, she lost to runner-up hard-hitting Petra Kvitova, a two-time Wimbledon champion.
The Czech also got the better of Australian favourite Ashleigh Barty, who had made it to the quarter-final of a major for the first time. The 22-year-old, whose previous best at a major was her fourth-round finish at the US Open last year, came up against Maria Sharapova in the same round in Melbourne, but pulled-off a three-set win over the 2008 champion. The local player rode a wave of confidence and crowd support to carry her all the way to the last-eight.
Frances Tiafoe is American, but it didn’t take too long for the tennis fans in Melbourne to get behind this athletic player with some serious moves on the tennis court, and the dance floor. A promising talent, Tiafoe was yet to prove his mettle on the Grand Slam stage – reaching as far as the third round, at Wimbledon 2018, just once in 11 main draw appearances.
In his 12th attempt though, the new World No 30 came up with wins over World No 5 Kevin Anderson, before upsetting, on his 21st birthday, the 2017 ATP Finals champion Grigor Dimitrov. Tiafoe’s run was also cut-short by Nadal, in straight sets in the quarter-final.
In the fourth round, Daniil Medvedev and 17-year-old American Amanda Anisimova also made impressive runs in the men’s and women’s singles events respectively.
The tall Russian started the 2019 season by reaching the final of the Brisbane International – his fifth ATP final – before travelling to Melbourne. Previously, his best at the Slams were third-round finishes at Wimbledon and the US Open from last year, and he had never gotten past the second at the Australian Open.
This time though, he made light work of Lloyd Harris and Ryan Harrison in the first two rounds, before beating former World No 7 David Goffin in the third round. And though he lost to eventual champion Novak Djokovic in the fourth round, he did make the Serbian sweat for the win.
Anisimova on the other hand, was playing in only her third ever main draw appearance at a Slam, and had never played in Australia – not even the qualifiers – prior to this edition. The young American however, looked like she belonged as she overpowered Aryna Sabalenka, who was considered by many as one of the contenders for the title. She became the first player born in the 2000s to make it to the Round of 16 of a major. Kvitova cut her dream run short in the fourth round, but Anisimova improved her ranking from 87 to 62.
As for the baby-faced Alex de Minaur, he equaled his best finish at a Slam by ending in the third round, also losing to Nadal. The 19-year-old came to Melbourne on the back of winning his first ever ATP tour title when he beat veteran Andreas Seppi in the final of the Sydney Open. Though Nadal made short work of De Minaur, the youngster injected some hope of stability in Australian tennis, which in recent years has been in the news for its temperamental talents. De Minaur, the ATP Next Gen finalist, showed he had the heart for a fight, though his shots could do with some sting.
Another player to have equaled his previous best finish was Borna Coric, who crashed out in the fourth round to Lucas Pouille.
Meanwhile, 20-year-old American Sofia Kenin finished in the second round but did push top seed Simona Halep to three close sets, losing 6-3, 6-7(5), 6-4.
The NextGen wonder that did not live up to expectations though was fourth seed Alexander Zverev. The 21-year-old German’s best finish till date was his run to the quarter-final of the French Open last year. Though he looked sharp in the first week, Zverev came up with a shockingly sloppy performance against Milos Raonic in the fourth round.
Despite the odd disappointments, the younger generation has taken some serious strides at the Australian Open. Osaka is the undoubted leader of the pack, a shining example for them to follow.
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Updated Date: Jan 28, 2019 13:49:30 IST