French Open 2019: Naomi Osaka leads paradigm shift in women's tennis as draw gets younger, more open than ever

For all that has been said about the ATP's much-successful NextGen, it is still the old guard, the Big Three, who are ruling the roost and favourites at every Grand Slam. That is not to say that there has not been somewhat of a transition – players like Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas, for instance, have already marked it. But for women's tennis, major changes have been underway for some time. Already, there has been a paradigm shift in the ages of the top-10. The younger generation has more convincingly made their mark on the game, and the 2019 French Open field, particularly, has been one of its youngest yet. But when the World No 1 is only 21, this should not come as much of a surprise.

 French Open 2019: Naomi Osaka leads paradigm shift in womens tennis as draw gets younger, more open than ever

File image of Naomi Osaka. AFP

At 17, Amanda Anisimova is the youngest of the bunch. Also the youngest player in the WTA top-100. The current No 54 toppled 11th seed Aryna Sabalenka – who is herself only 21 – in straight sets for the second time this year – and the second time at a major. Anisimova, who coming into 2019 had never won a Grand Slam singles match, went into the Grand Slam with a fourth-round finish to eventual Australian Open runner-up Petra Kvitova.

This year has been a coup of sorts for Anisimova: not only did she have a deep run at a Major having never won a match at one before, she eventually took her debut title at the Copa Colsonitas in Colombia months ago - no doubt a confidence booster.

At 17 into Round 4, Anisimova – the daughter of Russian émigrés to the USA, is now the youngest American this far into the competition at Roland Garros. That feat was previously held by a 17-year-old Anisimova holds in high regard – Serena Williams, who, at that age, finished in Round 3 at the 1999 French Open, losing to Mary Joe Fernandez.

For Anisimova, however, the clay talent was always there; at only 14, she entered the junior version of the clay court Abierto Mexicano Telcel – the Mexican Open, and despite not even being in the top 300, won the event that year. Only two years later, in 2016, Anisimova was seeded second in the girls' singles at the French Open, and ended the tournament as runner-up.

In 2018, Anisimova already pulled off some big upsets – over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Petra Kvitova at Indian Wells. This year, for the teen, has been perhaps her biggest yet.

Now, she takes on Spanish-Moldovan Aliona Bolsova Zadoinov, who is herself only 21.

Eighteen-year-old Iga Swiatek has been another breakout star at the French Open this year. Only a year ago in 2018, Swiatek was in the junior Slam, progressing to the semi-finals in the singles before losing to Caty McNally – her own doubles partner.

The pair went on to win the girls' doubles title. Soon after, the then-17-year-old won the Wimbledon girls' singles.

This time around, coming up against 2016 Olympic gold-winning player Monica Puig in Round 3, Swiatek - her country's biggest new hope since Agnieszka Radwanska – proceeded to firmly shift that match in her favour.

In contrast to most players, for whom Grand Slams are understandably stressful, Swiatek's strategy, according to the player, is to come in with "no expectations" precisely because she is young.

Now, the 18-year-old faces a tough draw. Up against World No 3, title favourite and defending champion Simona Halep, the young Polish ace will have her work cut out. Swiatek's French Open run this year, however has made her only the second person born in the 2000s (after Anisimova at the Australian Open), to go into the second week of a major. Whether she wins or loses, she will still have faced the defending champion and a former No 1 at a Grand Slam, in less than a year since she went pro, and that is an achievement in itself.

Marketa Vondrousova is the oldest of the three at 19, and she has also had perhaps the toughest draw of them all. Facing the experienced clay-courter Carla Suarez Navarro in Round 3, the Czech beat her in straight sets. Going into Round 4, the teen has already handed out two bagels – one each to Anastasia Potapova and Anastasija Sevastova, the 12th seed here at Roland Garros.

Vondrousova is a pleasure to watch. With a mix of strategy and power and some drop shots that would make the best in the game blush, she took a convincing victory against the experienced Sevastova in a sub-90 minute match that saw her capitalise and hold on to breaks quickly.

To be able to play a game as composed and skilled as Vondrousova's at only 19 is no mean feat. Already seemingly unflappable, Vondrousova has much to hope for as experience kicks in to help.

Now, she faces the in-form Petra Martic, who won the title at Istanbul this year, incidentally defeating Vondrousova to do it. But the 19-year-old has had good runs at Indian Wells and Miami, and had put up a fight against Martic in Istanbul, too. If she is able to continue the run of form she has already shown, the World No 38 could well put her hat into the ring for a claim to the title.

The Paris Triumvirate is far from the only three young players on the WTA circuit at the moment. Sabalenka, whom Anisimova has given a tough time this year, is only 21, while Indian Wells winner Bianca Andreescu is only 18. With a young charge led from the front by No 1 Naomi Osaka, the women's tennis draw is now more open than ever.

The fact that the "oldest" of a new guard is only 19, and most other players laying claim to the title are no older than 21 should show definitively just how much of a transformation women's tennis has been undergoing. The "old guard" is not that much older, either (barring GOAT Serena Williams), but we are finally seeing a field that is somewhat of a balanced amalgam of old and new, of seeming pretenders to those circling the trophy. It is perhaps what you might call the WTA's Game of Thrones – and the young girls all have a name.

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Updated Date: Jun 03, 2019 14:32:33 IST