Few matches between two teenagers will ever be as captivating as the 1991 U.S. Open semifinal between 17-year-old Monica Seles and 15-year-old Jennifer Capriati. Everyone who watched that match, either in person or on TV, knew that was the future of the sport.
Seles was tragically stabbed on court a few years after that match, wounding a career which otherwise would have accomplished even more than it did. Capriati dealt with personal problems and an overbearing tennis dad (a familiar reality in the industry), among other challenges. Her career did not become everything it could have been. Yet, both women won multiple major championships and — strictly measured by important victories — achieved richly. They both reached the top of their profession, Seles in particular. These careers contained profound elements of sadness and “what might have been,” but they were still successes at the very highest level of competition.
Seles and Capriati did become the future they promised on that September Friday afternoon in New York, 28 years ago.
Martina Hingis took the tennis world by storm as a teenager. Venus and Serena Williams made major finals in their late teens, with Serena winning on her first try. Maria Sharapova accomplished quite a lot in tennis before turning 20. We have seen teenagers do special things in tennis. Yet, the early 1990s stand out as a time when teenage success in tennis was less extraordinary.
Remember: Michael Chang won a major as a teenager. Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario did the same. Boris Becker won as a teen a few years earlier at Wimbledon. A teenage Steffi Graf won the Golden Slam in 1988. Teenage major champions used to come in bunches.
In the past 10 years, that reality has been turned upside-down, especially on the men’s tour, but also for the women.
You know about Serena Williams. Beyond her, the decade’s other major champions are usually stories of perseverance and learning how to play better as one gets older: Francesca Schiavone, Li Na, Flavia Pennetta, Caroline Wozniacki, Simona Halep, Angelique Kerber, Sam Stosur. Maria Sharapova won her first major as a teenager but then reinvented herself this decade on clay. Marion Bartoli broke through at Wimbledon. Sloane Stephens needed some years to figure things out. So did Victoria Azarenka.
The all-conquering teen champion and the teen-heavy tour — with a top tier possessing multiple teenage powerhouses — faded into the background.
The 2019 WTA Tour is not recalling the world we knew 30 years ago in women’s tennis, let’s be clear about that. Yet, it also shows that the pendulum is swinging toward younger players.
Remember: We came THIS CLOSE to an all-teenage Roland Garros final. Amanda Anisimova led Ash Barty by a set and 3-0 in the semifinals in Paris. She almost met Marketa Vondrousova in the final.
Now, here comes 15-year-old Coco Gauff, playing like a 27-year-old in terms of intelligence and court craft.
We’re not about to have another Capriati-Seles major semifinal… but in a year or two, maybe we WILL.
Gauff-Anisimova in the 2020 U.S. Open semis?
It doesn’t seem THAT absurd now, does it?