When Martina Hingis crawled out of her diapers to win the Australian Open at the tender age of 16 years 3 months, it felt like women’s tennis would go the way of women’s gymnastics and sprout teenage champions all over.
For a little while, this actually happened.
In 1996, 15 year old Anna Kournikova reached the fourth round of the Australian Open. The following year, Hingis, all of 17, took down another gifted 17 year old, Venus Williams. Earlier that year, Iva Majoli won the French Open at the ripe old age of 19 against Hingis. Just like that the peerless Monica Seles (age 24) checked herself into the geriatric ward and the incomparable Steffi Graf (age 28) turned into a dinosaur with a forehand. Baby Serena hadn’t even arrived yet!
But Hingis and the Williams sisters weren’t unique. After all, their generation was preceded by one that witnessed a Grand Slam semi between two teenagers under age 16 – Seles and Capriati.
It is highly likely that the reason high school girls dominated a global sport in the 90’s is that they were ALL anomalies! Hingis possessed arguably the greatest court sense of any player that has played this sport. The Williams sisters brought unprecedented power and athleticism. Seles and Graf had mental steel that was otherworldly. The fact that these players showed up within a decade of each other can be chalked up to the same cosmic coincidence that brought the Big 4 of men’s tennis into the same era. Players like Hingis and Williams were prodigies and would have been great in any era at a precociously young age.
Women’s tennis has grown significantly older in the last decade. Champions like Kerber and Wozniacki are well into their 20s. Before she recently became a mother, Serena (36) was dominating the sport like it was a rigged Bingo card. The even older Venus, not to be outdone, made it to the business end of three Grand Slams and the WTA Finals last year. 21 of the top 100 players are on the plus side of 30. In this era, it is Jelena Ostapenko, the French Open champion, who is the anomaly. Even she has regressed lately.
There are many reasons attributed to why older women are more successful these days. Much like the men’s tour, the older players are more seasoned travelers that are able to withstand the rigors of a global sport. They are fitter, faster and hungrier for success. Modern training methods have lengthened career spans and the racket technologies have allowed lesser athletes to be more competitive.
Every word written in the paragraph above is blindingly obvious and still may not explain why the two best players are also the two oldest players on the tour. The success of the Williams sisters in their late thirties is, in fact, fueled by their freakish talent that is built to last through generations, much like Roger Federer. They were anomalies and they still are anomalies!
Still women’s tennis has not lost the knack for producing sensational young talent. If one looks beyond the fiery Ostapenko and her big game that broke through, the horizon is filled with bright young stars who display the potential to take over the sport. At Indian Wells, junior US Open champion, Amanda Anisimova, sweet sixteen and armed with a bazooka double hander, gunned down the former Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova, who was playing some of her best tennis. Meanwhile, Daria Kasatkina, oozing ethereal talent from every pore, spun and sizzled her past Wozniacki and Kerber. Marta Kostyuk, only 15, is another phenom who is showcasing special ball-striking skills and elite movement.
Anomalies don’t happen often, by definition, but are also certain to happen, by definition. We saw a decade of anomalies in the 90’s that led to arguably the greatest era of women’s tennis, and my gut tells me that Kasatkina, Anisimova, Osuigwe and Kostyuk are ready to start the next one.