With 22 year-old Belinda Bencic, 19 year-old Bianca Andreescu, and twenty-three year-olds Daniil Medvedev and Matteo Berrettini into the US Open semifinals; are we seeing the first wave of a new generation of dominant players at Majors?
For several years now the staying power of thirty-somethings has been a favorite topic of tennis media. We are all now familiar with the stats on the preponderance of thirty year olds in the latter stages of Grand Slams, stats driven largely (though not exclusively) by the Big 3 on the men’s side and Serena Williams on the women’s side.
While hope is all but lost for the generation of male players born in the early 1990s to take a slam title away from the Big 3, the US Open has given us the first strong signs that the players of the generation just behind them—the post-Millenials of the mid to late 1990s— aren’t going to let the dry spell continue. Both Matteo Berrettini and Daniil Medvedev are two matches away from a US Open title, which would be the first time in 11 majors that the champion was a man other than Nadal, Djokovic or Federer and the first time since Djokovic’s Australian Open win in 2011 that someone age 23 or younger would take a major title.
The journey is far from over for Berrettini and Medvedev but reaching the quarterfinals at the US Open has been a jaw-dropping feat in itself. We can see this by contrasting this year’s US Open age distribution among quarterfinalists to previous years. The distribution shows two prominent modes at 23 and 33. You have to go back to 2003 to find the last time where ages were so bottom and top heavy at the same time. In 2003, oldies Andre Agassi (33) reached the semifinals while Younes El Aynaoui (32) lost in the quarterfinals and a cluster of 21 year-olds equalled that result or better, including Guillermo Coria, David Nalbandian, and eventual champion Andy Roddick.
In some ways, the WTA has already been through this cycle. The most recent big gap in modes at the US Open was in 2015, perhaps one of the strangest US Open’s for women’s tennis that started with Serena Williams’ shock loss to Roberta Vinci and ended with the final between compatriots Vinci (32) and Flavia Pennetta (33). The peculiarities of 2015 might make 2014 the better time to look to as the start of the change we are seeing reach its maturity in 2019.
It was in 2014 that Belinda Bencic, the 17 years old, made a Grand Slam quarterfinal. At 22 years of age she is now into her first semifinal where she will face teenager Bianca Andreescu (19). Serena Williams is still very much in the event but she has now become the clear exception in terms of age. 2019 is the first year since 2011 that only one player over 30 has reached the quarterfinal.
The men on the other hand have had 5 straight years where 3 or 4 of the quarterfinalists have been thirty-somethings. If the men’s against trends follow the pattern of the women’s, that trend at the US Open will be a thing of the past for some years to come.