Tennis moves fast.
The veteran tennis star Rafael Nadal recently made that observation, discussing how quickly a new generation of players assumes the role of the one before. His words were never truer than on the Suzanne Lenglen court at Roland Garros on Saturday, where Coco Gauff, now in her fifth season on the tour at 19 years old, was locked in a duel with an opponent who reminded Gauff and everyone else of herself from Wimbledon in 2019.
That rival was Mirra Andreeva, a 16-year-old Russian who has exploded onto the women’s tennis tour over the past five weeks.
She knocks off top 20 players. She plays with an easy, smooth power, unruffled by the size of the stage and the fuss suddenly being made about her. She trades text messages with Andy Murray, the three-time Grand Slam champion. She makes sarcastic jokes in news conferences in English.
A similar hype surrounded Gauff four years ago at the All England Club, beating Venus Williams on Centre Court and rolling into the fourth round, riding a hot streak, limited knowledge and the lazy anticipation that the next Serena had arrived. These days, she continues to hunt for her first Grand Slam and top-level tour title.
Glass half-full: Gauff is 19 and is already ranked sixth in singles and third in doubles and still doesn’t have her grown-up strength, as she has said her mother puts it. She is also one of the game’s great athletes, with an active mind and an awareness beyond the lines of the tennis court.
Glass half-empty: Gauff has accumulated some baggage in the form of disappointing losses and inconsistent results during the past few months, and she takes that hard. After her loss in the fourth round at the Australian Open, Gauff left the news conference in tears. She knows opponents pick on her forehand. Her serve can disappear in tense moments.
And now she’s got talented, free-swinging younger teenagers with a nothing-to-lose attitude like Andreeva’s closing in on her potential as the next big thing.
It is both a blessing and a curse of tennis how easy and quickly the declarations of future greatness can come. A couple of early wins, like Andreeva has managed in Paris, on the big stage at a Grand Slam tournament are often all it takes, even if those wins come by an easy draw or catching an opponent on an off day.
This is especially true in women’s tennis, where fully developed raw power is less of a requirement and more girls than boys are able to gain enough of it to compete at the highest level. But tour veterans say that one of their biggest fears is playing a hot young player whose tendencies and weaknesses are still unknown.
“They always win a bunch of matches because no coach has figured it out yet or broken the code,” said Sloane Stephens, 30, who had her own next-big-thing moments as a teenager.
The pandemic, Stephens said, exacerbated the issue. There were so few opportunities to see the teenage prospects on the cusp of the tour because so many junior tournaments…
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