Baseline Buzz: Wave of youngsters
PARIS -- There was a time ... when dinosaurs ruled the earth -- and teenagers dominated women's tennis.
Steffi Graf was barely 18 when she won the 1987 title here at Roland Garros. Monica Seles was the 16-year-old champion in 1990. Martina Hingis won three of the four majors in 1997 -- at the age of 16.
In recent years, though, the arena has belonged to more experienced women of a certain age. Serena Williams and Li Na, the top two seeds at this year's French Open, are both 32. Marion Bartoli won at Wimbledon last year at the age of 28 -- and promptly retired. It has been 10 years since Maria Sharapova -- a precocious 17-year-old -- broke through at Wimbledon.
This year's French Open, however, has featured what looks to be a possible sea change for the women's game, a tsunami of fresh energy. Li and Williams were rudely blasted out of the tournament in the first and second rounds -- by a Frenchwoman, Kristina Mladenovic, who turned 21 last month, and Garbine Muguruza, a 20-year-old from Spain. No. 3 seed Agnieszka Radwanska was taken out in the third round by Croatia's Ajla Tomljanovic, who also turned 21 in May. American Sloane Stephens, 21, met No. 4 seed Simona Halep, 22, in the fourth round. Canada's 20-year-old Eugenie Bouchard beat No. 8 seed Angelique Kerber to advance to the quarterfinals.
That's a half-dozen players in their very early 20s who swept into the upper tier of this venerable major. No wonder Halep said these emerging ladies make her feel old.
On Tuesday, Bouchard beat Carla Suarez Navarro 7-6 (4), 2-6, 7-5 and Sharapova was fortunate to get past Muguruza 1-6, 7-5, 6-1.
In 1986, Mary Joe Fernandez made the first of six quarterfinals here at Roland Garros -- at the age of 14. As an ESPN analyst, she has seen the sport change dramatically since then. She believes the WTA's age-restriction rules make it harder for a teenager to make an impression and added that the increasing physicality of the sport also has made it more difficult to crash the party.
"It's nice to see the younger generation breaking through," she said Tuesday, sitting in the makeup room. "You have to remember that Serena won't be there forever. One of them, one of these days, is going to break through."
But who? And when? ESPNW's Jim Caple, who has been on the ground in Paris since Day 1 of the French Open covering the women's side, and ESPN.com senior writer Greg Garber kick it around in the most recent installment of Baseline Buzz:
Garber: Even America, which has been struggling recently in the tennis arms race, mostly at the hands of Europe, has some encouraging talent coming up. Fernandez, who also happens to be the U.S. Fed Cup captain, is very high on these young Americans. She quickly threw out Stephens, who is ranked No. 19 in the world, 19-year-old Madison Keys (No. 40) and 18-year-old Taylor Townsend, a Chicagoan who won two matches here.
Caple: It's interesting. The first day of the tournament, the Williams sisters both won and we talked about how there was still hope for the old folks and how there were twice as many 30-somethings in the main draw as teenagers. A week later, we're talking about the kids. So we should be careful before we get too carried away here. But there does appear to be a very strong wave of youngsters coming along. Stephens has reached at least the third round in the past six Slams while Townsend created a real buzz by upsetting Alize Cornet in front of a partisan home crowd. Keys was knocked out in the first round but she had a tough draw -- No. 10 Sara Errani. So the young Americans look good, and the young Europeans may look even better.
Garber: Although Bouchard has the highest profile of the women after Halep, I'm fascinated by Muguruza. Born in Caracas, Venezuela, she now lives in Barcelona, Spain. She missed the second half of the 2013 with an ankle injury that required surgery. This year she reached the fourth round of the Australian Open, but was beaten in the second rounds at Madrid and Rome. Here's three-time Grand Slam singles champion Lindsay Davenport, a Tennis Channel analyst, on Muguruza: "Not only did she beat Serena, but she's kept it going. I've been impressed with her poise going through the tournament. After the upset of Serena, her coach took her cellphone away. I liked that. No distractions, and she's playing with great focus.''
Caple: Maybe that's the key. Take the cellphone away. And maybe close down the Facebook and Twitter accounts, too. (Or is that more a boomer thing?) Bouchard, meanwhile, also impresses me. She is just 20, as well -- in fact she turned 20 just three months ago -- but has the composure of someone much older. Which she feels she is, expressing worries that wrinkles are already showing (they aren't). She also is incredibly focused. She said she doesn't have any friends on the tour because she considers them all competitors and wants to beat them. That take-no-prisoners approach is similar to Sharapova's.
Garber: The wrinkle I'm most impressed with is Bouchard's swift ascension to the very elite circles of the game at the Grand Slams. Last year, her ranking wasn't high enough to compete at the Australian Open. She went 1-1 at the French, 2-1 at Wimbledon and then 1-1 at the US Open. Fast-forward to this year, when she won her first five matches in Melbourne, including a win over Ana Ivanovic. Here in Paris, she has won five again and is the only woman to reach the semifinals of the season's two Grand Slams.
Caple: She is just 20 but seems as mentally tough as Clint Eastwood. She was down 5-2 in the first set and 4-1 in the third set in her quarterfinal match Tuesday but fought back and won both. That was mighty impressive.
Garber: One more take on Stephens. The fourth-round loss to Halep showed the gap between where she is and where she needs to be going forward. Under duress, Stephens tends to become defensive and center the ball. Her coach, Paul Annacone, would like to see her step into her magnificent forehand and take a few more chances. She also needs to develop a more coherent game plan against top opponents -- and stick with it.
Caple: Muguruza, talking about herself, said she needs to work on her mental game, as well. She said she needs to do it particularly in the big matches, such as Tuesday when she had a great opportunity to beat Sharapova but wilted. Both players could take lessons from Bouchard. Or perhaps Halep. The Romanian has really grown and matured in the mental game, as well.
Garber: I poked around the broadcast center and picked the minds of some of the ESPN and Tennis Channel analysts. This was their consensus, more or less: Halep, with her diverse game and newfound poise, is the most Grand Slam-ready champion. She plays Svetlana Kuznetsova in a Wednesday quarterfinal and is the highest-ranked woman left in the draw. Some said they thought Bouchard was on the cusp and perhaps as early as next year, she could be as dangerous as Halep. Muguruza also has tremendous upside and seems like a future top-10 player. One other name to remember: Great Britain's Laura Robson, 20, recently underwent wrist surgery, but she's had some impressive wins and should be a factor going forward.