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Women’s Tennis Is Finally Getting Young Again

In the French Open final, 19-year-old Markéta Vondroušová, who dazzles with drop shots, will face off with Ashleigh Barty, 23, who is crafty and quick with a ton of energy. Amanda Anisimova, 17, reached the semis by hitting smooth strokes and bullets all day long. And world No. 1 Naomi Osaka lost early in Paris but claimed two Grand Slam titles by the age of 21.

Women’s tennis is, at long last, getting young.

The average age of players who have won at least one WTA title this year is 23.6 years old. That’s the lowest age since 2008 — and it will drop even further after Saturday. At the French Open this year, the final eight women in the event were no older than 28.

This represents a sharp downturn from most of the previous decade. The average age of WTA winners floated between 25.8 and 26.1 between 2013 and 2016. But it also serves as a return to normalcy for women’s tennis, which had long been dominated by youth: The average age of WTA tour players in 1990 was 20.9, as 21-year-old Steffi Graf and 17-year-old Monica Seles finished the season ranked first and second. That average age would not rise above 23.5 for nearly two decades.

The amount of young talent is enormous again. And impatient. Since Serena Williams won her last major at the Australian Open in 2017, only one other Slam winner has been at least 30 years old: Angelique Kerber, who won Wimbledon at age 30 last year. The winners of the other seven majors: Osaka, who won the 2018 U.S. Open at age 20 and the 2019 Australian at 21; Jelena Ostapenko, who won the 2017 French at 20; Garbiñe Muguruza, age 23 when she won the 2017 Wimbledon;1 Sloane Stephens, who won the U.S. Open at 24; Simona Halep, who won the French Open last year at age 26; and Caroline Wozniacki, the 2018 Australia Open winner at age 27.

Part of this may be cyclical. As clusters of young, talented players emerge, a generation of older players who exceeded the normal life expectancy of a tennis career is nearing its end — and we aren’t just talking about the Williams sisters, who are now 37 and 38 years old. Francesca Schiavone, 38, won the French Open in 2010 but retired last September. Roberta Vinci, 36, shocked the world at the 2015 U.S. Open when she beat Serena Williams, who was two wins away from a golden Slam, but Vinci retired in May 2018. Agnieszka Radwanska, 30, who lost the Wimbledon final in 2012, called it quits in November.

Other players might not last that long, either. Samantha Stosur, 35, is in great shape and is an expert in doubles, but she struggles in singles. After next year’s Olympics, 30-year-old Dominika Cibulkova could decide to leave the game, too. Maria Sharapova, 32, has missed most of this season with injury. Victoria Azarenka, 29, is back after struggling since she had a child, but she might never be as powerful as she was in 2013.

After she lost a doubles match this year in Paris, Lucie Safarova announced she had retired from tennis. Now age 32, Safarova had played in Slams since 2005. She never won a major singles title, but she came close at the 2015 French Open, when she lost to Serena Williams in three entertaining sets. Safarova also won five doubles majors with Bethanie Mattek-Sands, including two in Roland-Garros.

“I think that it’s great that the competition is so strong,” Safarova said. “And we have, I think, at least 100 players now are amazing competitors. And you just have to be strong and play your 100 percent to be able to be here.”

On Saturday, Barty and Vondroušová will likely be nervous, as is usually the case for players in a Grand Slam final. But their youth — and their passion — is what this age of tennis is all about.

Footnotes

  1. Muguruza also won the 2016 French Open.

Tom Perrotta is a tennis writer based out of Brooklyn and frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal.

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