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Sunday, September 26, 2021

From Fernandez to Alcaraz, teenagers are taking over tennis at US Open

Like young stockbrokers who have yet to see a bear market, Leylah Fernandez, Emma Raducanu, and Carlos Alcaraz are experiencing the best of tennis life.

By: New York Times |
Updated: September 8, 2021 9:19:22 am
Leylah Fernandez and Carlos Alcaraz have come up with upsets at the US Open. (USA Today)

by Matthew Futterman

It has been quite a run for the teenagers at the U.S. Open, especially a bright-eyed and beguiling troika that has managed to turn the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center into its personal playground.

Like young stockbrokers who have yet to see a bear market, Emma Raducanu, Leylah Fernandez and Carlos Alcaraz are experiencing the best of tennis life: match after match of effusive crowds that chant their names and ask for selfies, passing shots that nick the back of the line, and the freedom of swinging their rackets on a stage where they cannot lose, because no one was counting on them to win in the first place.

And yet, they do not have to look far to see how quickly it can all go off the rails.

“Buckle up, it’s a long ride,” Shelby Rogers, the veteran American and Raducanu’s latest casualty, said Sunday when asked what advice she could offer the three teenagers for when their U.S. Open runs end.

Naomi Osaka had just emerged from her teens three years ago when she upset Serena Williams to win this tournament. Three years, three Grand Slam tournament titles, nearly $20 million in prize money and tens of millions more in sponsorships later, Osaka’s tournament ended this time with a loss to Fernandez followed by a tearful announcement that she would take an indefinite leave from tennis. Iga Swiatek, the Polish star who won the 2020 French Open at 19 without losing a set, spent much of her upset loss Monday against Belinda Bencic of Switzerland screaming at her coach and the sports psychologist who travels with her.

By now it is accepted wisdom that tennis has a tendency to eat its young like few other sports. Managing life as a young star on the tennis tour is a physical and mental test that trips up nearly every player at some point, especially those who break through early and then are suddenly expected to compete at the highest level nearly every time they take the court.

A ranking and seeding system places a number next to their name, letting them and the world know in the starkest way who should win any given match. Guaranteed payments from sponsors can relieve the burden of playing for your next meal or plane ticket. However, those contracts are often laden with incentive bonuses for winning tournaments and climbing the rankings. There is an implicit understanding that the contract will, at best, be reduced and at worst not be renewed if players don’t maintain a certain level of proficiency.

The attention, from millions of fans but also from family, cuts both ways, sports psychologists say, especially in a sport that has so many parent coaches. Fernandez’s mother has had a front-row seat for her daughter’s upsets of Osaka and Angelique Kerber, the former world No. 1. She leaned over the rails and screamed when Fernandez prevailed on the biggest points. Success naturally brings that kind of enthusiasm but can also produce a fear that the love will vanish if the winning stops.

Fernandez’s father, Jorge, doubles as her coach. He is at home in Florida with her younger sister, she said, but he calls every day with a game plan for the next match, “just telling me what to do in the day before, and then he trusts in me and in my game, that I’m going to execute it as much as I can.”

They may not be exhibiting poise under pressure as much as they are playing without pressure, which allows them to swing freely without the fear of not living up to expectations.

“I think it’s just the young people” who can play this way, Kerber said Sunday after Fernandez bested her in three sets with blistering forehands and fearless serves at the corners of the service box. Kerber, 33, has won three Grand Slam event titles and was ranked No. 1 as recently as 2017. For several years she has battled injuries, inconsistency and the idea that she should still be at the top of the sport.

“Playing completely without pressure, in this position, it’s impossible, but I wish,” she said.

Martin Blackman, the general manager for player development at the United States Tennis Association, said in recent years the better, and more physically developed, older teenagers had begun to shun junior tournaments, instead cutting their teeth in low-level professional events, while still finding a balance among competition, training and rest.

“So they come in under the radar and then they emerge on the big stage,” he said.

There is nothing that can come close to guaranteeing that they will not succumb to the challenges of the game — being on the road for months on end, living up to rising expectations, and dealing with the inevitable losses and physical ailments.

“It is a perilous prospect,” David Law, a tennis commentator for the BBC who previously worked for the ATP Tour, said Sunday as he settled in for Raducanu’s match. “It can go wrong. We’ve seen it go wrong.”

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