When several of the megastars of world tennis withdrew from the 2021 US Open, many wondered what this year’s tournament would be like, especially after last year when the season’s final major was played behind closed doors.
It soon became apparent that this US Open was extraordinary, in great part thanks to the new kids on the block. Tennis followers were given an exciting view of the sport’s future. Leylah Fernandez, Carlos Alcaraz, Holger Rune and Felix Auger-Aliassime were Babolat’s young ambassadors in a brigade who captured the imagination of all who saw them in New York.
These young people are having the time of their lives. Their journey has only just begun and they are young enough to remember dreaming about what they’re achieving now.
While Auger-Aliassime is the oldest of the group and has enjoyed some success already, notably reaching eight tour-level finals and establishing himself in the world’s top 20, he is still only 21, and reaching the semi-finals of the US Open only accentuates his incredible talent and soft-spoken personality. Fernandez, his fellow Canadian, had reached the third round at Roland-Garros a year earlier, but took a massive stride by beating Naomi Osaka, Angie Kerber, Elina Svitolina and Aryna Sabalenka to reach the women’s final at 19 years and five days. That would have seen her break several records if it wasn’t for her opponent in the final, Emma Raducanu, being 68 days younger!
A little girl and a little boy from Montreal
“Yeah, it’s great. I never thought a day like this would come,” Auger-Aliassime said. “Both a little girl and a little boy from Montreal, both at the same time at the US Open. It’s special. It’s special. It’s special for us. I hope the people back home appreciate the moment also. We do a lot. It’s great.
“(But, also) I think I'm not totally aware yet of maybe the impact that I have. Sometimes talking with my family, with my dad that owns an academy, he tells me, you know, the kids watching and the impact that can have. It's really flattering, it's really good to feel that, of course I'm playing for myself, trying to achieve great things in sport, but also having a good impact on others is the most gratifying thing.”
Both are from immigrant families and have strong values. Both have put in lots of hard work, but at the same time the element of fun has not been forgotten because if there is no fun, then there is no drive to try and be the best that you can be.
When she was little, Leylah would play against a wall and imagine the wall was one of the greats like Justine Henin or Serena Williams. Shyly, with a big grin, she admitted that she always ended up beating them.
“I think we’re all just super hungry to make a difference in the tennis world,” Fernandez explained. “We’ve always talked about and joked around that we're going to be on the tour, we’re going to be on the big stage together. I’m just glad that we’re doing such great jobs and doing just that.
“We want to make a difference. We want to make an impact in tennis. The US Open just proves how well we’re adapting to everything.”
Harnessing the aggression
When Alcaraz stunned the third seed Stefanos Tsitsipas in an enthralling five set match, the 18-year-old Spaniard dropped to the court in disbelief as the crowd around Arthur Ashe Stadium rose in unison to applaud him. There has been chatter about Alcaraz for the last year or so, but 2021 has been outstanding for him as his world ranking sky-rockets. On his 18th birthday he played his illustrious childhood idol Rafael Nadal at the Masters-1000 tournament in Spain’s capital, and in July he won his first tour-level title in Umag.
His arrival has reminded tennis followers of Nadal. Alcaraz’s coach, the former US Open finalist and world No 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero, says he saw the potential in Alcaraz from a very early age, and now he is learning to harness that aggression and to be more in control.
“Off court he’s still 18 years old,” Ferrero says, “and he needs to get more mature, to control his emotions in there, and to control when he has to go with 100% of his potential or when he has to use 80% or sometimes play with a lot more spin or more flat. So he’s on the way to order all these kind of things, but I think he's in a good way to do it.”
The experience in New York was brilliant for Alcaraz. It’s easy to forget they are still kids and are possibly still told to clean their rooms. Alcaraz said of his run to the US Open quarter-finals: “Yeah, these matches gave me a lot of experience. I think this tournament made me mature a lot. I think I played great tennis. I’m really happy to play a first quarter-final in a Grand Slam. I think this tournament’s going to be a great experience for me for the next tournaments.”
And while another 18-year-old, Dane Holger Rune may have lost in the first round, the fact that he gave his all for a set and a half against the world No 1 Novak Djokovic, when he was struggling physically and in severe pain with cramps, highlighted his drive and hunger. Rune had made it clear before the match that this is where he wants to be. Djokovic appreciated that and was in no doubt that Rune, a former French Open boys champion and junior world No 1, is a star of the future.
Fernandez said the young guns are inspiring one another: “It’s so fun to see all of us being so happy and having fun on the court. Honestly, I think it just motivates us to do even more. We want to make something special out of this tournament.”
The kids in America have certainly done that.