PARIS – It is exactly 31 years to the day that 16-year-old Monica Seles defeated world number 1, Steffi Graf, and won her first Grand Slam.
At the time, Seles was the youngest woman to win a title, but it was nothing new then that teenagers won slams. Graf and Arantxa Sanchez had done it before, and soon Martina Hingis would come along and win Wimbledon at 16 – only 72 days younger than Seles when she won.
In the men’s category, Boris Becker won Wimbledon in 1985 at the age of 17, and Michael Chang was the same age when he won at Roland Garros.
But a generation later, and for the vast majority of players, winning slams is more of a marathon than a sprint – the road to stardom is often littered with disappointment.
For 17-year-old American Coco Gauff, her chances of winning the French Open as a young teenager with Graf and Seles ended in the quarter-finals on Wednesday when she was beaten in straight sets by Barbora Krejcikova from the Czech Republic.
It was a painful loss for Gauff after a tough few months. In the first set she missed five setpoints, which turned out to be particularly costly.
But Gauff is there for the long term.
“I’m obviously disappointed that I couldn’t finish the first set. [but] to be honest, it’s in the past. It already happened, “she said.
“After the game, Enzo [Couacaud], my lash partner, told me that this match will likely make me a champion in the future. I really think so. “
Gauff won her first clay court title in Parma last month and will now climb to 21st place thanks to her efforts in Paris, the perfect stepping stone to prepare for Wimbledon and beyond.
“Of course it was a great season. In the future I just want to get better and better. Hopefully I’ll get better next year,” said Gauff.
“But I think I’ve learned a lot from this swing and I have a lot to take with me later in my next tournaments later this year. I think losing these games will pay off in the future. I think “If I keep fighting like this, other players, maybe when they’re in the lead, get nervous because they know I’m not going to give up.”
While Gauff couldn’t exactly revive the trend of winning teenage slams, Iga Swiatek already kicked him off by winning the title in Paris in 2020 at the age of 19 and surprised everyone by winning her first senior tournament of any kind without one only set to lose.
On Wednesday, her title defense against Maria Sakkari from Greece came to an end in the quarter-finals, but she offered some perspective after the defeat.
“This year I had more pressure on myself, but I did well because I think the quarter-finals are a good job,” she said. “I’m showing consistency. Of course I know that I can play better than today. Everyone has seen that. I know that I can play heavier balls and everything. But days like that happen. I didn’t have [a] Day like last year, basically. That’s why I won.
“But the most important thing right now is to learn from it and not let it happen next time.”
Rafael Nadal was the last teenager to win a men’s Grand Slam title when he triumphed at Roland Garros in 2005. Before him, Pete Sampras was the last teenage Grand Slam champion at the 1990 US Open.
The physicality of the men’s game undoubtedly contributed to the fact that the youngsters could not win the greatest titles. The average age of the current top 10 is 28 years; for the top 20 it is 26.2 and for the top 50 it is 27.14. The breakthrough has never been so difficult.
In terms of victory at Grand Slams, however, this was due to the brilliance and dominance of the Big Three: Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Nadal. Together they have won 58 of the last 70 slams and closed the door to anyone who wants to claim their throne.
Dominic Thiem had to wait until he was 27 years old before he won his first Grand Slam title at the US Open last September.
Daniil Medvedev has reached two slam finals, while Alexander Zverev (one) and Stefanos Tsitsipas (none) will meet in the semifinals in Paris on Friday. No wonder they were happy not to be in the same half as Nadal, Djokovic and Federer.
“It’s nice that I didn’t play against Rafa or Novak in the quarter-finals,” said Zverev. “I think it’s even worse to play against Rafa here in the final, for example. It’s even more difficult. But I also have to be there first.”
And to get there, this marathon can take more than one try.