Record winning streaks. Freak forehands. The young guns transforming tennis

By Courtney Walsh

Polish star Iga Swiatek, 21, is among the new generation of tennis players dominating the game.Credit:AP

As Iga Swiatek walked through the lobby of a Cincinnati hotel in August 2021 carrying a weighty book in her hands, she caught the eye of the world’s top women’s tennis player. Ash Barty could scarcely believe what she was seeing. It had been a rough week for the Australian, who was struggling for motivation during the Cincinnati Open, a premier event that sits a tier below the grand slams, but a tournament that features the elite players on both tours. Barty had fulfilled a childhood dream of winning Wimbledon a month earlier, but that success had become a catalyst for thoughts on how much longer she wanted to continue touring the globe playing tennis.

Barty burst out laughing when she clocked what Swiatek was carrying. “She was reading Gone with the Wind,” she says. “Have you seen how big that thing is?” Swiatek only joined the tour in 2019 but the pair had quickly become close, finding they had more in common than their mutual brilliance on court. “We really hit it off from the moment we met,” Barty says. “She’s a bookworm like me and that’s something we connected on.” Swiatek says reading helps her stay off social media, expands her world view and provides a distraction from the rigours of life on tour. The habit is an escape for the 21-year-old Polish star, just as it was for Barty during her time on the circuit.

From the moment the Australian retired in March, after more than two years at the top, the Warsaw-born right-hander set a stunning new standard, becoming the women’s No. 1 overnight and emerging as a clear favourite leading into this year’s Australian Open, which begins in Melbourne on Monday.

Swiatek’s ascension coincides with the rise of several other dazzling talents barely out of school. Some, like articulate and athletic American Coco Gauff, sprung to attention well before graduation. In 2019, at only 15, Gauff became the youngest player to qualify for Wimbledon, where she beat five-time champion Venus Williams in straight sets in the first round. Now 18, with a poise and versatility that still belies her youth, Gauff reached the final of the French Open last June and currently sits inside the top 10 in both singles and doubles.

Carlos Alcaraz (right), now world No. 1, and Caspar Ruud before the 2022 US Open men’s singles final. Credit:Getty Images

Leading the new guard in the men’s section is thrilling Spaniard Carlitos Alcaraz, or Carlos as he’s more commonly known, who recently withdrew from the Australian Open after suffering a leg injury during training. At 19, he is the youngest ever men’s No 1. Alcaraz proved his legitimacy by beating Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal in consecutive matches at the Madrid Masters in May, then secured the top ranking in September when he beat Norwegian Casper Ruud, then 23, in a four-set battle to win the US Open. “Alcaraz is about as complete a player as I have seen at that age, certainly since Boris Becker came along as a teenager,” says the 1987 Wimbledon champion, Pat Cash. “He has everything. Rafa became a very good volleyer as he grew older, but Carlos already has that and everything else.”

Finland’s Holger Rune, also 19, is another feisty competitor. Rune defeated Djokovic at the Paris Masters final in November, and after becoming the first Norwegian to make the top 10 rankings, finished 2022 at number 11 and was named ATP Tour Newcomer of the Year.

This was tennis played like a computer game. It seemed neither player could miss, no matter how outlandish the shot they were attempting, how daunting the position they found themselves in.

And let’s not forget 21-year-old Italian Jannik Sinner, who is mentored by Darren Cahill, the Australian coach who steered Lleyton Hewitt, Andre Agassi and Simona Halep to the world’s top ranking. Sinner made the quarter-finals of three of the four grand slams last year, including the US Open, at which he and Alcaraz provided the battle of the tournament.

This was tennis played like a computer game. It seemed neither player could miss, no matter how outlandish the shot they were attempting, how daunting the position they found themselves in. As the clock ticked well beyond midnight, each shot seemed to be blasted harder than the last as the angles became more acute. Alcaraz finally emerged victorious – but not before 2.50am and five hours, 15 minutes of play.

The arrival of a new crop of top-10 stars comes at a critical time for tennis, which for more than two decades has been dominated in the women’s by the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, and in the men’s by the big three: Roger Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. The change was set into sharp relief last September with the retirement of both Federer and Serena Williams. That came only six months after Barty had hung up her racquet and eight months after the Australian who has dominated quad wheelchair tennis for eight years, Dylan Alcott, played his last grand slam final, fittingly at Melbourne Park.

Nadal and Djokovic are, of course, far from spent forces – they shared the first three grand slam titles of the current season and Djokovic finished the year a winner at the ATP Tour finals, a tournament Alcaraz missed due to injury. But as doting dads well into their 30s, there’s a question mark as to how much longer they can remain at the top.

Alcaraz is too respectful of the duo to suggest his hold on the top spot will be permanent. His coach Juan Carlos Ferrero says these champions and others including Alexander Zverev, Rune and Ruud will continue to contend, but he feels that Alcaraz and Sinner are capable of dominating for the next decade.

Swiatek, too, acknowledges that her predecessors have way more runs on the board than she does. But on a chilly weekend in New York last September, sandwiched between the fondest of farewells for Williams and Federer, Swiatek and Alcaraz gave reason to believe the changing of the guard might indeed be underway.

As planes roared overhead, trains rattled past and scents drifted on the breeze from Long Island Sound, Swiatek disposed of then 27-year-old Tunisian Ons Jabeur in straight sets. In so doing, she secured her first hard-court grand slam title, adding to her two Roland-Garros successes of 2020 and 2022.

The next night, Alcaraz was up against talented Norwegian Casper Ruud, only four days after his epic quarter-final battle with Sinner. Showing no outward sign of fatigue, and with the superb baseline shots for which those raised on Spain’s slow clay courts are renowned, augmented by excellent net-play, he closed out a tight four-set match to secure his first grand slam title.

In the process, he won the hearts of not only New Yorkers but tennis fans around the globe. If this was the future of tennis, many thought, bring it on. Quickly.

World No.1 Iga Swiatek (right) and Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur after the 2022 US Open women’s final. Credit:Getty Images

Iga Swiatek was in Florida last March for the Miami Open when a member of her team knocked on her hotel door late one night. Back in Australia, Ash Barty had just announced her retirement. Swiatek, daughter of Olympic rower Tomasz and orthodontist Dorota, promptly burst into tears. “I always had this vision that we would all play until … our bodies are so tired that we can’t any more,” she told the gathered media a few days later. “I needed time to actually understand what she must have thought. Her decision was really brave and I felt a lot of emotions because of that.”

History is littered with players who’ve faltered under the burden of the top spot, but the status appeared to embolden Poland’s only grand slam singles champion. Swiatek went on to thrash four-time champion Naomi Osaka – the highest-earning female athlete in the world – in the Miami Open final. This was near the start of a stunning 37-match winning streak, extending from February to July, which saw Swiatek win six titles in succession, including a second Roland-Garros trophy.

Swiatek had only won her first grand slam match in Melbourne in 2018, and her first French Open in 2020. She now has three grand slam titles from 15 appearances. Serena Williams had two at a similar stage in her career. That winning streak? The best of any female player this century.

The greatest tennis players possess a weapon that helps set them apart. Serena Williams had a thunderous serve. Roger Federer was near perfect in this regard, too. Ash Barty’s backhand slice slithered off the court like a snake. And no one returns better than Novak Djokovic. With Swiatek, it’s her formidable forehand that strikes fear into the hearts of rivals. At the French Open in 2020, only Jannik Sinner clocked a harder stroke from the forehand wing. The right-handed Swiatek imparts significant topspin on her shots, too, comparable at times to the dizzying revolutions Nadal uses to befuddle his rivals.

‘A lot of people looking in certainly see her as head and shoulders above the rest and changing the way that the women’s game is played.’

Off court, Swiatek carries an easy manner, considered but entertaining, often ending her press conferences with a smile or laugh that belies her ruthlessness on court. As the preceding world No. 1, Barty is well-placed to assess her ascension. “She’s got the opportunity to make it her own, it’s been amazing to see her flourish,” Barty says. “A lot of people looking in certainly see her as head and shoulders above the rest and changing the way that the women’s game is played. The way that she is aggressive, can play on all surfaces, is open and honest and imperfect as well, I think that is what people love to see.”

Swiatek experienced a rare loss in November, in the semi-finals of the WTA Finals in Fort Worth, Texas. It was only her ninth loss from 76 matches in 2022. Fatigue was a factor and she hit the beach soon after for a well-deserved break. Good preparation, no doubt, for Melbourne.

It is no exaggeration to say the Prince of Murcia, who was raised in a Spanish region renowned as the orchard of Europe, was born to play tennis. Carlos Alcaraz’s grandfather transformed a hunting club initially built in the 1920s in his home town of El Palmar into a tennis club and his dad, also called Carlos, was considered a decent junior player in Spain before turning his attention to coaching.

Just a couple of months after Alcaraz was born, Roger Federer won Wimbledon for the first time. As a young boy, the Spaniard had a poster of the Swiss superstar on his wall. He had a racquet in his hands by the age of three and a year later was practising his backhand swing with a baseball bat to build up his strength.

Now there’s a giant mural of Alcaraz at the entrance to the district. He’s been encouraged by Nadal, a fellow Spaniard who presented him with a trophy after an event at his Mallorca tennis academy when Alcaraz was 13. “He reminds me a lot of myself when I was a … kid,” Nadal said at Indian Wells in March, where he defeated the teenager in a close semi-final (6-4, 4-6, 6-3).

“The energy. The speed on the run. The amount of passion and determination that he has to become a great champion. That is what I see in him, no?”

At the US Open in September, Alcaraz approached critical points like a bull greets a red rag. Aggressively and decisively. His ability to make the transition from defence to attack in a point was exceptional. After thunderous forehands, he’d bellow, “I am a bull!” and “Come on, bull.” Thick around the chest and with remarkable, bulging thigh muscles, he’s certainly built like one.

‘I think it is great for tennis that such a young guy achieved so many historic results and milestones, because that attracts a lot of attention for our sport.’

By year’s end, Alcaraz had been crowned the youngest season-ending man since the ATP Tour began, eclipsing the record previously held by Australian Lleyton Hewitt by more than a year. An abdominal injury prevented him from playing the tour finals in Turin, where he was feted for his newly acquired No. 1 status in front of a capacity crowd. Wearing a dark suit jacket over a white shirt unbuttoned at the top, and sporting a broad smile, he presented as a marketer’s dream for a tour looking to the future. “It means a lot to me. To get this trophy … and to be a part of tennis history along with a lot of legends,” he said. “For me, it is an amazing feeling.”

Alcaraz was due to play only his third Australian Open this year, before he ruled himself out, to the huge disappointment of fans. Alcaraz would have most likely been the biggest threat to Novak Djokovic’s bid for a 10th AO title. But there are other young stars capable of contending. Seb Korda, the son of former Australian Open champion Petr Korda, pushed the nine-time winner in a thrilling final in Adelaide in the first week of January. Other emerging players, including Holger Rune and Jannik Sinner, have been nominated as potential grand slam champions.

Melburnians will not see Alcaraz this year. But he will be back. “I think it is great for tennis that such a young guy achieved so many historic results and milestones because that attracts a lot of attention for our sport,” Djokovic has said. “So we all benefit.”

That we do.

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