Magnificent seven hit the big time as US drives youth revolution in women's tennis

Simon Briggs
·6-min read
Coco Gauff - AP
Coco Gauff - AP

But for the social-distancing rules at the US Open, the women’s locker room would have had a flavour of Glee or High School Musical. At the start of the fortnight, there were an extraordinary 32 Americans in the 128-strong singles draw, including seven teenagers.

We all know about Coco Gauff, thanks to her show-stopping debut at last year’s Wimbledon. Yet 16-year-old Gauff is no longer the youngest and freshest newcomer on the grand-slam stage. She has been joined by two other girls born in 2004, in Robin Montgomery and Katrina Scott. All have culturally diverse backgrounds – Scott, for instance, is the daughter of an Iranian ballet dancer and is bilingual in English and Farsi – that defy the old Country Club stereotype of US tennis.

Paywall down
Paywall down

American domination of the women’s game is hardly a new development. The United States claimed just over half of all majors in the 2000s, and almost a third during the 2010s. But it used to be based almost exclusively on one family: Serena and Venus Williams, who won 29 of those 34 titles. Now, as the Williams sisters approach the last knockings of their careers, Gauff’s generation is poised to build on their legacy.

The Americans won the Junior Fed Cup last year and are closing in on a new chapter of supremacy. Each year brings at least one potentially game-breaking new talent. The next cab off the rank, Clervie Ngounoue, is only 14 and did not appear at this US Open. But the New York Times have reported that she is already receiving financial support from Serena’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou.

We should pause to acknowledge that the US has no monopoly on prodigies. Poland’s Iga Swiatek is 19 and sits two places behind Gauff in the world rankings, while 18-year-old Ukrainian Marta Kostyuk gave two-time major champion Naomi Osaka a real scare on Friday night. Yet the sheer weight of American talent is sure to squash many a European dream over the coming decade.

What a contrast to the men’s game. At this US Open, 11 American women reached the third round – making up just over 34 per cent of the field – which was the highest figure since 1979. Only three men survived, however, and at the time of writing it seemed plausible that none of those would progress to the second week.

Much of this disparity can be explained through economics. Team-sport leagues such as the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL are so eye-wateringly profitable that any athletic boy would be ill-advised to choose the bumpier road of Futures and Challengers events, which serve as the proving ground in tennis. Whereas, on the women’s side, a recent Forbes magazine survey of the best-paid female athletes placed tennis players in the top nine spots.

According to Martin Blackman, head of player development at the United States Tennis Association, the Williams’s example has been transformative on a number of levels. “The driver has been Venus and Serena,” Blackman told Telegraph Sport, “and that’s something the USTA can’t take credit for. The effect has been to inspire more and better athletes to take up the sport. It’s been a game changer.

“The demonstration effect has worked in a few ways. For African-American girls especially, Serena and Venus have broken down the perception that tennis is elitist and expensive. And then there are the financial and practical rewards.

“When parents are looking at choosing a sport for their children, they are asking: ‘What’s the pathway?’ Even if you’re not breaking on to the tour as a teenager, there are still eight full tennis scholarships available for women at every college with a fully funded programme – whereas it’s only four and a half for the men. That’s offering you a route to higher education, so it’s a win-win.”

Blackman makes it sound simple enough. The Americans have the most successful, charismatic and wealthy role models, so why wouldn’t they now be besieged by young would-be apprentices? Even so, the USTA still deserves appreciation for its sensitive nurturing of those green shoots. Highly visible champions are not enough on their own, as the Swedes discovered when they switched from being a tennis superpower in the late 20th century to bystanders today.

On this front, the USTA made a crucial decision almost a decade ago, when it abandoned a boarding programme for the best young prospects and encouraged them to stay at home as long as possible. If Gauff comes across as more balanced and mature than many players twice her age, it may have something to do with her family upbringing in Florida’s Delray Beach.

As it happens, our own Lawn Tennis Association committed to the opposite tactic last year – residential national academies for children starting at the age of 13, or even 11 in exceptional cases. In the circumstances, it is worth asking whether the decision-makers of British tennis are even aware of the quiet revolution unfolding across the Atlantic.

The magnificent seven

Coco Gauff, 16
Gauff hardly needs any introduction, having made such a splash at Wimbledon last year. She is now going through a few technical adjustments, especially on her serve.

Robin Montgomery, 15
The youngest singles player at this year’s US Open, Montgomery won the under-18 Orange Bowl in December, and is known for her left-handed power and tactical acuity.

Katrina Scott, 16
The daughter of an Iranian ballet dancer, Scott looked set to be a competitive ice-skater until an accidental scheduling clash landed her at a tennis club one day.

Caty McNally, 18
The most successful of the young brigade at this year’s US Open, McNally beat 21st seed Ekaterina Alexandrova to reach the third round. Plays doubles with Gauff and has a rounded game with excellent volleying skills.

f - AP
f - AP

Hailey Baptiste, 18
Like Frances Tiafoe – now the only black male in the top 100 – and Robin Montgomery, Baptiste learned many of her skills at College Park in Maryland, a stronghold of tennis for the black community.

Amanda Anisimova, 19
She feels almost like a veteran at 19, but the tall, blonde Anisimova is being marketed as the next Maria Sharapova – even to the point of using the same agent, Max Eisenbud.

Whitney Osiugwe, 18
A former world No1 junior, Osiugwe showed her versatility by winning the junior French Open – a tournament that clay-phobic Americans often skip. Plays doubles with Baptiste.