STARNBERG, September 22, 2020
One thing that we have learned about tennis in the modern era is that the age of winning your first Grand Slam isn’t really all that important a marker for future success. Martina Hingis, for example, won her first Slam at the age of 16, a further four before she turned 20, and none after that. By contrast, Angelique Kerber waited until her 28th birthday to win her first and managed to win another couple (so far).
Still, you can’t help but think that Naomi Osaka, now a three-time Grand Slam winner, is a ‘good’ age to take her place at the top of women’s tennis. The US Open champion turns 23 next month. And while she has not yet regained the world number one spot, there is a sense that her crowning last weekend was significant, perhaps even more so than her two previous Slam wins in 2018 and 2019.
Indeed, if Osaka were to retire tomorrow, she will have already equalled the record of excellent players like Lindsey Davenport. But the Japanese star will want more than that, and it is surely within her powers to target the hauls of modern greats like Justin Henin and Venus Williams, both of whom managed to win seven Grand Slams.
Osaka still has work to do
Of course, it’s not going to be easy for Osaka. We scoured all the upcoming ATP and WTA tennis odds by Mbet, and it’s not as if she is the hot favourite for every tournament. In the next Slams, too, she lags behind players like Simona Halep (favourite for French Open, Wimbledon) and Bianca Andreescu (Australian Open). Bookmakers aren’t always right, of course, but it’s still significant that they feel Osaka is not yet ready to be the top contender across women’s tennis.
But, for the good of the women’s game, it should be celebrated that there are players like Halep, Andreescu, Ash Barty and Sofia Kenin who can challenge for the right to be called the best player in the world over the coming years. While she might have another Grand Slam or two in her, we are now coming towards the very end of what can only be called the Serena Williams era of women’s tennis. With all due respect to Williams; she cast a very long shadow over the game for the best part of two decades. And while she played in the same era as some modern greats – Henin, Venus, Kim Clijsters, Maria Sharapova, to name a few – Serena was an outlier when compared to the rest. We are likely to see a more equitable era now, and the overall game might be the better for it.
Women’s tennis getting younger
Indeed, in an excellent article published last year by statistics guru’s FiveThirtyEight, it was pointed out that women’s tennis is getting younger again. The average age of WTA players and winners dropped significantly back towards the levels seen in the 1980s and 1990s when players like Stefi Graf, Monica Seles and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario started winning titles in their teens. We aren’t quite there yet, but there is enough young talent coming through, especially from Eastern Europe, to be enthused about the next decade in women’s tennis.
Where, then, will Osaka fit into all this? More Slams await; there can be no doubt about that. It’s just a question of how many and how consistent she becomes. But if she does make it to the top – and stays there – the raft of new talent coming through will make her ascendency all the more exciting. The fear in women’s tennis is that we look back at the 2020s as a post-Serena era, and it will be hard not to lament the retirement of one of history’s greatest athletes. But Osaka and her contemporaries can build a new era, and tennis might be better off for it.