Jelena Ostapenko and Teenage Slam Breakthroughs

Jelena Ostepenko is looking ahead to a big day on Thursday: She’ll celebrate her 20th birthday by playing her first Grand Slam semifinal.

A generation or two ago, a breakthrough accomplishment at age 20 would barely merit acknowledgement. In the late 1990s, women’s tennis was dominated by teens a recent teens: Serena Williams and Martina Hingis both won majors before their 20th birthday, and Venus Williams won her first Slam only a few days into her third decade. That youth brigade wasn’t just a couple of once-in-a-generation talents, either: 19-year-old Iva Majoli won a major, and Mirjana Lucic, Jelena Dokic, and Anna Kournikova all reached semifinals before their 18th birthdays.

Times have changed. The last teenage Slam champion was Maria Sharapova in 2006, and we haven’t had a teenager in a major final since Caroline Wozniacki in 2009. Since then, only four players–Ostapenko, Sloane Stephens, Eugenie Bouchard, and Madison Keys–have reached Grand Slam semifinals before their 20th birthdays. (To simplify matters, I’m defining tournament age as age at the beginning of the event, so Ostapenko is a 19-year-old for the purpose of this discussion.)

By just about any measure you can dream up, the sport is getting older. In 1990, the average age of the women in the French Open main draw was 21.8 years. In 2000, it was 23.5. This year, the average age at the start of the tournament was 25.6, just a tiny bit short of last year’s record–set at Roland Garros and Wimbledon–of 25.7. Veterans are sticking around longer, and it takes longer for young players to develop tour-ready games.

Accordingly, we need to revise our notion of what constitutes a big breakthrough. 20 years ago, the semifinal debut of a 19-year-old was a nice achievement for the player herself, but nothing earth-shaking. Today, it’s a once-in-two-years event, and immediately puts the debutante in elite company. While Stephens and Bouchard have stumbled since their own breakthroughs, they (along with Keys) are still among the most promising young players in the game.

To quantify Ostapenko’s achievement, let’s consider her age relative to the average of all main draw players–just the raw difference between those two numbers. Ostapenko is 5.68 years younger than the average woman at Roland Garros this year, making her the 7th youngest (relative to the field) semifinalist at a major since 2000:

Slam     Youngest SF         Age  Avg Age  Diff  
2004 W   Maria Sharapova   17.17    24.17  7.00  
2006 FO  Nicole Vaidisova  17.10    23.63  6.53  
2000 W   Jelena Dokic      17.21    23.69  6.48  
2005 W   Maria Sharapova   18.17    24.45  6.28  
2005 AO  Maria Sharapova   17.75    23.99  6.24  
2007 AO  Nicole Vaidisova  17.73    23.48  5.75  
2017 FO  Jelena Ostapenko  19.97    25.65  5.68  
2001 FO  Kim Clijsters     17.97    23.62  5.65  
2005 US  Maria Sharapova   18.36    23.78  5.42  
2015 AO  Madison Keys      19.92    25.33  5.41

Only three players–Sharapova, Dokic, and Nicole Vaidisova–have reached a Slam semifinal this century at such a young age compared to the rest of the draw.

Of course, names like Dokic and Vaidisova aren’t the most encouraging comparisons for an emerging star. Both players peaked in the top ten, but neither ever reached a major final. The WTA’s past is littered with teenage rising stars who ultimately fizzled.

Yet if we are to see one historically great player come from among today’s young players, she should start building her trophy collection now. It’s tough to put together a Hall of Fame-caliber career without winning some big titles by one’s early 20s. Madison Keys has put herself in that conversation, and this week, Ostapenko has done so as well.