Is Jelena Ostapenko More Than the Next Iva Majoli?

Winning a Grand Slam as a teenager–or, in the case of this year’s French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko, a just-barely 20-year-old–is an impressive feat. But it isn’t always a guarantee of future greatness. Plenty of all-time greats launched their careers with Slam titles at age 20 or later, but three of the players who won their debut major at ages closest to Ostapenko’s serve as cautionary tales in the opposite direction: Iva Majoli, Mary Pierce, and Gabriela Sabatini. Each of these women was within three months of her 20th birthday when she won her first title, and of the three, only Pierce ever won another.

However, simply comparing her age to that of previous champions understates the Latvian’s achievement. Women’s tennis has gotten older over the last two decades: The average age of a women’s singles entrant in Paris this year was 25.6, a few days short of the record established at Roland Garros and Wimbledon last year. That’s two years older than the average player 15 years ago, and four years older than the typical entrant three decades ago. Headed into the French Open this year, there were only five teenagers ranked in the top 100; at the end of 2004, the year of Maria Sharapova’s and Svetlana Kuznetsova’s first major victories, there were nearly three times as many.

Thus, it doesn’t seem quite right to group Ostapenko with previous 19- and 20-year-old first-time winners. Instead, we might consider the Latvian’s “relative age”—the difference between her and the average player in the draw—of 5.68 years younger than the field. When I introduced the concept of relative age last week, it was in the context of Slam semifinalists, and in every era, there have been some very young players reaching the final four who burned out just as quickly. The same isn’t true of women who went on to win major titles.

In the last thirty years, only two players have won a major with a greater relative age than Ostapenko: Sharapova, who was 6.66 years younger than the 2004 US Open field, and Martina Hingis, who won three-quarters of the Grand Slam in 1997 at age 16, between 6.3 and 6.6 years younger than each tournament’s average entrant. The rest of the top five emphasizes Ostapenko’s elite company, including Monica Seles (5.29, at the 1990 French Open) and Serena Williams (5.26, at the 1999 US Open).

Each of those four women went on to reach the No. 1 ranking and win at least five majors–an outrageously optimistic forecast for Ostapenko, who, even after winning Roland Garros, is ranked outside the top ten. By relative age, Majoli, Pierce, and Sabatini are poor comparisons for Saturday’s champion–Majoli and Pierce were only three years younger than the fields they overcame, and Sabatini was only two years younger than the average entrant. By comparison, Garbine Muguruza, who won last year’s French Open at age 22, was two and a half years younger than the field.

Which is it, then? Unfortunately I don’t have the answer to that, and we probably won’t have a better idea for several more years. For most of the Open Era, until about ten years ago, the average age on the women’s tour fluctuated between 21 and 23. Thus, for the overall population of first-time major champions, actual age and relative age are very highly correlated. It’s only with the last decade’s worth of debut winners that the numbers meaningfully diverge. For Ostapenko and Muguruza–and perhaps Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova–we have yet to see what their entire career trajectory will look like. To build a bigger sample to test the hypothesis, we’ll need a few more young first-time Slam winners, something we may finally see with Sharapova and Williams out of the way.

For more post-French Open analysis, here’s my Economist piece on Ostapenko and projecting major winners in the long term. Also at the Game Theory blog, I wrote about Rafael Nadal and his abssurd dominance on clay in a fast-court-friendly era.

Finally, check out Carl Bialik’s and my extra-long podcast, recorded Monday, with tons of thoughts and the winners and the fields in general.