Why you should care
Because Serena is on her way out.
Listen closely and you might hear the glorious sounds of pre–U.S. Open action coming from the Billy Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens. The players’ grunts, the swells of well-mannered applause, and the rush of air from hardworking ball boys and girls each time they sprint across the net — isn’t it beautiful?
In anticipation of America’s biggest tennis tournament, which begins on Monday, August 28, we’re keying in on a handful of young stars to watch. Today, the women have the stage. To help us better understand the state of WTA tennis and to laser in on these four talents, OZY spoke with two legends of the sport, and current ESPN broadcasters, Chrissie Evert and John McEnroe. Together, Evert and McEnroe racked up 25 Grand Slam singles titles. They’ll be anchoring ESPN’s exclusive coverage of the tournament through September 10.
What can we expect from one-time prodigy Sloane Stephens?
Tennis fans surely know Stephens’ name, and for good reason. Twenty-two-year old Madison Keys (WTA No. 16) is currently the best young American rising star, but just last year that claim belonged to Stephens, 24. Back in 2013, she was a quarterfinalist at Wimbledon, and she beat Serena Williams en route to the semifinals at the Australian Open and climbed her way to No. 11 in the world. Stephens was deemed the “next great American tennis star,” Serena’s heir apparent. But then inconsistency, fatigue and injuries took their toll.
Stephens won four WTA titles between 2015 and 2016, but erratic finishes saw her slide from a No. 11 world ranking down to No. 35. After suffering a stress fracture in her foot during last year’s Rio Olympics, she backed off all competition for nearly a year. “She has a different look in her eye when she’s on the court now,” says Evert. “She’s fighting hard and she’s very focused. We always saw her talent, but I think taking off a year has given her some more meaning behind her tennis and made her more passionate.”
Stephens’ comeback began at Wimbeldon in July, where she lost in the first round. But recent minor tournaments have brought success. Last week, in Cincinnati, she reached the semifinals, defeating world No. 2 Petra Kvitová for the second week in a row. Having now returned to the WTA Top 100 (No. 84), Queens could be the ideal place to properly announce her presence. “As far as winning the tournament,” Evert tells OZY, “Sloane has an outside chance. I love the way she’s playing.”
Is Elina Svitolina a bona fide superstar?
All signs point to yes. To hear Evert tell it, a long list of young players with great potential are elbowing for space at the top of the WTA rankings, but 22-year-old Svitolina may be the best. Still chasing her first Grand Slam (aka major) title, she leads the tour with five titles so far this year. Athletically, the Ukrainian is one of the most impressive players on tour — it’s merely a matter of time before she breaks through at a major. As of this week, Svitolina is ranked No. 4 in the world.
“She has already proven herself, so you have to give Svitolina a good shot at winning the tournament,” says Evert. “She’s won more tournaments than anybody this year.” Svitolina lost to No. 32–ranked Julia Görges last week in Cincinnati, but prior to that, in Toronto, she ran through an absolute gauntlet of Top 10 competition en route to her fifth title of the year. That Toronto title included wins over (in order) No. 9 Venus Williams, No. 3 Garbiñe Muguruza, No. 2 Simona Halep and No. 5 Caroline Wozniaki.
Can the first ever Latvian Grand Slam title winner put it all together?
When talking “best young players on tour,” Jelena Ostapenko’s name generates some disagreement between tennis icons. “You have to mention Ostapenko too,” McEnroe contends. “She just won the French Open, right?” Right, indeed, but Johnny Mac’s broadcasting partner is less convinced. “[Ostapenko] has been a little disappointing so far on the hard-court season, which I’m surprised at,” Evert says. “She’s very dangerous but hasn’t really followed through on that momentum from winning the French.”
The daughter of a Latvian professional footballer, Ostapenko, 20, credits a childhood spent competing in the National Latvian Ballroom Dancing Championships for her athleticism and top footwork. Unlike Svitolina, who boasts nine career tournament wins, Ostapenko only has one — her breakout came at Roland-Garros. Along with Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open, the French Open is one of four Grand Slam tournaments — winning that title thrusts a player into the spotlight, whether she’s ready or not.
Currently ranked No. 12, Ostapenko is a big hitter with the talent to oust any opponent on tour. After winning the French, she made the quarterfinals at Wimbeldon but has gone one-and-done on the hard courts of Toronto and Cincinnati, respectively. The U.S. Open presents another hard-court challenge. If she can shake the recent inconsistency and use the surface to give her shots more pace, Ostapenko could be the one to watch.
Will Last Year’s Darling Make Another Run?
Last year, while most of her friends were kicking off their senior year in high school back in San Francisco, Catherine “CiCi” Bellis was shining under the bright lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium. The then-17-year-old had been competing on the pro circuit for three seasons but had retained amateur status by declining monetary earnings. She planned to go to Stanford. Then life changed.
After earning her way into the tournament as a qualifier, Bellis reached the third round at the Open for the first time in her career. She lost to eventual champion Angelique Kerber, but a precedent was set. Bellis was good enough. After the tournament, she deferred admission to Stanford in favor of turning pro full-time. The move worked: Bellis finished 2016 on fire, winning her three final tournaments of the year. She had a timeout at the beginning of this year with a hamstring injury, but now the teenager has returned to form, climbing to a career-high No. 36 WTA ranking. The youngest player inside the WTA Top 50, Bellis is a long shot to make a run in Queens. But, if nothing else, she’ll be a fun player to root for — this week and for many years to come.