For decades, millennials and Gen Xers have celebrated the tennis legends of their generations like Venus and Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Roger Federer. But now Gen Zers are staking claim on their own tennis stars after Coco Gauff and Carlos Alcaraz dominated public attention at this year’s U.S. Open, which concludes this weekend.
Gauff, 19, and Alcaraz, 20 captured global headlines for their young age and prowess on the court, much like their predecessors in their primes, such as 41-year-old Williams and 37-year-old Nadal, whom they’ve drawn comparisons to. But Williams retired after last year’s U.S. Open and Nadal is preparing to hang up his racket after a planned comeback from injury next year, positioning Gauff and Alcaraz as the faces of a generational shift in the sport.
Ivan Ljubičić, former Croatian tennis player and former coach of now retired superstar Federer, who, at 42, is part of Gen X, says the passing of the torch will happen soon.
“Obviously the generational change is one step away, but for the complete change I would wait a moment longer,” Ljubičić said earlier this year
Serena to Coco
Gauff is drawing comparisons to her fellow American and 23-time Grand Slam winner Williams. Both women went pro at the age of 14. And Gauff secured a spot in the finals of the U.S. Open on Thursday, making her the youngest American to reach this stage of the competition since Williams, who won in 1999 at the age of 17. Winning this year’s U.S. Open would be Gauff’s first ever Grand Slam title.
But the comparison goes beyond their prominence as Black athletes in a predominantly white sport. Gauff, who is women’s world No. 6, went viral on social media last week after confronting an umpire who turned a blind eye to her 35-year-old German opponent allegedly breaking the rules during their match. People online, as well as the Obamas, praised Gauff for standing up for herself and for her maturity in handling the situation.
Williams, similarly, had a notorious outburst at the 2018 U.S. Open, accusing the umpire of questioning her integrity and penalizing her more severely than he would male players.
The two never went head-to-had in a professional match, but Gauff has defeated Williams’ older sister, seven-time Grand Slam winner Venus Williams, twice: At Wimbledon in 2019 when Gauff was 15 and the following year at the 2020 Australian Open, where she also beat the former No. 1-ranked Naomi Osaka.
Gauff resists the comparisons to Serena Williams, although she acknowledges it as a great honor.
“Serena is Serena. She’s the GOAT,” Gauff said in an ESPN interview on Thursday. “I hope to do half of what she does, but I’m not going to compare myself to her—she’s someone I look up to.”
Gauff added that she’s “happy to be a product of her legacy,” and said the only regret in her career will be never playing against Williams.
Rafael to Carlos
From Spain, Alcaraz is the men’s world No. 1. He has drawn similar comparisons to the 22-time Grand Slam winner and former No. 1-ranked Nadal, from their shared nationality to their similar styles of play. Alcaraz has faced Nadal on the court three times, winning their third match in the 2022 Madrid Open quarter final 6-2, 1-6, 6-3.
Perhaps Alcaraz, who lost in the semifinals on Friday to Russian Daniil Medvedev, hasn’t gained as much attention as Gauff among U.S. social media users, but he is a favorite of his fellow U.S. Open competitors. Many professional tennis players don’t pay close attention to matches that aren’t theirs—they keep busy practicing, recovering, eating, and talking to the press—but Alcaraz seems to be the exception.
“I don’t watch a lot,” Iga Swiatek, women’s world No. 1, told the Wall Street Journal before she was eliminated from the U.S. Open. “But these matches I actually watch from the beginning till the end.”
Gauff was paying attention to Alcaraz, too.
“If he can smile, he’s No. 1 in the world and he has all this pressure,” she said in a press conference on Wednesday. “Then… where I’m considered the underdog on paper, I can smile too.”
She and other tennis stars tuned into Alcaraz’s nearly four-hour match against No. 2-ranked Djokovic, the all-time male Grand Slam leader with 23 titles, at the hard-court Cincinnati Masters in August. The 36-year-old millennial reigned supreme in Ohio, but Alcaraz defeated only him a month earlier at Wimbledon when he grabbed his second Grand Slam title.
“They’re breaking the limits of tennis,” Gauff described it.