Friday 10 to 1: US Open breakthroughs
Honouring the young talents starring at the 2013 US Open, we look back at the 10 most notable stars who enjoyed their career breakthroughs at Flushing Meadows.
The US Open powers through its first week towards the business end, and several young guns – such as Sloane Stephens, Laura Robson, Jack Sock and Milos Raonic – have demonstrated their talents by reaching the third round.
This Friday, we take a look at the most notable stars who made their career breakthoughs at a young age at Flushing Meadows.
She may not have won the title, but at the 1997 US Open, Venus announced herself on the world tennis stage in a big way. With beaded hair, incredible athleticism and plenty of ‘tude, Williams was a powerful force unlike anything ever before seen. And at just 17 years of age, she shrugged off a controversial change-over bump against Irina Spirlea in the semifinals before going on to win in a third-set breaker, screaming and jumping for joy as she reached her first major final. She would ultimately go down to Martina Hingis, but went on to win the Open in 2000 and 2001.
He was heralded as the next big American hope after the Sampras-Agassi-Courier-Chang era, and Andy Roddick certainly came through on that promise with a breakout performance in front of adoring home fans at the 2003 Open. With a big, brash, bold game that thrilled the New York crowds, Roddick saved his best for last in the final, straight-setting world No.3 and reigning French Open champ Juan Carlos Ferrero. Alas, at just 21 years of age it would be Roddick’s career peak – he reached four subsequent major finals, but lost to Roger Federer in all of them.
Just 19 years of age, Svetlana Kuznetsova had always shown promise. But that promise – and raw talent – came together perfectly at the 2004 US Open. She swung freely through the draw, mowing down in succession Mary Pierce, Nadia Petrova, Lindsay Davenport and Elena Dementieva in the final four rounds to become the third straight Russian major winner in 2004.
A Russian with a booming serve, electrifying groundstrokes and magnetic personality such as Safin was always going to have a great relationship with the US Open in New York City. And it proved to be the venue of his breakthrough in 2000. He did not meet a top-10 player en route to the final, and struggled through many of his matches, but once he arrived in the deciding match, he was a changed player. Facing Pete Sampras, the reigning Wimbledon champ and who had dropped just one set at the tournament, Safin utterly overwhelmed the American great, winning in straight sets with a masterful performance belying his 20 years.
Poor Sampras must have felt a sense of déjà vu in 2001, coming up against another emerging star in the US Open final – this time in the form of 20-year-old Lleyton Hewitt – and again going down in straight sets. Having lost to Sampras in the semifinals the year before, Hewitt dramatically turned the tables with a 7-6(4) 6-1 6-1 victory, his superior return game utterly nullifying Sampras’ famed serve and flummoxing the American. It was the first of two Grand Slam titles for Hewitt, who would go on to finish the 2001 season at world No.1.
Such a feat would almost be impossible in today’s game. Aged just 16, the slight-yet-tenacious Tracy Austin dropped just one set en route to the US Open title in 1979, saving her best tennis for her final two matches. In the semifinals, she straight-setted No.2 seed Martina Navratilova before doing the same to top seed and defending champion Chris Evert in the final. Austin would win the US Open again in 1981.
Rarely do players defeat Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in succession to claim any tournament, let alone a Grand Slam title. But that’s exactly what Juan Martin del Potro did at Flushing Meadows in 2009. After thrashing Nadal 6-2 6-2 6-2 in the semifinals, world No.1 Federer, the reigning French Open and Wimbledon champion, awaited in the final. And despite going down two-sets-to-one, the Argentine, aged just 20, began to find the range on his devastating groundstrokes, and reeled in the Swiss’s lead. When Federer hit a final backhand long, the tennis world has a new champion. Del Potro is the only player outside the “Big Four” to win a major title in the past nine years.
Davenport had long been touted as a top talent, but after engaging in a rigorous fitness campaign to shed weight, which in turn helped boost her belief, the American won her first major – and became the first home-grown winner of the US Open in 16 years – when she triumphed in 1998. And she did so in style, not dropping a set throughout the fortnight and pasting main rivals Venus Williams and Martina Hingis in her final two matches. Davenport went on to win Wimbledon in 1999 and at Melbourne Park in 2000, also without dropping a set.
It was a very young Pistol Pete, aged just 19 and seeded No.12, who won the US Open in 1990. He played uninhibited, attacking tennis en route to the title, beating top-tenners Thomas Muster (No.6), Ivan Lendl (No.3) and Andre Agassi (No.4) in the final along the way. It marked the arrival of one of the greatest tennis champions the game would ever see, and although it took him three years to win his next Grand Slam singles crown, he would finish his career with 14.
Most thought Venus would be the Williams sister to first experience Grand Slam success. But it was the exceptionally powerful and extraordinarily confident Serena, at just 17, who would beat her to it. In one of the most remarkable Grand Slam performances in history, Serena slammed her way past three of the world’s top four – Monica Seles, Davenport and Hingis – in her last three matches after surviving a mighty scare against future rival Kim Clijsters in the third round. Like Sampras, it would take Williams several years to win another major, but when she did, the titles came thick and fast. She’s won 16 Grand Slams and counting …
Said Serena at this year’s US Open: “Honestly, when the  tournament started, I told myself I was going to win and I felt it … I wasn’t really surprised. I was happy and elated, but I just had this instinct I was going to win this title. All the players I played I had pretty much beaten before. I had beaten Martina a few times and Monica and Lindsay. I knew I could do it. It was just putting them all together.”