NEW YORK, NY, USA - The 2017 US Open has been one for the young guns, chief among them Roland Garros champion Jelena Ostapenko, who takes on Daria Kasatkina in a rematch of their Volvo Car Open final earlier this spring.
Kasatkina and Ostapenko’s first all-teen final in nearly two years served to bookend the clay court season, with the Russian winning her maiden title in Charleston and the Latvian surprising everyone to claim her first title of any kind on the terre battue in Paris.
“Women’s tennis is crazy!” Kasatkina blurted out in reaction to how that season shook out. “There’s a lot of upcoming players, and I think it’s changing, not only in women’s tennis, by the way. It’s normal for young players to move forward and start making it a fight with the top players. It should be like this, or it’s not interesting to watch tennis.”
Young players like Ostapenko and 23-year-old Garbiñe Muguruza have certainly made it very interesting this year, becoming the first women aged 24 and under to win majors since 2008, when Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic won the Australian and French Open titles. At the US Open, either could become the youngest women to win two majors in a season since 2003, when a 21-year-old Justine Henin captured her first Grand Slam trophies in Paris and New York.
Led by No.4 seed Elina Svitolina, nearly one-third of the final 32 women in Flushing Meadows is aged 22 and under heading into Labor Day weekend.
Now 20, Kasatkina maintains close friendships with her colleagues off the court - periodically pausing her press conference to check the score on Daria Gavrilova’s second round match with Shelby Rogers - but takes a more businesslike approach to her on-court contingent.
“I don’t follow too closely, but I always find out about them on social media or WTA Insider. You can’t go anywhere and not look at these things; you always find out eventually. I don’t go on social media just to look at how they’re doing, though.
“I’m only thinking about my game, and my improvements. I try not to look to the right or left at other players because when you pay too much attention to that, you have less concentration on yourself. You have to be 100% concentrated on your own game if you want to improve.”
Her clash with Ostapenko guarantees at least one such player into the second week, while the winner could play fellow Generation 1997 standout Naomi Osaka - who next faces Kaia Kanepi - for a spot in the quarterfinals.
“Oh, my God, no. I'm old,” joked the Japanese teen, who played her first WTA match back in 2014. “I think they are really good. Whenever I see them winning, it makes me really motivated to do the same.
“In a sense, we’re pushing each other to do better, because I know that, subconsciously, I keep track of all their matches.
“I think a group of younger people do better than just one. If you're climbing up the rankings, it's better as a group.”
Peppered throughout the draw is a trio of American youngsters, including 18-year-old wildcard Sofia Kenin, UCLA star Jennifer Brady, and the seemingly ageless Madison Keys, who take on Maria Sharapova, Monica Niculescu, and Elena Vesnina, respectively.
"It's incredible to play [Sharapova] in the third round, that's huge,” Kenin said on Wednesday. “To play against a great player like Maria, it's going to be great. I'm going to try to obviously do well. It's really exciting to be in this position and to be playing the person who I've always looked up to all my life."
Keys has long been a fixture in US Open draws, pushing Lucie Safarova to three sets all the way back in 2011 as a 16 year old, and was equally effusive about her growing cohort marching through the draw.
“I think it seems that it comes in waves. There's a lot of talent right now. I think it's exciting. It's always nice to see new, fresh faces.”
Despite not keeping tabs on her opposition, Kasatkina nonetheless beamed with pride at the thought of a new era encroaching upon the old guard.
“We’re coming," the Russian said with a smile. "You can see that we’re close already, with Jelena winning the Grand Slam. The level is already close, so every match just has small differences between opponents. You have to be focused for every match and every point.”