NEW YORK -- A quick snapshot of women’s tennis might suggest a youth movement is underway. With the departure of the 40-year-old Serena Williams and the swift emergence of 18-year-old Coco Gauff, it’s easy to get that impression.
But if there’s a movement occurring at this US Open, it’s going in the opposite direction. A number of so-called "older" players are making deep impressions in the draw. With the exception of Gauff and 19-year-old Zheng Qinwen, youth is being served all right -- right off the court.
Each of Sunday’s Round of 16 matches from the bottom half of the draw feature at least one older player who happens to be playing some of the best tennis of her career:
- Ajla Tomljanovic, a 29-year-old Australian, played in 25 majors without making a quarterfinal -- and now she’s reached back-to-back quarters at Wimbledon and advanced to the Round of 16 here with a memorable victory that sent Williams into retirement.
- Carolina Garcia, 28, won the title a few weeks ago in Cincinnati, her first WTA 1000 win in five years.
- Ons Jabeur, also 28, played in this year’s Wimbledon final and just reached the second week of US Open for first time. “Finally,” she said, smiling.
- Zhang Shuai, 33, will be looking to reach only the third major quarterfinal of her career when she meets Gauff, 15 years her junior.
Last year Zhang teamed with Sam Stosur to win the US Open women’s doubles title, beating Gauff and Catherine McNally in the final.
“We played together in Stuttgart and reached the final and we are sometimes training together in Stuttgart,” Zhang told reporters. “Because I know her already a couple years ago, I still feel she’s 14 or 15.
“Because I think I’m 20. I’m never feeling I’m 33 years old, that’s why I can play on tour. Never think about your age.”
The average age of the Hologic WTA Tour Top 10 is 26, and Simona Halep is the only 30-something player featured. The average of the eight remaining players in the bottom half of the draw -- including 32-year-old Alison Riske-Amritraj -- is one year older.
And consider the case of France’s Alize Cornet, the poster child for late bloomers. She was playing in her 63rd Grand Slam overall at this year’s Australian Open when she reached the quarterfinals -- for the first time in a major. Here in New York, playing in her 63rd consecutive Grand Slam, a record, she took down defending champion Emma Raducanu in the first round.
“Yeah, we’re seeing more `older’ players play well -- the ‘older’ in quotation marks,” Pegula said after defeating qualifier Yuan Yue. “I think maybe just because in today’s world there are so many more things we have to deal with as far as social media, there is a lot of maturity that comes with dealing with the world today.
“I think maybe you’re seeing the more mature players -- and I don’t mean that in a negative, I just mean because we’re older, have been through a lot, have dealt with a lot -- you see us kind of being able to handle a lot of that stuff, maybe not better, but showing the experience shine through.”
Pegula also credits advances in science and nutrition for creating greater longevity.
Meanwhile, Petra Kvitova and Victoria Azarenka, both 32 and both two-time Grand Slam singles champions, play Monday in top half matches.
Kvitova smiled when a question on aging surfaced in her press conference.
“It’s not easy questions today, guys,” she said. “Definitely I’m glad that I’m one of them, for sure. Yeah, Coco Gauff, [is overshadowing us] a little bit, but otherwise, I’m very happy for me, for Vika, and this kind of age.
“I feel like it’s good to have, for sure, because we are on the tour so many years, and I’m just happy that we could still manage it and still facing the young generation.”
Garcia, who faces Riske-Amritraj and has produced erratic results in recent years, seems to have found an equilibrium. She won titles in Warsaw and Cincinnati and, including qualifying, has won 16 of her past 17 matches.
The calm, the clarity is something new.
“It is something we are really working on, trying to really be focused one point at a time,” Garcia said. “If I make a mistake, or if the other one plays great, just forget about it and focus on the next point. Every point, to be ready to play it 100 percent. It’s definitely paying off to have this mindset.
And the key to this approach?
“Yeah, it’s to shut my mouth. That’s it,” Garcia said. “Sometimes I feel frustrated by myself. But I know if I start to speak and be mad, it’s not going to work out. The last couple of weeks I have been able just trying to let go and focus on the next point. It prove to me it was working.”
Cornet, who has a reputation for being fiery on the court, was the model of cool in beating Raducanu.
“I guess it’s just called ‘maturity,’” Cornet said. “You have to wait for it. It came this year. Maybe because I know is my last year, my last two years, that I won’t have the chance to play so many Slams after that, I’m really trying to soak in the moment, to enjoy it, to have fun.
“That’s how I handle my emotion a bit better and I think it helps my tennis overall. I’m happy it finally happened.”