PARIS — The 2019 French Open is over, and it was business as usual for the men and business as usual for the women.
Those businesses are very different at the moment, however.
Rafael Nadal won his 12th French Open singles title, reconfirming his singular brilliance on clay but also extending the dominance of a trio of transcendent champions in their thirties.
Ashleigh Barty, an all-court threat from Australia, won her first French Open, which made her the eighth first-time Grand Slam singles champion on the women’s tour in the last four seasons.
For the moment at the Grand Slam level, it makes for an effective and entertaining combination: reassuringly familiar names and matchups on the men’s side, fast-emerging threats and upsets on the women’s side.
But the contrast can be extreme.
At the top of this week’s updated men’s rankings are No. 1 Novak Djokovic at age 32; No. 2 Nadal at age 33; and No. 3 Roger Federer at age 37.
In the women’s game, No. 1 Naomi Osaka is 21 years old; No. 2 Barty is 23; and No. 3 Karolina Pliskova is 27.
Two teenagers also broke through at Roland Garros. Marketa Vondrousova, a 19-year-old Czech lefthander, reached the women’s final. Amanda Anisimova, a 17-year-old American, made it to the semifinals after upsetting the defending champion, Simona Halep, with big help from a two-handed backhand that is already becoming one of the great strokes in the game.
“The cycles in tennis are not aligned,” said Mark Petchey, a former British player turned coach and television analyst. “The women are currently in that recalibration stage. They will find their consistent champions soon, but it will probably take another 18 months in my humble opinion. On the men’s side, I genuinely believe we are seeing something we will never see again.”
Men’s tennis has had enduring champions in the past. Ken Rosewall reached the finals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1974 at age 39. Andre Agassi was No. 1 at age 33.
But what Djokovic, Nadal and Federer are doing is unprecedented. They are not only enduring in their thirties. They are dominating, bucking the odds by feeding off each other and inspiring each other.
There has been more generational transition at regular ATP events. The average age of ATP tournament winners in 2019 is just over age 27, compared with the WTA average in 2019 of 23 years and about seven months.
But at the majors, where men’s singles matches are best-of-five sets and players have more time to adjust strategies, the youngsters remain locked out.
The rightly named Big Three have swept the last 10 Grand Slam singles titles, with Nadal winning four and Djokovic and Federer each winning three.
No active man under the age of 30 has won a Grand Slam singles title. The only man under the age of 28 even to reach a final is Dominic Thiem, the 25-year-old Austrian who has been beaten by Nadal in the last two French Open finals.
In contrast, there are 10 different women under 28 who have reached Grand Slam singles finals, and six in that group have won major titles.
For Sven Groeneveld, a veteran coach now working with Sloane Stephens, the WTA’s situation is also an anomaly. Groeneveld, who formerly coached Maria Sharapova, believes multiple developments bent the WTA timeline out of shape: Sharapova’s 15-month suspension for a doping violation; Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka’s maternity breaks; and the 2016 attack on Petra Kvitova that left her with career-threatening hand injuries.
“Those four elements are key aspects of the changing of the guard happening at the moment,” Groeneveld said.
All four women are still on tour; Kvitova has had the most success in 2019, reaching the Australian Open final and ranking as high as No. 2.
Sharapova, 32, was struggling before her suspension in 2016. After shoulder surgery in January, she is scheduled to return to the tour after a four-month break at the grass-court event in Mallorca this week. Azarenka, 29, was resurgent in 2016 before her pregnancy but has had to cope with a custody dispute since giving birth to 2-year-old Leo.
Williams, 37, reached the Wimbledon and United States Open finals last year after returning to the tour. She has yet to reach the semifinals of any event in 2019 as she struggles with knee issues that have curtailed her training and movement.
But instead of one player filling the void left by the established stars, it has been a group effort.
Osaka has not reached a final since winning the Australian Open in January and is clearly better on hard courts than any other surface at this stage, although she also has the flat power and big serve to excel at some stage on grass.
Bianca Andreescu, an 18-year-old from Canada, displayed her potential and tactically varied game by winning the prestigious Indian Wells title in March. But she has been sidelined by a shoulder injury.
Barty looks best positioned to excel on all surfaces but will need to keep her focus as she becomes a major figure in Australia.
“I think Barty will be outstanding for a while,” said Thomas Johansson, the former Australian Open men’s champion now coaching David Goffin. “Her game has so much variety.”
But the champion-shuffling has made it tough for the women’s game to develop genuine rivalries: already an issue when Williams was dominating all opposition.
The men do not have that problem. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic facing each other in any combination is appointment viewing. They present opportunities to younger players to raise their own profiles in a hurry: men like Thiem, who defeated Nadal in the Barcelona Open semifinals this year and Djokovic in the French Open semifinals; and Stefanos Tsitsipas, who beat Federer in the fourth round of this year’s Australian Open.
“It was great for me to get the chance to play against Agassi at the end of his career,” Federer said in a recent interview. “And I hope it’s great for the young guys now to get the chance to play against someone like me.”
The Big Three remain ranked Nos. 1, 2 and 3 not only this week but in the all-time men’s list of Grand Slam singles titles. Federer leads with 20. Nadal has 18. Djokovic has 15.
Together, they are disrupting the usual cycle and do not appear to be done dominating yet.
“These three guys could be considered the best three in history,” said Carlos Moya, the former world No. 1 now coaching Nadal. “But is it also because the younger generation is worse than others? Only time will tell.”
Moya agrees the Big Three had to have been better physically in their 20s.
“For sure, so they have to adapt,” he said. “They are not faster than they were, but they are better players than they were. And that’s why they are still the best, because they read the opponent and they evolve to get used to this new era. There is always something to improve, even for them. You think Novak’s return cannot be better, and he is working on it. Rafa, we’ve been working on his serve. Roger became much more aggressive starting in 2017. So it’s good for the kids to see that even the best ever still want to improve, still want to evolve.”
Not so good yet for the youngsters who are eager to win their first Grand Slam title.