Limited experience? Veteran opponents? The unlikeliest of odds? None of these were a problem for a group of teenagers who didn't flinch with French Open quarterfinal bids on the line.
On Monday, Holger Rune pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the tournaments thus far with a 7-5, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory over 2021 finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas. Rune had come to Paris having never won a match in a main draw at a major and is now two wins away from the Roland Garros final.
He joined Coco Gauff, Leylah Fernandez and Carlos Alcaraz -- all of whom were victorious on Sunday - in taking the latest monumental step of their young careers. Qinwen Zheng looked poised to join them after taking the first set over world No. 1 Iga Swiatek in their match on Monday before an apparent right leg injury derailed her efforts.
Thanks to Rune and Alcaraz, the 2022 French Open is the first major since 1994 to have two teenage men playing in the quarterfinals. It seems clear the future has very much arrived in tennis -- and perhaps nothing illustrates that more than this foursome. So, how did they get here and what stands in their way of reaching the semifinals? Let's review.
Rune made his Grand Slam debut at the 2021 US Open, after coming through qualifying, and won over the crowd and tennis fans everywhere with a gutsy, fearless performance in a four-set loss to world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the night match on Arthur Ashe. Even Djokovic was impressed by what he saw.
"I'm sure we're going to see a lot of him in the future," he said about Rune after the match.
And that we have, especially during the clay season. Rune won the first ATP title of his career in Munich in April and reached the semifinals in Lyon. That momentum has been on full display in Paris. He opened play with a stunning 6-3, 6-1, 7-6 (4) victory against No. 14 seed Denis Shapovalov -- and hasn't looked back. His match against Tsitsipas marked his first dropped set of the tournament.
He started the year ranked at No. 103, arrived in Paris at No. 40 and will enter the top 30 in the next rankings. He became the first Danish man in history to reach the quarterfinals at any major, and just the third player from the country to do so.
The win may have come as a surprise to many, and Rune did confess to experiencing some nerves at the end, but he said he knew he could do it.
"My ultimate goal is to be No. 1 in the world," Rune said. "I'm not going to hide it, because it is and it's always been. I know there is a long way. There has been even a longer way, but now I'm getting closer and closer.
"I believe in myself, and also being capable of beating these kind of players."
Rune will next play No. 8 seed Casper Ruud in an all-Scandinavian clash with both players looking to make their first Grand Slam semifinal. Ruud has won all three of their previous matches -- all on clay -- but even Rune himself is aware of how much he's continued to progress.
"I'm improving every day," Rune said earlier in the tournament. "I'm trying to improve 1% every day to always do things a little better than the day before. I think this has really helped me a lot."
Gauff has been seen as the sport's next big thing since her star-making turn at Wimbledon in 2019, when she reached the fourth round as a 15-year-old qualifier. Since then, she has won two WTA singles titles (and four in doubles) and had the best major result of her career last year at Roland Garros by reaching the quarterfinals.
Gauff's doubles partner, Jessica Pegula, said Gauff confessed to having some nerves due to all of the upsets in her side of the wildly unpredictable draw. But Gauff has shown no signs of that. In fact, she has yet to drop a set. Following her 6-4, 6-0 victory over Elise Mertens on Sunday, she said she has never felt more relaxed at a Grand Slam event.
"I really am just enjoying the tournament, enjoying life," Gauff said about her new attitude. "I'm not thinking about, you know, the end result. I'm just enjoying the match ahead of me and whatever happens, happens -- it's out of my control. I'm going to give it my best either way."
Of course, it's easy to enjoy playing tennis when you can hit shots like the one below:
If Gauff, who recently graduated from high school, wants to reach the first-ever major semifinal of her career, she'll have to get past 2017 US Open champion and 2018 French Open finalist Sloane Stephens. The two have known each other since Gauff was in single digits (Stephens, now 29, even attended her 10th birthday party) and played against one another for the first time on tour at the US Open in September. Stephens convincingly won that second-round clash 6-4, 6-2, but Gauff admitted on Sunday she had been "super nervous" ahead of that match.
"I think a lot of people expected a lot from me in that match. Going in, if I do play [Stephens], just going to approach it like any other match. Obviously, I have to go back and watch that match and see what I can learn from it."
If Gauff were to win, she could potentially face Fernandez in the semifinals.
Fernandez stunned the world with what seemed to be a come-from-nowhere run at the US Open in 2021. She improbably knocked off three top-five players, including defending champion Naomi Osaka, en route to the final. Fernandez ultimately fell to fellow teenager Emma Raducanu, but she made it clear that she was a player to watch for the indefinite future.
And Fernandez seems to have rediscovered her US Open mode in Paris, with impressive three-set victories over reigning Olympic champion Belinda Bencic in the third round and former French Open semifinalist Amanda Anisimova on Sunday. Fernandez won five of the last six games in the victory over Anisimova -- and couldn't hide her emotions when it was over:
"Every time I step out on the court, I still have something to prove," Fernandez said after the match. "I still have that mindset I'm the underdog. I'm still young, I still have a lot to show to the people, to the public, so that they can just enjoy the tennis match."
Fernandez will next face the surging Martina Trevisan in the quarterfinals on Tuesday. Trevisan, 28, made a surprise run to the French Open quarters in 2020 and is fresh off of a title at last week's Morocco Open. The two have never played before, but Fernandez said she was looking forward to facing another left-handed player and wasn't thinking beyond the match.
"I think winning the French Open is a long way from here, and I just want to enjoy today's win and get ready for my next match," she said.
And no matter what happens for Fernandez this week, she will improve to a career-high ranking. She is expected to rise to No. 14, and a win over Trevisan would put her just outside of the top 10.
Alcaraz also made a name for himself at the 2021 US Open, thanks to an astounding five-set victory over No. 3 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas in the third round, which helped him notch the first major quarterfinal appearance of his career.
Since then, Alcaraz has been on fire with four titles this season, including two at the Masters 1000 level. He is riding a 14-match win streak and hasn't lost since mid-April. He is now ranked a career-high No. 6 -- and possibly playing even better than that number suggests.
In Paris, he faced a challenge in an unexpected five-set clash with fellow Spanish player Albert Ramos-Vinolas in the second round, but he found a way to win -- and has since then been nothing short of dominant. He beat Sebastian Korda, the last man to have beaten him this season, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 in the third round and had little trouble with No. 21 seed Karen Khachanov on Sunday:
While all eyes are on whom Alcaraz could potentially meet in the semifinals -- Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic, heard of them? -- he must first get past No. 3 seed Alexander Zverev. They have played against each other three times: Zverev won twice, but Alcaraz dispatched a 6-3, 6-1 rout in their most recent meeting in the Madrid final. Later, Zverev called him "the best in the world right now."
Alcaraz seems to be very much aware of the expectations and the hopes for a showdown with Nadal or Djokovic (he beat both of them in Madrid), but he has downplayed all of that so far.
"Well, if I am winning, I just play against one of them," Alcaraz said this week. "I think I'm ready. It's different to play against them [here], [because] in the Masters 1000 or another tournament, it's best of three, [and a best of five] in [a] Grand Slam, but I would say I'm ready."