Marketa Vondrousova wiped away the tears when she stepped onto the podium for the presentation ceremony she couldn't stop smiling. She had just lost the French Open final 6-1, 6-3 to Ashleigh Barty, but it was all a lot more than she would have expected going into the tournament. Only 19, Vondrousova doesn't carry as many scars of defeat to let cynicism seep in.
"Of course, I'm a little bit sad now, because I lost," she later told the press. "But it was a great two weeks. I had my family here, so it's still been amazing for me. I'm proud of myself at everything because I'm just 19 and I won six tough matches. It was amazing two weeks for me, and I'm just really proud of myself that I was in the final here."
The left-handed Czech player making it to the final was another indication of the oncoming Next Gen wave.
At Roland Garros this year, eight teenagers entered the women's draw, and six of them made it to the second round. It was for the first time since 2013 that so many teenagers had made it to the round of 64. Among them was the 18-year-old Anastasia Potapova, who defeated three-time Grand Slam champion Angelique Kerber in the opening round. Potapova, the 2016 Wimbledon girls' champion, blew Kerber off the court with her aggressive game, hammering 28 winners to win Kerber 6-4, 6-2 in an hour and 13 minutes.
Wildcard Diane Parry, only 16 years of age, became the youngest Frenchwoman to win round at Roland Garros since Alize Cornet (15, 2005 French Open).
Over the last 15 years or so, the game has become a lot more physical. Players, especially on the men's side but the trend is just as true for women, are taking time to break through as they have to build themselves for long, gruelling baseline duels on the slowed-down courts around the world. But this new generation of women's players, some of whom are junior champions, are fast-tracking their way to the big league.
Before the start of the French Open final on Saturday, the average age of WTA tournament champions this year was 23.6 years. Of the seven of the biggest events on the tour that have happened so far, five have been won by players aged 23 or under. Even though Naomi Osaka is a two-time major champion, she is only 21, with a bright future ahead of her.
While Osaka won the year's first Grand Slam, the Australian Open, the year's first Masters (WTA Premier Mandatory) title went to 18-year-old Bianca Andreescu. The Canadian teenager defeated established players like Garbine Muguruza, Elina Svitolina, and Kerber to win the Indian Wells title.
While Voundrousova, with her eye-catching varied game, became the eventual leader of this Next Gen at the French Open, there were many who made a lasting impression. Seventeen-year-old Amanda Anisimova became the first player born in the 2000s, male or female, to make it to the final four. Poland's Iga Swiatek, who is the reigning Wimbledon girls' champion, and 20-year-old defensive dynamo Sofia Kenin made it to the round of 16.
"It's the Next Gen on the rise," said Anisimova, the 2017 girls' US Open champion, during her run at Roland Garros. "There are a lot of great players close to my age that are doing really well, so it's good to see."
Anisimova's incredible, fearless shot-making saw her get past players like Aryna Sabalenka and defending champion Simona Halep, in the quarter-finals. It took the special, all-court talent of Barty, herself only 23, to quell the American's challenge in the semi-finals.
Swiatek has a similarly aggressive style and cast aside 16th seed Wang Qiang 6-3, 6-0, on her 18th birthday, in the second round to announce herself on the big stage. The Polish player, looking to fill into the shoes of former World No 2 Agnieszka Radwanska, then got the better of Olympic champion Monica Puig to make it to the fourth round.
Swiatek, Anisimova, and Vondrousova making into the second week meant it was the first time in 38 Grand Slams (roughly nine years) that two or more teenagers had made it to the fourth round.
"I felt confident in juniors. I didn't know if I'm going to go there (WTA level) fast or need some time. But I'm really happy that everything is working out," said Swiatek, ranked 104 in the world. "Maybe more about the confidence or the peace of mind sometimes and being able to focus. I don't have any expectations and that's kind of cool because I'm not stressed or anything. I don't expect to win because I'm new here."
That there, the freedom of youth, is the common thread as these players, from various countries, varied backgrounds and different playing styles are taking the women's tour by storm.