The WTA’s Lost Girls
One of the things that makes tennis so unique is the ability to categorize periods in the sport by generations; the struggle of the “new guard” to take control from the “old guard” is a constantly recurring narrative. With the news Wednesday that Agnes Szavay has officially retired from professional tennis due to lingering back issues, it’s only right to take a look at the highest-profile players in what can be dubbed “The Lost Generation” of the WTA; each of these women, fairly close in age, all found success over a short period of time that all went away in an instant due to injuries, personal problems or both.
It all began with Nicole Vaidisova.
In 2004, her first full season as a professional, Vaidisova became the sixth-youngest champion in WTA at the Tier V event in Vancouver, aged 15 years, three months and 23 days. Behind her strong serve and attacking baseline game, Vaidisova looked to be the next champion who had been groomed of the courts of the Bollettieri academy.
Despite being born in 1989, Vaidisova was a force on the senior circuit while her contemporaries were still playing juniors. When she made the semifinals of Roland Garros in 2006, defeating Amelie Mauresmo and Venus Williams along the way, Caroline Wozniacki was the second seed in the junior event, players including Dominika Cibulkova and Ekaterina Makarova were unseeded there, and Agnieszka Radwanska won the title; in addition, Victoria Azarenka was the 2005 ITF Junior World Champion. Vaidisova reached her second Grand Slam semifinal at the Australian Open in 2007, and peaked at No. 7 in May of that year.
Also in 2007, the trio of Anna Chakvetadze, Tatiana Golovin and Szavay arrived.
Golovin burst on to the scene very early in her professional career, reaching the fourth round in her debut at the 2004 Australian Open and winning the mixed doubles with Richard Gasquet at their home slam in Paris later that year. She boasted an impressive all court game, also highlighted by a lethal forehand. Inconsistency followed, but Golovin found form late in 2006, when she reached her first, and only, Grand Slam quarterfinal at the US Open. She captured her two career WTA titles in 2007, finished runner-up to Justine Henin in two big events in the fall indoor season, and ended that year as World No. 13.
At her peak, Chakvetadze was perhaps the only player with legitimate claim to the (oft-misguided) comparison to Martina Hingis; Hingis herself affirmed the comparisons, once stating, “She’s very smart around the court and she has good vision. You don’t see anything specific that she’s winning matches [with] so I definitely see some similarities.” The Russian burst on the scene in 2004 as well, when she qualified and defeated reigning Roland Garros champion Anastasia Myskina in the first round of the US Open. Following a steady rise, she won her biggest career title at the Tier I event in Moscow in late 2006; on the back of a quarterfinal in Australia in 2007, she made her top 10 debut in February. Another quarterfinal at Roland Garros, a semifinal at the US Open and four titles put her among the elite at the 2007 Year-End Championships in Madrid. She is one of only a handful of players who can boast a win over both Williams sisters.
Possessed with a strong serve and elegant two-handed backhand, Szavay rose from obscurity to “destined for stardom” in a matter of a few months in 2007. As a qualifier at the Tier II event in New Haven, she reached the final, where she was forced to retire against Svetlana Kuznetsova up a set due to…a lower back injury; looking back, an injury which had originally been attributed to a taxing week may have been a sign of things to come. Nonetheless, Szavay reached the quarterfinals of the US Open, where she was again stopped by Kuznetsova. The Hungarian pulled off a lot of upsets in 2007, but perhaps greatest of these was her 6-7(7), 7-5, 6-2 triumph over Jelena Jankovic in the Tier II event in Beijing; at a set and 5-1 down, Szavay hit a second serve ace down match point en route to one of the greatest WTA comebacks in recent memory.
After starting the season ranked No. 189, Szavay ended it ranked No. 20. For her efforts, she was named the 2007 WTA Newcomer of the Year.
With the good, sadly, came all the bad. Vaidisova suffered from mononucleosis in late 2007 and her form took a nosedive; she officially retired in 2010, as her stepfather stated she was “fed up with tennis” and that it was “understandable” because “she started so young.” Chakvetadze, after being tied up and robbed in 2007, dealt with a whole host of injuries; she too is currently sidelined with a recurring back injury. Having made a foray into Russian politics in 2011 with the Right Cause Party, and being a featured commentator on Russian Eurosport for the 2013 Australian Open, it’s unclear when or if she will return to competition. After reaching a career-high ranking of No. 12 in early 2008, Golovin has been inactive since due to chronic lower back inflammation, and has ruled out a return. Whilst still being troubled by her back, Szavay showed only flashes of her best form in the seasons since, including upsetting then-World No. 3 Venus Williams 6-0, 6-4 in the third round at Roland Garros in 2009. 2010 was her last full season; a failed comeback in 2012 concluded with a retirement loss to countrywoman Greta Arn in the first round of the US Open, her last professional match.
It’s hard to say if this quartet could’ve taken the next step into legitimate slam contenders, or even champions, more than five years removed from their days in the sun. But largely due to matters outside their control, we’ll never even know.