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I Love the 90s: A Reflection on Two Teen Phenoms

The year was 1994. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had just been established. Groups like Weezer and Green Day dominated the airwaves. The Lion King was released and quickly became the highest grossing animated film of all time.

Oh, and a pair of 14 year olds, Martina Hingis and Venus Williams began their careers as professional tennis players.

Snuck onto the WTA Tour before the now infamous Jennifer Capriati Age Eligibility Rule was adopted, Hingis and Williams were the sport’s last prepubescent prodigies. In a class all their own, the two young women could not have been more different. Martina, named for compatriot and living legend Navratilova, was the Swiss Miss of the international junior circuit. At 12 years old, she won the French Open girls’ title, defending it a year later and picking up a Wimbledon title along the way. Thrashing opponents years her senior, Hingis played a grown up game within a child’s frame, one that barely scratched 5’7″. Far from a baseline aggressor, Martina preferred to light up the court with cunning variety and flawless shot selection.

Across the Atlantic was Williams, whose father Richard taught her and her sister, Serena (perhaps you’ve heard of her) the sport with thanks to instructional VHS tapes and gang-infested Compton courts. Making school a priority, Richard kept his daughters stateside and entered them solely in USTA events. Venus went undefeated in 63 matches, setting a precedent on a soil she would come to dominate as a senior. Where Martina represented a keen tennis brain and sharp instincts, Venus was raw talent and natural athleticism. Statuesque and 6’1″, she was known for possessing a powerful, well, everything. The young American was breaking records for serve speeds as a teenager, and helped usher in the era of Big Babe Tennis that persists to this day.

In the mid-90s, while Venus broke records with her serve, Martina wrote her name in the record books simply by winning. At 15, she became the youngest-ever Slam champion, taking the 1996 Wimbledon doubles crown with veteran Helena Sukova. A year later, she became the undisputed queen of the tour, falling one match shy of the Grand Slam and began a reign atop the rankings that was largely uninterrupted for the next four years.

Venus reached her first Slam final that same year, falling to Martina in Flushing. At the time, she was no match for her rival’s fully-developed game. But while the American made steady improvements, fine-tuning her power game to match the consistency of those ranked above her, injuries tended to derail her cause, most notably when she succumbed to cramps against Hingis at the same event two years later.

As she was getting her legs massaged by the trainer, Hingis put a towel on the ground so she could lie on the court with her feet up.

It is a scene that is just so Martina. Once quoted as saying she was a “player, not a worker,” the Swiss superstar was a young woman to whom much (perhaps too much) came easily. Her consistent style meant she could compensate for a powderpuff serve, the biggest weakness in her game, relatively speaking. While those around her got fitter and tougher, Martina laid back with her feet up, never losing that signature wry grin. And why shouldn’t she have? She was assured of a Hall of Fame career by the age of 18.

Sure enough, Hingis was elected to the illustrious Interantional Tennis Hall of Fame on Monday, a class of 2013 for which, once again, she seems too young. While her powerful, injury-prone contemporary once looked more likely to be the proverbial flash in the pan, it was Hingis herself who burned out at 22, made a comeback at 25 only to retire for good at 27. Even in her much anticipated mid-2000s comeback, it was apparent that she had failed to make the necessary changes to compete with what had become the game’s best. The comparative lack of success meant, for Hingis, an exponential decrease in desire.

By comparison, Venus has become the posterwoman for overcoming adversity. Over almost two decades on tour, she not only became a great champion (though her head-to-head with Hingis ended at 11-10 in the Swiss’ favor), but also an ambassador for her sport and an inspiration to all who have seen her battle and conquer Sjogren’s Syndrome, a debilitating autoimmune disease, to win a fourth Olympic gold medal last summer in London. Who could have predicted the way this story would end? Certainly no one in the 90s.

Though firmly entrenched among the game’s legends, what would Hingis give to go back?

“Bark or Bite?”: A Defense of Bojana Jovanovski

Yesterday, the up-and-coming Sloane Stephens fought off a mid-match surge from a game opponent to reach her debut Grand Slam quarterfinal. After taking the deciding set 7-5, the bubbly American was pleased to have put on a show for the crowd, and promised another one when she played her mentor and idol, Serena Williams.

Leave it to the media to turn a show into a circus.

As the match unfolded, Stephens seemed to establish an unassailable advantage over her equally inexperienced opponent, Bojana Jovanovski. A heavy hitting but inconsistent player from Serbia, Jovanovski was deemed a beatable foe, one who would easily bend to the will of the quickly rising American teenager.

As the second set reached a critical juncture, however, Stephens began to retreat and revert to a safer, more defensive style. Jovanovski had been missing badly up to that point, so waiting for the error was not a completely ill conceived strategy. Yet, in doing so, she made an almost fatal mistake: giving Bojana Jovanovski a short ball is like feeding live bait to a shark.

The No. 3 Serb hits groundstrokes like missiles, and is an exciting player to watch when she is striking the ball well. Most comfortable playing in Australia, she had her breakthrough tournament in Sydney two years ago where, as a qualifier, she reached her first Premier semifinal. A week later, she pushed then-world No. 2 Vera Zvonareva to three tight sets at this very tournament. Since then, she won her first WTA title last summer in Baku and is also a player on the rise, give or take a few hiccups and patches of poor form.

Despite her obvious talent, she is still better known for the quirkier aspects of her life and bio. For one, not a televised match of Jovanovski’s goes by without a retelling of the embarrassing story where the Serb traveled to the famed WTA event in San Diego via Carlsbad only to wind up in Carlsbad, New Mexico.

Quirkier still is her unusual grunt. Oft-described as a sound similar to a sneeze (“ha-choo!”), it is definitely one of the stranger sounds one hears during a tennis match, but is not nearly as off-putting as many seem to think. Having watched the majority of her US Open singles campaign, I can say that it was hardly as noticeable in person as it is when amplified by the on-court microphones.

But as Jovanovski began to take control of a match she seemed well and truly out of last night, the focus centered not on her screaming winners, but on the alleged screaming itself. Stephens lost the plot and allowed her fiery opponent back into the match. Instead of giving praise to Jovanovski for not giving up and playing some inspiring offense, she was castigated, mocked and name-called for her grunting.

A lot of people take issue over noises that aren’t perceived to imply exertion. “How does shrieking assist a person in hitting a ball?” asks a public often corralled by visibly disgusted commentators (for more on grunting and the hindrance rule, I refer you to unseededandlooming’s comprehensive take on the matter). But as bizarre as Jovanovski’s grunt sounds, it is still a grunt at its very core.

And if you stopped to watch the Serbian bombshell scurry about the baseline, you would see a shockingly high level of exertion, mixed with some extreme torque and intensity.

What makes Jovanovski so electrifying on the court is the reckless abandon with which she hits every ball. The notion that “a tennis ball is there to be hit” is taken to delirious extremes during her matches, much to the delight of those who enjoy “Big Babe Tennis.” In fact, it was her tentative serve, the one shot in her repertoire that lacks her almost hysterical punch, that did her in late in the third set against the American, who eventually regrouped to serve out the match herself.

In her first Slam fourth round appearance, Bojana Jovanovski did herself proud. She recovered from a lackluster beginning and found her range in impressive fashion, only to fall just short of the finish line. In all, the week that the Serbian star had was a tremendous effort, and definitely as much noise with her tennis as she did with her grunting.

You may not like Bojana’s grunt from an aesthetic point of view, but it is hard to argue that her bite doesn’t match her bark.