prodigies

The Kids Are All Right

Where have all the kids gone?

Martina Hingis won each of her five major titles before the age of 20. Try to keep track of the number of times that Ted Robinson mentions ‘Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon at 17′ in her matches and you’re bound to lose count by the end of a dramatic three-setter. On the ATP side of things, the youth drought has been dramatic. Rafael Nadal remains the last teenager to win a major after winning his first French Open title at 19. The last teenager to make a splash of any kind on the men’s circuit was an 18-year-old Bernard Tomic when he made the quarterfinals at Wimbledon in 2011.

At Roland Garros in 2013, only 17 players in the men’s draw were born in the 1990s. There are no teenagers ranked in the top 100; 18-year-old Nick Kyrgios, the youngest player in the draw, entered with a wildcard. He defeated Radek Stepanek, 15 years in senior, in the opening round before falling to Marian Cilic in the second; somewhat unsurprisingly, the Australian still expects to compete in the junior event.

The youth movement in the WTA, while not headlined by the explosive teenaged prodigies of a decade ago, seems to have revitalized. At the start of play this fortnight, 48 players in the women’s field were born in 1990 or later. Like their ATP brethren, the days of the teenaged slam champion seem long gone; however, there are currently 10 teenagers in the WTA’s top 100 and that number more than doubles to 26 when expanding the bracket to players 21 and under.

14 teenagers began their journey in the women’s draw in Paris. One year ago, two of them squared off in the junior final; Annika Beck came out the victor over Anna Karolina Schmiedlova in a tough three-set tussle. Fast forward to one year later, and both recorded a main draw win in a senior slam event. Beck cruised past veteran Sandra Zahlavova while Schmiedlova unexpectedly qualified and took home a quality top-50 win over Yanina Wickmayer in her senior slam debut.

In fact, six of the last seven junior girls’ Roland Garros champions competed in the main draw at this year’s event. Agnieszka Radwanska and Alize Cornet, the elder stateswomen of the group at 24 and 23, are seeded and still in the tournament. Kristina Mladenovic, Elina Svitolina and Beck all won a round before falling to seeded and more experienced opponents. Mladenovic and Beck fell to top-10 opposition in the form of Samantha Stosur and Victoria Azarenka, while Svitolina fell to Varvara Lepchenko.

Listed generously at 5’7”, Beck took to Suzanne Lenglen as the underdog in every way. A counterpuncher by nature, the German looked across the net at someone who does everything she can, but better. Eternally positive even when down *05, Beck played brilliantly to the conditions following a brief rain delay. Clean hitting punctuated with soft cheers of “Auf geht’s” as she got her teeth into the match, Beck held steady while Azarenka capitulated. A *50 lead for the Australian Open champion quickly turned into *54, 15-40 and a seemingly improbable comeback for the teenager appeared on the cards. From there, however, one thing set them apart. Roland Garros 2013 was only Beck’s third career grand slam main draw, while it is Azarenka’s 30th. Azarenka came through in the biggest moments, and while Beck fell by a fairly innocuous 64 63 scoreline, the real story of the match told so much more.

While junior success is rarely a purveyor of success on the senior circuit, the stark contrast between the youth movement on the ATP and the WTA presents an interesting narrative. It’s long been proclaimed that teenagers can no longer compete, both physically and mentally, with the rising demands of professional tennis. While this may be true to a degree, the gulf is not as wide as it may seem. If the days of the teenaged prodigy are supposedly over, then expectations on the current young crop shouldn’t be high. It doesn’t work both ways. Nonetheless, much of the new guard has the mentality to go up against the best, and with experience, the game will follow.

Burnout is an incredibly threatening reality for young athletes, and it has shaped professional tennis for nearly two decades. Players’ success in their teenaged years has been indirectly proportional with the length of their careers; the ones still out there are the exception to the rule and are some of the game’s greatest champions. For this group? Let the kids do their thing; let the kids be kids. It’ll be their time when they’re good and ready.

“Mama Martina:” Hingis Embraces New Role as Coach

In a heated debate between parent and child, many a tiger mother has resorted to an ominous prediction in her rhetoric: “Wait until you have children; then you will understand.” It is a common adage heard in American households, but it feels strangely applicable as former champion Martina Hingis begins the European clay court swing, not as a player, but as Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova’s new coach.

Ostensibly an odd pairing, there has been little in the young Russian’s career to make one draw comparisons to the “Swiss Miss.” Where Hingis arguably peaked before age 20, Pavlyuchenkova’s career has been defined by fits and starts; her 2013 resumé  alone boasts two titles, one final and a whopping seven opening round losses. From the age of two, the five-time Slam champion was coached almost exclusively by her mother, Melanie Molitor, a former player from the Czech Republic who had named her daughter after national hero, Martina Navratilova.

By contrast, Pavlyuchenkova has gone through a bevy of coaching situations in the constant effort to tweak her game to be more reliable. In the last year, she finally returned to the Mouratoglou Academy (home to Serena Williams, Jeremy Chardy, and Yulia Putintseva), and cemented her partnership with Academy coach Hingis last week during the International event in Oeiras.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0QpLU5EIIqk

Even on a fundamental level, Pavlyuchenkova represents much of what drove Hingis from the top of the sport in the early 2000s. The Swiss superstar relied on guile and cunning to beat bigger, stronger opponents on a weekly basis, but even that was often not enough to compensate for her underpowered game. Pavlyuchenkova? She has enough stored-up power to keep the lights on at any stadium she plays. She may as well consider “tactics” a four letter word, as all of her biggest victories were moments when she bashed down the door with relentless efficiency. Ten years ago, that might have been enough to take the Russian to several Slam titles already.

But today, the most successful players combine brains and brawn, and those who rely too heavily on one or the other find themselves flattened by more complete players.

On some level, Hingis must feel relieved that, to a certain degree, that which Pavlyuchenkova lacks can be taught. As she herself learned the hard way, height and strength is not something one can glean from a couple of days on the practice court. But the two do appear to share a certain stubbornness that might make this arrangement more trouble than it’s worth.

From a pundit’s perspective, it looked like there was plenty Hingis could have done to compete with the changing Tour, from developing a faster serve, to ending her mother/coach relationship and improving her perceived lack of superhuman fitness. But as Hingis infamously said, she was a “player, not a worker.” She was content to make the best of her natural gifts and use them to hide her weaknesses for as long as she could.

Pavlyuchenkova, too, has sometimes bristled at the idea of improving. Despite lacking much of Hingis’s immediate Tour success, the Russian seemed in no rush to build on her emphatic run to the 2009 Indian Wells semifinals, and while she has made two Slam quarterfinals since then, her ranking has stalled outside the top 10, and both her fitness and consistency have left much to be desired.

Though she may blanch at the notion, Martina has become her mother. Once a player, she is now forced as coach to watch from the stands and hope that her charge is employing the techniques they discussed in practice. But after playing nearly two decades one way, how quickly will Pavlyuchenkova be able to find the balance between “brainless ballbasher” and “technical tactician?” How many matches is she willing to lose playing the right way instead of winning playing the wrong way? At least neither have to deal with the all-too-complex parent/child dynamic.

After all, Pavlyuchenkova’s coach isn’t “mom,” she’s “Martina Hingis.”

FRENCH HOPES IN MONTE CARLO

The 2010 Masters Circuit has landed on European soil with the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters this week.

After Americans had home-grown superstar Andy Roddick to cheer on in both the finals of Indian Wells and Miami, the French will be hoping that one of their many young prodigies across the tennis circuit rises to the challenge on the sumptuous clay courts of one of Europe’s largest tax havens. Yes, technically there can’t be any home-grown winners as no current players cite the city-state of Monaco as their place of birth, but you know what I mean.

As usual with organizers handing wildcards to national treasures they have plenty to choose from throughout the draw.

Most knowing eyes glance immediately to the name of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. ‘The Black Barracuda,’ No. 10 in the world and sixth seed here in Monte Carlo, would be most fan’s prediction as the nation’s biggest hope.

With no Gael Monfils, Julien Benneteau will be receiving an increased share of support from the home crowd. The world No. 36 is still chasing his first career title and at the age of 28 is quickly approaching that dreaded brow of the hill known as the “big 3-0.” Having reached a career high ranking of No. 33 last October he will be hoping to push on and improve further in 2010.

Of the four finals he has lost during his career, two were on French soil in Lyon in 2008 and Marseille back in February where he went down 3-6, 4-6 to compatriot Michael Llodra. He also has four doubles titles on French soil and lost the doubles final here in 2007 when he and Richard Gasquet fell short of the dominating Bryan brothers.

Another bright French spark, Jeremy Chardy, has already crashed out in round one going down to Andrey Golubev of Kazakhstan yesterday 2-6, 6-7(2).

With such big players in the draw the task lying ahead for the home talent is huge. But every big name missing from the draw is a blessing and they will all be happy not to see the shadow of Roger Federer crawling through the rounds towards them.

Whether they can live up to expectation is another matter and if they are like us Brits across the channel the French will be braced for disappointment. However, with so many more highly ranked players than our sole hope Andy Murray they have a much better chance of success.

The French have their own hoodoo to break too you know. Marcel Bernard was the last Frenchman to win Roland Garros in 1946, before the Open Era had even begun. It may not be quite as big as the ghost of Fred Perry but there’s not too much in it. They haven’t had a French finalist since Henri Lecont lost to the Swede Mats Wilander in 1988 either.

Will a local star use this tournament to push on towards ending that spectre and help appease the hurt of one of the world’s proudest nations? Sit back and find out as one of the world’s grandest tennis settings plays host to its own masters event of 2010.