By Victoria Chiesa
There has been much discussion in recent years regarding the rising median age on the WTA Tour. Players such as Martina Hingis, Serena Williams and Jennifer Capriati all proved that they were capable of becoming world-beaters at a young age; however, as the physicality of women’s tennis has increased over the past decade, the 15 and 16 year-old prodigies fans were accustomed to seeing in the ’90s and early ’00s have been replaced by veterans breaking through in their mid-to-late 20s.
In 2012, there were six teenagers in the year-end top 100. Annika Beck, born February 16th, 1994, is currently the youngest player in the top 100 and ranked 71, while Sloane Stephens is the highest ranked teenager and is seeded No. 29 at the Australian Open.
Some, such as Stephens and Laura Robson had deep runs in Grand Slams in 2012, knocking off quality players along the way; Stephens reached the fourth round at Roland Garros, while Robson sent Kim Clijsters into retirement and defeated Li Na on the road to the fourth round at the US Open. Others, including Donna Vekic, Ashleigh Barty and Elina Svitolina finished just outside the world’s elite 100. Two of the members of this teenaged contingent were in action at Melbourne Park on day one, as Barty and Svitolina both took on seeded players in the form of Dominika Cibulkova and Angelique Kerber.
Svitolina, 18, was the Roland Garros junior champion and the world’s No. 1 junior in 2010, while Barty, 16, was the Wimbledon junior champion in 2011. Barty owns four titles on the ITF senior circuit while Svitolina has five, including a victory at the WTA 125k event in Pune, India last fall.
For two girls in relatively close in age, I took notice of their contrasting on-court demeanors when it was brought up on Twitter:
Svitolina, who I first became acquainted with a few seasons ago as a result of this video, delivered as expected; her shrieks of ‘C’mon!’ after every point won in the early going were paired with disappointed shrugs and racket tosses after every point lost. A capable ball-striker off of both wings, Svitolina was cracking winners from the baseline and was able to hanging with the German through the first four games.
Barty, two years Svitolina’s junior, had a completely different attitude. Praised for her cool head and calm demeanor, Barty has the game to match; capable of doing everything on the court, Barty threw in a solid mix of baseline strikes and net approaches to keep Cibulkova off-balance. Her emotional level rarely changed throughout the match, as she stayed remarkably even-keeled in front of her home crowd. When a Cibulkova backhand found the net to give Barty a *53 lead in the opening set, there were no histrionics from the Australian; rather, a casual, muted fist pump was her only celebration.
Nonetheless, the experience of their opponents would overwhelm them. Kerber would win six of the last seven games, absorbing and redirecting the Ukrainian’s pace as only she can, to come away with a 62 64 win. Cibulkova would put together a run of nine straight games to take command against Barty, who grew increasingly erratic as the match wore on; the Slovak would take a 36 60 61 win in just under two hours.
While a learning experience for both, the first day in Melbourne showed that although the teenaged contingent has made great strides, improvements in consistency and mental fortitude are the keys that will bring them closer to beating the best.
By David Kane
While young and talented Donna Vekic made a run to the Taskent final last week surprising virtually everyone, equally young and talented Laura Robson made her own mark this week by reaching the Guangzhou final, bringing many to mutter sighs of “Finally!” or the plaintive “What took her so long?”
While Vekic shocked even the most well-read tennis insiders, Robson is a name many aficionados have come to recognize. The Brit has the junior credentials Vekic lacks, with a hometown triumph at Wimbledon in 2008 and two Australian Open finals to boot.
Beyond that, Robson made the most of her time in relative obscurity by becoming a minor internet celebrity. For a while, @laurarobson5 the twitter user had more far reaching effects with her insightful and humorous tweets than Laura Robson the tennis player with the big lefty swing.
Even without those clues, however, many knew Robson was coming. She had pushed Maria Sharapova to tiebreakers at this year’s Olympics. She took silver with compatriot Andy Murray in mixed doubles. She handed Kim Clijsters the final loss of her career at the US Open, parlayed the momentum into a decisive three-set victory over the streaking Li Na before losing an overthought, overcooked match against defending champion Sam Stosur.
These results, especially her most recent success at Flushing Meadows, seemed to suggest that she had already arrived. Yet, this run to the Guangzhou final feels like the missing piece. Fans and pundits knew Robson could play well for one or two matches, and at the US Open she proved she could play well for about three and a half.
But was the teenager’s body ready for the week in, week out grind of the WTA Tour? The last few years would certainly suggest a resounding “no,” as physical and/or mental issues have often gotten in the way of potentially earlier breakthroughs.
Where Donna Vekic matched middling promise with exponential results, Robson has managed to pair obvious talent with steady improvement, along with the idea that all this time, she’s known exactly what she was doing. For example, many fans groaned at the news that she had hired Zeljko Krajan as a new coach.
The former ATP pro brought Dinara Safina to world No. 1, and Dominika Cibulkova to her first WTA title through the use of an ostensibly infallible dogma of hyperaggression. It sounded like the last thing the already aggressive-minded Robson needed, and while Cibulkova parted with Krajan when she began to question the dogma, Safina’s sticky end still rings in the minds of many.
Oddly enough, however, Krajan has brought a sense of balance to Robson’s game; in fact, it was when she reverted to blind aggression that she lost her US Open round of 16 to Stosur. Overall, the young girl who famously asked Marat Safin to accompany her to the Wimbledon Ball as a junior is beginning to play a more intelligent game and, like Vekic, like a woman.
Does all this praise seem irrelevant because neither woman won their final match? No, because even with this new maturity those big wins and career high rankings, we can still expect a few growing pains. To paraphrase another famous teenager, it’s all about the climb.