By David Kane
For a tour that rose to its peak in the late 90s on the talented backs of young players like Martina Hingis and Venus Williams, the WTA has had a difficult time grooming its young ingénues in the last few years. The age eligibility rule named for famed burnout victim Jennifer Capriati has done well to keep players from the depression and drug use she suffered, but has also seemed to curb the number of prodigies making early breakthroughs on the senior tour.
With Maria Sharapova being the last teenager to win a major title and compatriot Svetlana Kuznetsova the last teenaged Slam debutante in 2004, the Tour’s biggest tournaments appear to be checking for ID at the door. That does not mean, however, that the WTA is averse to successful teens. The Tournament of Champions, albeit a Year-End Championships with the volume turned all the way down, was founded as a way to reward top 30 players who take home International (formerly Tier III and IV) titles throughout the year.
But if veterans have been dominating the higher-end events in the last decade, they have been equally successful in the ostensibly more accessible ones as well. The average age for the Sofia semifinalists 26.5, with 30-year-old Nadia Petrova taking the title. It has been a good time to be a fan of sentimental favorites, to be sure, but much tougher to pick out up-and-comers as they make the transition from the juniors.
Enter the WTA125, the ultimate tournament category for the “I’m not a girl, not yet a woman” subset of players. Bridging the gap between the ITF 100Ks and the lowest level International WTA events, the WTA125 debuted in the two weeks following the two Year-End Championships. With most of the big names finished for the season, players who would have dropped down to the lower level ITFs have one last chance to rack up big points and prize money in 2012.
Two players to take advantage of the opportunity were those thought to be extinct prodigies, Kristina Mladenovic and Elina Svitolina. Each have a junior Roland Garros title to their name (Mladenovic in 2009, Svitolina in 2010). The two are feisty competitors with big forehands and bigger personalities. Despite success among their peers, competing in the big leagues has been a more challenging endeavor.
After relatively quiet fall seasons, the two entered the WTA125 events, one in Chinese Taipei and the other in Pune, India, as under the radar as any former junior champion. Proven up-and-comers like Donna Vekic and dangerous veterans like Kimiko Date-Krumm were abound in each event, yet Mladenovic and Svitolina took home the titles with as little fanfare at the end of the week as the beginning.
At the first WTA125 event in Taipei, Mladenovic blew away Chang Kai-Chen, the Taiwanese player who was edged out of the Osaka final by Heather Watson a few weeks earlier. The Frenchwoman was equally dominant in the doubles, completing the sweep and undoubtedly sealing her spot as an answer on a WTA trivia question.
The tournament in Pune started out as another chapter of the beleaguered Andrea Petkovic’s comeback tour. The German had spent most of 2012 sidelined with various and sundry injuries before having a good run in Luxembourg and cruising into the semifinals this week. The run, however, came to an abrupt end against none other than Svitolina, who advanced to the biggest final of her career.
Even in the final, Svitolina read like the supporting act when paired with the illustrious veteran, 42-year-old final Kimiko Date-Krumm. Despite a tough year, the Japaneswoman had been solid all week, and was looking for the second title in her “second” career. Playing against a style that she was hardly old enough to watch on television, Svitolina had no letdown and gamely silenced the veteran in straight sets.
Is this an awful lot of fanfare for two events that barely count as WTA titles? Perhaps. But if this trend continues, the WTA may have finally found a formula to allow up-and-comers to smoothly transition onto the senior tour without sacrificing the abundant confidence they took with them from the juniors. In other words, the WTA125’s potential lies in helping the prodigies, young guns, whatever you want to call them, to begin realizing their potential, and if that succeeds, these podunk post-season tournaments could become the real tournaments of champions.