Report from Melbourne: Teen Dreams

Friday, January 18, 2013 /by

MELBOURNE—On American TV and in professional tennis, 2013 has been about the return of the girls. First, the hip HBO series of that name began its second season, accompanied by another avalanche of media analysis. This week the girls of the WTA have been one of the big stories of the Australian Open. They’ve gotten their fair share of press as well.

But the teen dream is nearly at an end, at least for this Grand Slam. On Saturday, the last two under-20s on the women’s side, the U.K.’s Laura Robson and the U.S.’s Sloane Stephens, will face each other for a place in the fourth round. Still, the kids made some waves before they went, something that hasn’t happened often in recent years on either tour. 

There raw potential to go round, with youngsters representing the U.S., the U.K., Russia, Croatia, France, and even lowly Australia, whose players have been mostly abysmal on their home court. The question from all sides was: Can a teenager still win big in women’s tennis? It has been nine years since Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon at 17, the last under-20 to go all the way at a Slam. 

This wouldn’t be a subject of interest if the women's game hadn't had such a tradition of teenage world-beaters. Chris Evert, Tracy Austin, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, Serena Williams: It used to be that if a woman hadn’t broken through by their 20th birthday, chances are they never would. Those fresh faces, as they swept up the rankings and overturned the established order every few years, were a big part of what kept the game exciting.

What changed? The standard answer from coaches and other experts, as I’m sure you know, is that women’s tennis, like men’s tennis, has become too physical for young bodies to keep up, that it takes more time to develop the consistency to go with the pace needed to compete at the top. And it's certainly true that success is coming later in most women's careers. Also cited are the long-term effects of the Capriati Rule, named for legendary burnout case Jennifer Capriati, which limits the number of tournaments that young girls can play and perhaps slows their development. 

But Serena Williams, who won the U.S. Open at 17 in 1999, didn’t want to hear about either of those things when she was asked about the subject after beating 19-year-old Garbine Muguruza of Spain in the second round. Williams wasn't buying any excuses. 

“I think it will happen again, probably soon," Serena said of the possibility of a teenager winning a Slam. "If they’re strong physically and mentally, I think it’s completely possible.”

Serena’s attitude is, “It’s impossible until somebody does it.” And there is a history of rapid and surprising change in tennis, or at least American tennis. In the late-1980s, fans in the States wondered where the successors to the aging John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors were—a young Andre Agassi already looked burned out at that stage. In short order, Michael Chang, Pete Sampras, and Jim Courier won majors, Agassi joined them in 1992, and it was another decade before the talk of American decline began again.

Still, that’s no guarantee of anything. We’ve gone this long without a breakout young champ, what’s to say we won’t go a lot longer? And yesterday's prospect is often today's disappointment. Last season, 20-year-old Christina McHale of New Jersey was deemed to be on the rise; at this year's Australian Open, she went out to Yulia Putintseva, a player two years her junior, in the first round.

Tennis history, as Serena knows, is made by individuals as much as it by larger forces or global trends—it only takes one talented, headstrong person to change it. What are the chances that any of the individuals we’ve seen this week are ready to change WTA history? Here’s a quick overview of the upsides and downsides of five of them.

*****

MADISON KEYS, 17

Ranking: 105

For Her: The Floridian is already nearly 6-feet tall, and very athletic. She has a big first serve, a good kick second serve, and has point-ending power from both ground-stroke wings. That latter characteristic is the one prerequisite among women’s Slam champs today. And, as Serena noted yesterday, she has time.

Against Her: Physically, Keys is something like a young Venus Williams. At first glance, though, she doesn't have the messianic confidence that has always characterized the Williamses. The WTA’s Top 3—Azarenka, Sharapova, Serena—have one thing in common: near-maniacal desire. Can this lawyer’s daughter match it? We’ll see.

*****

LAURA ROBSON, 19 (she turns 19 Monday)

Ranking: 53

For Her: As she showed last night in her win over Petra Kvitova, this lefty Brit can put a wallop on the ball, especially since she began working with taskmaster coach Zeljko Krajan last year. Her two-handed backhand is a weapon, and her serve, when she’s not catching the toss, can win her free points.

Against Her: The doubts about Robson have always centered around her speed, and it's true, scrambling is not her thing. While her confidence has risen dramatically in the last year, she can still tighten up with a lead. But she’s already gone farther than I thought she would.

*****

YULIA PUTINTSEVA, 18

Ranking: 125

For Her: If near-maniacal intensity is what we’re looking for, Putintseva is the answer. This short and stocky fire plug from Kazakhstan via Russia is a walking fist-pump. And when she throws up a moonball, she typically makes it a good one.

Against Her: She’s 5-foot-1.

*****

SLOANE STEPHENS, 19

Ranking: 25

For Her: The Florida native, who has made a steady climb to No. 25 in the world, has Top 10 speed and power.

Against Her: Stephens is a fun character, but is she more personality than player? On court, she goes through passive patches, where she doesn’t use everything she has. If she's going to win a major as a teen, this is Sloane's last shot. She turns 20 in March.

(See Stephens in the Laura Robson video above.)

*****

DONNA VEKIC, 16

Ranking: 111

For Her: First, the Croatian is 16, so time is on her side. Second, she’s from Eastern Europe, which has a good recent track record of sending tennis champions into the world, especially compared to the U.S and Great Britain. Third, she's already 5-foot-10, strikes the ball with power, and seems to have an attacking mentality. Plus, she has a cool retro first name.

Against Her: The odds. For every promising teen who turns into Maria Sharapova, there are many many many—ad infinitum—more who don’t.

*****

You might ask, after all of this: Does it matter? The men’s game, for instance, is as healthy as it has ever been, yet there have been very few fresh faces of late. Plus, we’ve seen over-20s like Angelique Kerber, Agnieszka Radwanska, Sara Errani, Li Na, and Sam Stosur rise up in the rankings over the last couple of years. They’re older, but they're new to the top of the sport.

As much as I like to see a Kerber blossom or a Radwanska make the most of her unique game, there’s something about the quasar, the player who comes screaming—or, in this case, grunting—out of the sky to take over the world, the way Seles did. It’s what makes even the most jaded of us tune in to see Madison Keys and Donna Vekic play—to experience the most exciting thing of all: Possibility. It’s what keeps us writing, and reading, articles like these.

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