Four More: Who's the Brightest Young WTA Star of All?

Thursday, September 26, 2013 /by
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Anti-Big 4 Week continues at TENNIS.com, with Steve Tignor's look at five promising young women to follow this fall and into the new year.

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Three years ago, when I was doing research for my book High Strung, I came across a scouting report that Tennis Magazine ran in the mid-1970s on the promising young American players of that moment. A teenage John McEnroe was among the prospects, but he wasn’t at the top of the list, or even near the the top. For all of his artistic skill, the slouchy lefty was never a dominant junior; in those days, he typically played second-fiddle to someone named Van Winitsky. But young Johnny Mac had something that caught people’s eye. His coach, Harry Hopman, often said he would be No. 1 in the world someday. Tennis wasn’t that prescient, but its scouts weren’t wrong about McEnroe, either. They said he was the most gifted of the new crop, and that he could be the best of them, if he used those gifts wisely. The implication was, he might not.

In hindsight, we know McEnroe made the most of his God-given game, and his greatness now looks as if it were a foregone conclusion. At the time, though, there was no way to know that this prep-school kid, who liked soccer as much as tennis, would go from diffidence to dominance. In 1976, McEnroe’s future No. 1 ranking and seven Grand Slam titles were still a matter of “if,” rather than “when.”

And that’s always the case when we try to take the measure of young tennis players. We’ve seen it again on the WTA side this year, as we try to predict who might be the next young player to compete for majors and crack the Top 5. The tour is due for some new blood—No. 1 Serena Williams turned 32 today, and even her younger challengers aren’t as young as they once were: Victoria Azarenka and Agnieszka Radwanska are 24 now. The 23-year-old Caroline Wozniacki, despite already appearing to be on the downslope of her career, is still the third-youngest player in the Top 20.

Who can make her the fourth, the fifth, the sixth youngest? Four players under 21 are currently bunched together in the 40s. It has looked, at various times this season, as if each of them could be be the proverbial "real deal." Eugenie Bouchard is the latest to throw her racquet into the ring—this week she reached the quarters in Tokyo and showed a lot of heart and game in losing to Venus Williams in three sets. Here’s a look the strengths and flaws—the “if”s—that Bouchard and her fellow WTA prospects bring to the court. Which of them is McEnroe, and which is Winitsky, is still anyone’s guess.

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Sloane Stephens (Age: 20; Ranking: 13)

For Her: Stephens has two things you can’t teach: Speed and easy power. She can hit her serve 120 M.P.H. and put the ball past her opponents from the baseline without seeming to take on much risk. Though she lost to Serena at the U.S. Open, she showed that her win over her in Australia wasn’t a fluke. Sloane is one of the few players who can make the world No. 1 scramble, and that’s saying something. Stephens already has the ability to get on a roll and win a major. It easily could have happened at Wimbledon this year.

Against Her: But that's the thing, it didn't happen at Wimbledon, because Stephens didn't take advantage of her draw; she lost a match she could have won against Marion Bartoli. Right now Sloane is the Johnny Mac of the group–she may already be ranked No. 13, but whether she uses her considerable talent is still an “if.” At times, she can look and sound like a weary veteran who’s tired of the game and the road and the media—she already seems to be over it all. Serena had 16 majors when they played at Flushing Meadows, Sloane had none. Guess who was the hungrier competitor that day?

Laura Robson (Age: 19; Ranking: 38)

For Her: I almost put an exclamation point next to Robson’s age above—she’s still only 19? She already has a lot of experience, which is a plus, I think. Robson has power on both sides, and has shown a capacity to beat some of the WTA’s best. The popular Brit also has a lot of people backing her up.

Against Her: She can hit with pace like Sloane, but she doesn’t have her speed. And while she can stick a solid first serve, the second one tends to get shaky at the wrong times. Just as important, how much does Robson love the game and the grind? Considering how early she started, how long will she love it? One of her ex-coaches questioned her commitment, but that might not mean much—he’s a famous taskmaster who has burned other players out. Still, I wonder if her mind is one track enough. Plus, all those people backing Our Laura up can also weigh her down.

Madison Keys (Age: 18; Ranking: 43)

For Her: Big forehand, bigger serve, an athletic pedigree, a quietly determined demeanor, and height. She has more raw power than any of her peers, and at 18, she’s just getting started.

Against Her: So far it appears as if Keys attended the notorious Petra Kvitova School of Tennis—like the Czech, you don’t know what you’re going to get from her from day to day, set to set, shot to shot. The question for Keys may be whether she can develop a rally ball, a first gear, a way to work the point before going for broke. If not, the question will be: Can she still have success without it? Kvitova has, to a degree.

Monica Puig (Age: 20; Ranking: 44)

For Her: Anyone who has seen her tweets, which end with her personal hashtag #picapower, knows Puig is an ambitious promoter of herself. And that’s true on court as well: She’s feisty.

Against Her: At 5’7”, Puig isn’t going to have the power or range of Stephens and Keys, who is one spot ahead of her in the rankings. 

Eugenie Bouchard (Age: 19; Ranking: 46)

For Her: If her match against Venus Williams this week in Tokyo is any indication, when it comes to on-court attitude, Bouchard is the best of this bunch. Against Venus, she stuck to the business at hand and never got distracted or down on herself. She’s also an excellent counter-puncher and redirector of the ball who can generate her own pace. Stephens began the year as the bright new star; Bouchard may end it in the same place. Plus: She'll be popular with the No Grunts crowd—Bouchard doesn't make a sound when she hits the ball.

Against Her: Bouchard can hang in with bigger hitters, but can she dominate a match with her own power? Demeanor and desire are nice, but that’s how you win Grand Slams on the women’s tour.

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