Second Stage

by: Tom Perrotta | June 29, 2010

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Petra KvitovaThis post is in place of the question-and-answer session I promised. The most interesting questions were about juniors. (There were more questions about Pam Shriver's loud commentary during James Blake's match, too, but that seems like a few years ago at this point; time to bury that hatchet.) So, at your request, I walked around the grounds today and watched bits and pieces of the second round of the junior tournament. I liked what I saw, though I didn't see the future of tennis (I'll explain in a minute).

The best part? The crowds. At Wimbledon compared to, say, the U.S. Open, the juniors receive more attention from ticketholders. Perhaps there's too much food and too many other distractions in Flushing. Wimbledon doesn't do rock music, or night matches. It also starts play an hour later than the other major tournaments. What you're left with is a condensed tournament. There's tons of tennis in a short period of time, so the whole place is abuzz from the first ball to the last (if the matches even finish before dark). The junior tournament benefits from this (people have to watch something).

I hear these two questions about juniors more than any others: "Who's the next big thing?" and "Who's the future of American tennis?" No one knows these answers, of course, especially not me. Here's the chief reason why I have no idea: Because when I watch top juniors, they're playing other top juniors. In other words, they're not being tested, at least not in an absolute sense. A junior may seem to move well and hit unreturnable forehands, but put him on court with Rafael Nadal (or her on court with Serena Williams) and that will change. It's very difficult to determine how any junior will respond when fed a diet of pro shots.

A case in point: Dennis Kudla, a thickly built 17-year-old (he's an American born in Ukraine) who won his second-round match against Liam Broady on Court 12, 7-5, 6-2. Court 12 has a grandstand on one side and a few rows of seats on the other. The place was packed (because Broady is from Britain and because Laura Robson was due up next). The atmosphere had the feel of the main draw.

Kudla is listed as 5-foot-10 but looked a bit taller to me. He has a powerful forehand and a solid serve (he hit many in the 120 mph range). It was clear he had more game than Broady. Like the best pros, Kudla excels at the passing shot. He seemed to move reasonably well, but I didn't notice that he had incredible speed, either. That might be the only thing you can pick up about a junior's game that you know, without a doubt, will come in handy as a pro.

I spent the most time watching Kristyna Pliskova, an 18-year-old lefty from the Czech Republic who walloped Doroteja Eric of Serbia, 6-2, 6-0. Pliskova has a tattoo on the inside of her left forearm (perhaps we're about to see a new trend in tennis) and a smooth, smooth serve. I thought it uncommonly good for her rank (she's seeded No. 9). But again, she wasn't tested. And she didn't move terribly well, either. And at age 18, she's already old for the juniors.

By the end of the day, I found myself comparing Pliskova to another Czech who received a lot more attention Tuesday, Petra Kvitova. Kvitova advanced to the semifinals with a 4-6, 7-6 (8), 8-6 comeback against Kaia Kanepi. On separate courts, against opponents of equal skills, these two women seem similar. Put them on the same court, and you'd notice that Kvitova is a few inches taller than Pliskova (6 feet compared to 5-foot-10). And she hits harder. And serves bigger. She probably moves better, too.

At least, that's my guess, which is the point. To me, the best part about the junior game is that no one knows who's going to make it (if Nicole Vaidisova didn't become a champ, then nothing is guaranteed). There are too many variables involved (speed, technique, injuries, desire, nerves and on and on). One missing element, or too much of one and too little of another, and a promising junior turns into an average professional. It's just too hard to predict.
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