Teens show progress at Wimbledon
LONDON -- They're back. A little older, admittedly, and a lot less accomplished than before. But after becoming almost an endangered species in the past few years, teenagers are once again looking relevant on the women's tennis tour.
Players aged 19 and under made a big impression during the first week of Wimbledon, with four -- Laura Robson, Madison Keys, Monica Puig and Eugenie Bouchard -- knocking off seeds to reach the third round. They were joined by two players who just turned 20 this year -- Michelle Larcher De Brito, who took out No. 3 seed and former champ Maria Sharapova, and Sloane Stephens, who became the last of the group still standing when she defeated Puig to reach the Wimbledon quarterfinals.
Even before Wimbledon, 17-year-old Donna Vekic drew attention by reaching the final of the WTA Birmingham grass-court event. And it was Stephens who could be said to have kicked off the wave by making the Australian Open semifinals as a 19-year-old earlier this year.
It's a change for a sport that has recently trended toward veterans. There are currently 11 teenagers in the WTA top 100, compared to just three a year ago and five two years earlier. There are also four others who turned 20 during the first half of the year. The average age of the top 100, meanwhile, is 25 years old.
"Yeah, even if you're a teenager, if you've got the game, I think you can do well," said Canada's Bouchard, 19, who won the Wimbledon juniors last year and returned this year to defeat No. 12 seed Ana Ivanovic on Centre Court. "I think some of the ones coming up now are pretty good. But at the same time, the game, a lot of the older players are doing well, as well. That's sometimes tough for us, I think."
Caroline Garcia of France, 19, burst into prominence when she led Sharapova 6-3, 4-1 in the second round of the French Open in 2011 and also put up a respectable showing against Serena Williams in the second round of Wimbledon last week. She sees her generation, whom she calls the "'93s-94s" in reference to their year of birth, making progress and says there is an age-based rivalry between them.
"You have a lot of players coming, a lot of the '93-94," she said. "We always compare with player of the same generation. Older, younger, doesn't matter. It's always competition, so you always want to be better than the other one."
Carlos Rodriguez -- the longtime coach of retired star Justine Henin, a former No. 1, and the current coach of 2011 French Open champion Li Na -- has been impressed. "It's the next generation for me. And it's good because they play good tennis," he said. "They [are] going to bring some fresh air, fresh tennis and more excitement."
He doesn't think it's a coincidence that this flurry of success has come on grass. Few players are fully comfortable on the surface, which the tour plays on just a few weeks each year, and it rewards the aggressive, fearless style employed by most of this younger set. "The young players, they play fast, no pressure, they [are] enjoying themselves and they make very good result," he said.
Still, Rodriguez said they have the potential to translate their results to other surfaces -- as long as pressure and expectations are managed.
"No question about it, they are going to be very good players, but we have to give them the time to develop the results to be really a champion," he said. "Because some of them [have] real capacity to be top-three, top-four players."
Keys, 17, who hit 67 winners while taking 2012 Wimbledon finalist Agnieszka Radwanska to three sets in the third round, is Rodriguez's pick of the bunch so far. "I like Madison Keys, no question about it," he said. "She has weapons, smart, variation. I think she is potentially one of the players that I like the most. As [one of] the younger ones, if I have to pick one, I put my money on her."
The big games that many younger players possess -- Stephens' dynamic athleticism, for example, or Robson's powerful groundstrokes, or Keys' big serve and forehand -- make them promising prospects and allow them to trouble top players.
Larcher De Brito, who made her top-100 debut at 16 but has subsequently struggled, defeated Sharapova despite coming into the tournament as a qualifier ranked No. 133. Robson took out former No. 1 Kim Clijsters and Li at last year's U.S. Open, and Stephens defeated an injured Serena Williams at the Australian Open. Keys, in addition to her performance against Radwanska, also took out Li as a lucky loser in Madrid earlier this year.
"I think what you look for is weapons," said Tracy Austin, a two-time U.S. Open champion who works as a TV commentator for BBC during Wimbledon. "Ways to end points with, and how big can your game get? Do you have a great foundation, which is necessary, do you have mental toughness, do you have poise out on court, and then, do you have weapons -- something you can build your game around?
"There's a lot of young players that come up that are just kind of consistent, get a lot of balls back in play. But that's not necessarily going to win Grand Slams."
The success of these up-and-comers is, of course, relative. Beating a top player or being ranked in the top 50 as a teenager is now seen as an achievement, while female players in the past have been No. 1 and winning Grand Slams at that age.
Austin was once one of the sport's foremost prodigies, winning the U.S. Open at 16 years, 9 months and reaching No. 1 at 17. But she says today's phenoms should be compared against current standards.
"I think what you're looking for is improvement," she said. "People are taking a little bit more time for their game to come together. I was winning at 16, [Martina] Hingis was winning at 16, now they're winning a few rounds and they're saying 'This is great.' But it's an improvement, and you can see they have great upsides and potential in the future."
While increased physical demands are usually cited as the main reason players are no longer able to reach the top at as young an age, Austin said some of it is mental.
"So much is your confidence," she said. "Madison Keys is an example. She lost to Radwanska easily in Miami [in March] and somehow she took her to three sets here. And Radwanska is a finalist from last year. But Madison was losing and she still kept staying positive and using her weapons and made that match really close against Radwanska. I think she's really starting to believe she can play with the best.
"A lot of times what that does is give you more impetus even in practicing -- to practice harder because you've erased so many of the question marks."
It also means that last week's success could be an inspiration for all the up-and-comers. "It gives them confidence that, 'Wow, I can do it,'" said Austin. "When they see players like this that are their peers, coming up with these big wins, it gives them confidence that they can do it, as well."