Teens take over bottom of bracket

Sixteen-year-old Tamira Paszek, the only unseeded player left in the bottom half of the draw, led a host of teenagers into Week 2 at Wimbledon.

Updated: July 2, 2007, 3:40 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- Tamira Paszek, working the big room for the first time, could not have been more poised.

Facing several dozen journalists in her first interview in a Grand Slam main media room, she deftly handled questions in precise English for 10 minutes. Then Paszek, who is also fluent in French, did it again in German.

What were you doing when you were 16? Did you know what you wanted, or who you were? Did you have a command of your craft?

Paszek won't turn 17 until December, but she is already the 54th-best player in women's tennis. She was born in 1990, the same year Wayne Arthurs, a surprise visitor to the third round here, turned professional.

On Monday, Paszek pounded Elena Dementieva -- a two-time Grand Slam finalist -- off the court. Trailing by a set after play was halted by rain Saturday, Paszek rallied to win decisively, 3-6, 6-2, 6-3.

In the second week, the women's draw at Wimbledon is teeming with teenagers.

In addition to Paszek, the lower half of the draw is populated by No. 6 seed Ana Ivanovic and No. 14 Nicole Vaidisova. Ivanovic, 19, defeated Aravane Rezai 6-3, 6-2 in another continued match. Vaidisova, 18, prevailed over 17-year-old Bulgarian Victoria Azarenka 6-4, 6-2. Svetlana Kuznetsova took out Agnieszka Radwanska, an 18-year-old from Poland, 6-2, 6-3. The Netherlands' Michaella Krajicek, 18, beat American Laura Granville in straight sets, which means four of the 13 players left in the field under the age of 20.

Maria Sharapova, the highest seed in the bottom bracket (No. 2), seems positively antique at 20. The top half of the draw, relatively speaking, approaches geriatric. No. 1 seed Justine Henin is 25, and defending champion Amelie Mauresmo turns 28 in three days.

Mauresmo was asked whether she felt old.

"Well, thank you," she said, drawing laughter from the press corps. "I sometimes probably feel old in the locker rooms because they talk, yeah, probably very teenage things.

Tamira Paszek
AP Photo/Sang TanTamira Paszek, who won't turn 17 until December, will play Svetlana Kuznetsova in the fourth round.
"I think they're already very, of course, competitive and mature. On the tennis court, particularly, I think they're all doing great."

Not too great, Mauresmo hopes.

Vaidisova, Mauresmo's opponent in the fourth round, and Ivanovic, whom she could meet in the quarterfinals, are at the head of the teenage class. Ivanovic, one of three Serbians to reach the semifinals at the French Open, eventually lost to Henin in the final. Vaidisova, from the Czech Republic, made the semifinals at Roland Garros a year ago.

Both are ranked among the WTA's top 10, with Ivanovic No. 6 and Vaidisova No. 10. By the look of things, Paszek is destined to join them -- and sooner than you might think.

It's not surprising that Paszek is already a citizen of the world. Her father, Ariff, was born in Tanzania, raised in Kenya and lived in Canada. Her mother, Francoise, was born in Chile and grew up in Austria. Francoise was a club-level player, and Tamira -- at the age of 4½ -- stepped down from her vantage point in the umpire's chair and started playing. Soon, tennis won out over piano and horseback riding.

Persistence, apparently, is a family trait.

Paszek and her father, a squash trainer, were sitting in a New York restaurant in 2003 when coach Larri Passos and Gustavo Kuerten walked in. Ariff introduced his 12-year-old daughter and asked for a picture. After he made a handful of phone calls to Brazil, begging Passos to coach his daughter, Passos flew to Austria this past November. He and Paszek have been together ever since. Kuerten watched part of Paszek's match Saturday.

Last year, Paszek won her first WTA tournament in Portoroz, Slovenia -- at the age of 15 years and 9 months. When Paszek became the seventh-youngest woman ever to win a top-level tournament, her ranking zoomed to No. 259. She finished 2006 at No. 154.

That meant she had to qualify for the Australian Open, which she did, then managed to win her first-round match. By qualifying in Dubai, Warsaw and Rome, she pulled her ranking high enough to qualify for the main draw at Roland Garros and here at Wimbledon.

Paszek has a good serve and forehand and a blistering backhand down the line, something rare in a young player. Against Dementieva, she was aggressive and precise and deep with her ground strokes from both sides. After winning the second set, she broke Dementieva in the opening game of the third set and never let her off the hook.

Two years ago, Paszek reached the final of Wimbledon's junior tournament (losing to Radwanska), and she says this is her favorite Grand Slam tournament. And why not? Even if she loses to No. 5 seed Kuznetsova in the fourth round -- no guarantee, mind you -- she will take home nearly $100,000. In 10 months, her ranking has improved more than 200 spots.

A decade ago, a freshly minted 16-year-old blew through to the semifinals here. Her name was Anna Kournikova. Paszek, of course, already has exceeded Kournikova's victory total. She hopes her career follows a line more like those of Kim Clijsters, who also reached the fourth round here as a 16-year-old, and Martina Hingis, who did it as a 15-year-old.

Teenagers are rarer on the ATP, where the men mature more slowly. There are 13 players ranked in the top 100 who are 21 years old or younger, including two of the top five seeds: Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Four teenagers made the field, and 18-year-old Juan Martin del Potro -- viewed as a future top-10 player -- won his first-round match before losing to Roger Federer in the second.

According to WTA age-eligibility rules, 16-year-olds are permitted to play 13 professional events in the regular season; Grand Slams don't count toward the total. Now that she's getting into main draws, Paszek will have to make some difficult choices going forward.

Stress, despite the grand stage, hasn't seemed to enter Paszek's consciousness. She is a teenager, after all. With two days to contemplate the completion of her match against Dementieva, she slept in, had two good breakfasts, watched some DVDs and hit hundreds of tennis balls.

Paszek was savvy in her interviews. Asked whether she had any idols, she responded, "I never wanted to imitate anyone. I just want to have my own style of game."

The only time she seemed a little breathless was in listing the reasons she loved Wimbledon.

"The whole atmosphere here in Wimbledon, it's so special," she said. "The strawberries with cream, playing all in white, the grass courts, rain delays, rain delays. Just everything is so special."

Rain delays? Special? Teenagers, even those among the best players in the world, don't always make sense.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.