Where have all the kids gone?
Martina Hingis won each of her five major titles before the age of 20. Try to keep track of the number of times that Ted Robinson mentions ‘Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon at 17′ in her matches and you’re bound to lose count by the end of a dramatic three-setter. On the ATP side of things, the youth drought has been dramatic. Rafael Nadal remains the last teenager to win a major after winning his first French Open title at 19. The last teenager to make a splash of any kind on the men’s circuit was an 18-year-old Bernard Tomic when he made the quarterfinals at Wimbledon in 2011.
At Roland Garros in 2013, only 17 players in the men’s draw were born in the 1990s. There are no teenagers ranked in the top 100; 18-year-old Nick Kyrgios, the youngest player in the draw, entered with a wildcard. He defeated Radek Stepanek, 15 years in senior, in the opening round before falling to Marian Cilic in the second; somewhat unsurprisingly, the Australian still expects to compete in the junior event.
The youth movement in the WTA, while not headlined by the explosive teenaged prodigies of a decade ago, seems to have revitalized. At the start of play this fortnight, 48 players in the women’s field were born in 1990 or later. Like their ATP brethren, the days of the teenaged slam champion seem long gone; however, there are currently 10 teenagers in the WTA’s top 100 and that number more than doubles to 26 when expanding the bracket to players 21 and under.
14 teenagers began their journey in the women’s draw in Paris. One year ago, two of them squared off in the junior final; Annika Beck came out the victor over Anna Karolina Schmiedlova in a tough three-set tussle. Fast forward to one year later, and both recorded a main draw win in a senior slam event. Beck cruised past veteran Sandra Zahlavova while Schmiedlova unexpectedly qualified and took home a quality top-50 win over Yanina Wickmayer in her senior slam debut.
In fact, six of the last seven junior girls’ Roland Garros champions competed in the main draw at this year’s event. Agnieszka Radwanska and Alize Cornet, the elder stateswomen of the group at 24 and 23, are seeded and still in the tournament. Kristina Mladenovic, Elina Svitolina and Beck all won a round before falling to seeded and more experienced opponents. Mladenovic and Beck fell to top-10 opposition in the form of Samantha Stosur and Victoria Azarenka, while Svitolina fell to Varvara Lepchenko.
Listed generously at 5’7”, Beck took to Suzanne Lenglen as the underdog in every way. A counterpuncher by nature, the German looked across the net at someone who does everything she can, but better. Eternally positive even when down *05, Beck played brilliantly to the conditions following a brief rain delay. Clean hitting punctuated with soft cheers of “Auf geht’s” as she got her teeth into the match, Beck held steady while Azarenka capitulated. A *50 lead for the Australian Open champion quickly turned into *54, 15-40 and a seemingly improbable comeback for the teenager appeared on the cards. From there, however, one thing set them apart. Roland Garros 2013 was only Beck’s third career grand slam main draw, while it is Azarenka’s 30th. Azarenka came through in the biggest moments, and while Beck fell by a fairly innocuous 64 63 scoreline, the real story of the match told so much more.
While junior success is rarely a purveyor of success on the senior circuit, the stark contrast between the youth movement on the ATP and the WTA presents an interesting narrative. It’s long been proclaimed that teenagers can no longer compete, both physically and mentally, with the rising demands of professional tennis. While this may be true to a degree, the gulf is not as wide as it may seem. If the days of the teenaged prodigy are supposedly over, then expectations on the current young crop shouldn’t be high. It doesn’t work both ways. Nonetheless, much of the new guard has the mentality to go up against the best, and with experience, the game will follow.
Burnout is an incredibly threatening reality for young athletes, and it has shaped professional tennis for nearly two decades. Players’ success in their teenaged years has been indirectly proportional with the length of their careers; the ones still out there are the exception to the rule and are some of the game’s greatest champions. For this group? Let the kids do their thing; let the kids be kids. It’ll be their time when they’re good and ready.