Youth no longer served on WTA
One of my favorite things about being a high school tennis player was the two weeks of the U.S. Open. On a daily basis, an ever-changing assortment of the girls and boys players on our team – depending upon who had the day off from work, or wasn’t grounded for missing curfew again – would get together and play tennis for a few hours in the late afternoon. Then we’d hit Taco Bell, procure embarrassing amounts of burritos and Mountain Dew, then watch all of the evening USA Network coverage of the U.S. Open.
None of us had any real aspirations or illusions that we had the talent to play at that level, of course. But what always caught our attention were the players our age who were able to compete at such a high level and such a young age. I’m a bit young to say I was a big Tracy Austin fan when she won the Open in 1979 at the age of 16 years and 9 months. But I was certainly of an era with players such as Steffi Graf, who was a full-time pro at age 13, along with other teen players like Monica Seles, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Gabriella Sabatini in the late 80s. These teens looked like they could have lockers next to ours, or be co-workers at the mall. Instead, they were trading baseline shots with Chris Evert and trying to outlast Martina Navatrilova in third-set tiebreaks.
Why the trip down memory lane? Because I miss seeing these shooting stars cross the tennis sky at the U.S. Open. Don’t get me wrong; it isn’t that I don’t admire the way Sam Stosur won last year at age 27, or the way Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters have summoned great tennis in the shadow of the Big 3-0. But the buzzing NYC atmosphere make the U.S. Open the perfect place for The Next Big Thing to get a taste for the spotlight, and I’m more than a little bummed that it doesn’t happen much in the women’s game anymore.
The reasons for the shortage of precocious prodigies are easy enough to see. First, the WTA changed its rules in 1997, greatly reducing the number of events you could play between the ages of 14-17. Looking back at Graf’s early career, she spent three years playing tour events and learning the ropes before breaking through as a 16-year old. That experience simply isn’t possible today.
Of course, maybe that’s for the best, since the reason the WTA changed the rules was to lessen the number of flameouts caused by a diet of too much, too soon. Graf is one of the exceptions, a teen star who played at a high level for more than a decade because her parents closely guarded her workload on the court and her social life off it. In most cases, the opposite happened. Teenage girls like Austin and Martina Hingis rose to the top of the game, only to quickly wear down physically and mentally from the grind of playing at the highest level and the demands of being an international star.
Hingis is also a footnote to another key reason you don’t see any teens with a betting chance of winning this year’s U.S. Open: The game has changed, and it requires more power than many teen players can conjure. The brief Hingis Era of women’s tennis was bound to be short-lived, as precision and finesse – and the feasibility of grinding out long moon-ball rallies – were replaced by the ATP-style baseline bombing that dominates today. Even relatively big hitters like Graf or Seles would find themselves outgunned by a majority of today’s U.S. Open contenders, both from the baseline and at serve. That kind of power comes with time, as nature fills out a player’s frame, and after years of work on the courts and in the gym.
Sure, there are some positives to the anti-youth movement in women’s tennis. We see fewer Jennifer Capriati-style train wrecks, and fewer embarrassing examples of extreme parenting – like when then-17 Jelena Dokic’s father was barred from the 2000 U.S. Open after a dispute over the salmon portions in the players’ cafeteria and general dickishness. But we’re also bereft of the excitement that comes from watching the next can’t miss kid exuberantly stomp into the championship mix. My 12-year-old daughter might think it was neat that 16-year-old Victoria Duval played in prime time on the first night of action at Arthur Ashe Stadium this year, but she would have enjoyed it more if Duval had a prayer against Clijsters. To me, it looks like the youngest players with a realistic chance of winning at the Open are Victoria Azarenka and Agnieszka Radwanska, each 23.
Be it far from me to consider 23 “old,” but I do miss the days when youth was served at the U.S. Open.
Don Jozwiak still has his beloved Prince Spectrum racquet from high school, but not his Pat Cash-inspired mullet. Don is an award-winning sports writer and editor with more than 20 years of experience covering tennis and most other ball-and-stick games. He lives in Farmington Hills, Mich., with his wife, Rebecca, and their tennis-playing children, Sophia and Jackson. You can follow Don on Twitter (@djoz) or catch up with him on his personal blog (donjoz.posterous.com).