For a few years now, one of the common themes in the men’s tennis vs. women’s tennis debate has been the dominance of the Big Four on the ATP circuit and the lack of a consistent top order on the WTA tour. But tennis, like everything else in life, goes in circles. In the late 1990s when a group of sexy and brash teenagers including the Williams sisters, Martina Hingis and Anna Kournikova stormed onto the tennis scene to join established heavyweights like Steffi Graf, Lindsay Davenport, Monica Seles, Jana Novotna and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, it was the women who set the box office registers ringing. Meanwhile, the men counted Thomas Johansson, Petr Korda and Alberto Costa among its Grand Slam champions.
In today’s scenario, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have been taking men’s tennis to new heights. But the Big Four will not always be there to keep the men’s game afloat. Federer talks about playing till the next Olympics but the Swiss is already 31 years old. Nadal is much younger at 26 – but his knees will likely mean that he will not play more than a few years either. And in a couple of years, Djokovic and Murray will be hitting on 30 as well. That is if an injury does not take them or their dominance away before that. The men are then left to look at the next generation of players to carry their torch forward. The only question is – where is that next generation of champions?
The best rising star in the men’s game is the Canadian Milos Raonic. But Raonic is already 22 and yet to break into the top 10. 21-year old Grigor Dimitrov has been called the second coming of Federer, but he has never been seeded at a Grand Slam and just crashed out of the Australian Open in the first round. And 20-year old Bernard Tomic has gone from everyone’s favourite whipping boy to everyone’s new favourite. But let’s remember, Tomic’s recent success in Sydney was amidst a field that did not include any top 10 player in the draw and the Australian is still ranked only no. 43 in the world.
Gilles Simon, Janko Tipsarevic and Sergei Stakhosvsky have been quite vocal in their stance against equal prize money at the Grand Slams for the women. But perhaps, they might want to take a look down the road when in a few years the men could be struggling to bring in the crowds and produce superstar champions.
At the same time, a bunch of teenagers are making their move on the WTA tour. And in a couple of years, several of them could be among the game’s newest superstars. 11 teenagers have progressed to the second round of the Australian Open in Melbourne, with 17 year old Madison Keys – already through to the third round.
Keys is already ranked no. 105 in the world, and last week, in just her 8th WTA main draw appearance, she reached the quarter finals in Sydney, losing to world no. 6 Li Na in three sets. In the second round on Wednesday, Keys was dominant in a 6-2, 6-1 victory over the 30th seed Tamira Paszek. Lindsay Davenport has called her the best American talent since the Williams sisters.
But Keys is not the only American teenager to keep an eye on. 19-year old Sloane Stephens has been making people sit up and take notice for a while now. Stephens is the highest ranked teenager in the world and is already ranked no. 25. She is already experienced in the latter rounds at the majors – making the fourth round of the French Open and the third round at Wimbledon and the US Open last year. And Stephens is a natural charmer… her Twitter feed is one of the best in the business and even Serena Williams says she has the potential to be world no. 1 someday.
But the Americans will be facing some stiff competition from other countries as well in their hopes of dominating the women’s game in the future. And it starts on Thursday itself. Stephens takes on another 19-year old Frenchwoman Kristina Mladenovic, currently ranked no. 98 in the world – a former junior world no. 1 and junior French Open champion.
The Brits, revelling in the Grand Slam success of Andy Murray, have their hopes pinned up on 18-year old Laura Robson. The left handed Robson, who will take on former Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova in the second round, has been waiting to break through ever since she won the junior Wimbledon title at the age of 14, and finally made her move last summer. Robson won the silver medal in the Olympic Games mixed doubles, beat Kim Clijsters and Li Na to reach the last 16 at the US Open, and made the finals in Guangzhou to finish the season at no. 53 in the world.
And Robson will have plenty of European support in their bid to avoid an American dominance of the game (current junior world no. 1 Taylor Townsend is also American and still 16 years old). Croatian Donna Vekic, at no. 111 in the world, is the highest ranked 16-year old in the world and meets 10th seeded Caroline Wozniacki on Thursday; 18-year old Yulia Putintseva, from Kazakhstan, is currently no. 120 in the world and is coached by Martina Hingis at the Patrick Mourtoglou Academy and takes on Carla Suarez Navarro next; 19-year old Garbine Muruguza, of Spain, is ranked no. 112 in the world and faces the daunting prospect of battling Serena Williams; 18-year old German Annika Beck is already ranked no. 71 in the world – Beck, the reigning French Open junior champion, meets Japan’s Ayumi Morita; 19-year old Slovak Jana Cepelova, currently ranked no. 115 in the world and already a third rounder at Wimbledon in 2012, takes on Belgian Yanina Wickmayer and 18-year old Russian Daria Gavrilova, a former junior US Open champion and world no. 1, is ranked no. 223 in the world and meets Lesia Tsurenko next.
And until the next Li Na comes along, Asians can perhaps look towards 19-year old Thai girl Luksika Kumkhum, ranked no. 201 in the world, and meeting American Jamie Hampton for a place in the third round, as a potential champion.
The days of teenaged prodigies such as Steffi Graf, Monica Seles and Martina Hingis are never going to return given the increased physicality and age-eligibility restrictions in the game. But suddenly, the women have a new bunch of teenagers ready to take their place in the sun. The men better hope their youngsters get their act together soon. The WTA teens are coming!!