By Victoria Chiesa
There has been much discussion in recent years regarding the rising median age on the WTA Tour. Players such as Martina Hingis, Serena Williams and Jennifer Capriati all proved that they were capable of becoming world-beaters at a young age; however, as the physicality of women’s tennis has increased over the past decade, the 15 and 16 year-old prodigies fans were accustomed to seeing in the ’90s and early ’00s have been replaced by veterans breaking through in their mid-to-late 20s.
In 2012, there were six teenagers in the year-end top 100. Annika Beck, born February 16th, 1994, is currently the youngest player in the top 100 and ranked 71, while Sloane Stephens is the highest ranked teenager and is seeded No. 29 at the Australian Open.
Some, such as Stephens and Laura Robson had deep runs in Grand Slams in 2012, knocking off quality players along the way; Stephens reached the fourth round at Roland Garros, while Robson sent Kim Clijsters into retirement and defeated Li Na on the road to the fourth round at the US Open. Others, including Donna Vekic, Ashleigh Barty and Elina Svitolina finished just outside the world’s elite 100. Two of the members of this teenaged contingent were in action at Melbourne Park on day one, as Barty and Svitolina both took on seeded players in the form of Dominika Cibulkova and Angelique Kerber.
Svitolina, 18, was the Roland Garros junior champion and the world’s No. 1 junior in 2010, while Barty, 16, was the Wimbledon junior champion in 2011. Barty owns four titles on the ITF senior circuit while Svitolina has five, including a victory at the WTA 125k event in Pune, India last fall.
For two girls in relatively close in age, I took notice of their contrasting on-court demeanors when it was brought up on Twitter:
Svitolina, who I first became acquainted with a few seasons ago as a result of this video, delivered as expected; her shrieks of ‘C’mon!’ after every point won in the early going were paired with disappointed shrugs and racket tosses after every point lost. A capable ball-striker off of both wings, Svitolina was cracking winners from the baseline and was able to hanging with the German through the first four games.
Barty, two years Svitolina’s junior, had a completely different attitude. Praised for her cool head and calm demeanor, Barty has the game to match; capable of doing everything on the court, Barty threw in a solid mix of baseline strikes and net approaches to keep Cibulkova off-balance. Her emotional level rarely changed throughout the match, as she stayed remarkably even-keeled in front of her home crowd. When a Cibulkova backhand found the net to give Barty a *53 lead in the opening set, there were no histrionics from the Australian; rather, a casual, muted fist pump was her only celebration.
Nonetheless, the experience of their opponents would overwhelm them. Kerber would win six of the last seven games, absorbing and redirecting the Ukrainian’s pace as only she can, to come away with a 62 64 win. Cibulkova would put together a run of nine straight games to take command against Barty, who grew increasingly erratic as the match wore on; the Slovak would take a 36 60 61 win in just under two hours.
While a learning experience for both, the first day in Melbourne showed that although the teenaged contingent has made great strides, improvements in consistency and mental fortitude are the keys that will bring them closer to beating the best.