One of the things that makes tennis so unique is the ability to categorize periods in the sport by generations; the struggle of the “new guard” to take control from the “old guard” is a constantly recurring narrative. With the news Wednesday that Agnes Szavay has officially retired from professional tennis due to lingering back issues, it’s only right to take a look at the highest-profile players in what can be dubbed “The Lost Generation” of the WTA; each of these women, fairly close in age, all found success over a short period of time that all went away in an instant due to injuries, personal problems or both.
It all began with Nicole Vaidisova.
In 2004, her first full season as a professional, Vaidisova became the sixth-youngest champion in WTA at the Tier V event in Vancouver, aged 15 years, three months and 23 days. Behind her strong serve and attacking baseline game, Vaidisova looked to be the next champion who had been groomed of the courts of the Bollettieri academy.
Despite being born in 1989, Vaidisova was a force on the senior circuit while her contemporaries were still playing juniors. When she made the semifinals of Roland Garros in 2006, defeating Amelie Mauresmo and Venus Williams along the way, Caroline Wozniacki was the second seed in the junior event, players including Dominika Cibulkova and Ekaterina Makarova were unseeded there, and Agnieszka Radwanska won the title; in addition, Victoria Azarenka was the 2005 ITF Junior World Champion. Vaidisova reached her second Grand Slam semifinal at the Australian Open in 2007, and peaked at No. 7 in May of that year.
Also in 2007, the trio of Anna Chakvetadze, Tatiana Golovin and Szavay arrived.
Golovin burst on to the scene very early in her professional career, reaching the fourth round in her debut at the 2004 Australian Open and winning the mixed doubles with Richard Gasquet at their home slam in Paris later that year. She boasted an impressive all court game, also highlighted by a lethal forehand. Inconsistency followed, but Golovin found form late in 2006, when she reached her first, and only, Grand Slam quarterfinal at the US Open. She captured her two career WTA titles in 2007, finished runner-up to Justine Henin in two big events in the fall indoor season, and ended that year as World No. 13.
At her peak, Chakvetadze was perhaps the only player with legitimate claim to the (oft-misguided) comparison to Martina Hingis; Hingis herself affirmed the comparisons, once stating, “She’s very smart around the court and she has good vision. You don’t see anything specific that she’s winning matches [with] so I definitely see some similarities.” The Russian burst on the scene in 2004 as well, when she qualified and defeated reigning Roland Garros champion Anastasia Myskina in the first round of the US Open. Following a steady rise, she won her biggest career title at the Tier I event in Moscow in late 2006; on the back of a quarterfinal in Australia in 2007, she made her top 10 debut in February. Another quarterfinal at Roland Garros, a semifinal at the US Open and four titles put her among the elite at the 2007 Year-End Championships in Madrid. She is one of only a handful of players who can boast a win over both Williams sisters.
Possessed with a strong serve and elegant two-handed backhand, Szavay rose from obscurity to “destined for stardom” in a matter of a few months in 2007. As a qualifier at the Tier II event in New Haven, she reached the final, where she was forced to retire against Svetlana Kuznetsova up a set due to…a lower back injury; looking back, an injury which had originally been attributed to a taxing week may have been a sign of things to come. Nonetheless, Szavay reached the quarterfinals of the US Open, where she was again stopped by Kuznetsova. The Hungarian pulled off a lot of upsets in 2007, but perhaps greatest of these was her 6-7(7), 7-5, 6-2 triumph over Jelena Jankovic in the Tier II event in Beijing; at a set and 5-1 down, Szavay hit a second serve ace down match point en route to one of the greatest WTA comebacks in recent memory.
After starting the season ranked No. 189, Szavay ended it ranked No. 20. For her efforts, she was named the 2007 WTA Newcomer of the Year.
With the good, sadly, came all the bad. Vaidisova suffered from mononucleosis in late 2007 and her form took a nosedive; she officially retired in 2010, as her stepfather stated she was “fed up with tennis” and that it was “understandable” because “she started so young.” Chakvetadze, after being tied up and robbed in 2007, dealt with a whole host of injuries; she too is currently sidelined with a recurring back injury. Having made a foray into Russian politics in 2011 with the Right Cause Party, and being a featured commentator on Russian Eurosport for the 2013 Australian Open, it’s unclear when or if she will return to competition. After reaching a career-high ranking of No. 12 in early 2008, Golovin has been inactive since due to chronic lower back inflammation, and has ruled out a return. Whilst still being troubled by her back, Szavay showed only flashes of her best form in the seasons since, including upsetting then-World No. 3 Venus Williams 6-0, 6-4 in the third round at Roland Garros in 2009. 2010 was her last full season; a failed comeback in 2012 concluded with a retirement loss to countrywoman Greta Arn in the first round of the US Open, her last professional match.
It’s hard to say if this quartet could’ve taken the next step into legitimate slam contenders, or even champions, more than five years removed from their days in the sun. But largely due to matters outside their control, we’ll never even know.
Brian Baker: The Beleaguered Hero
By David Kane
It may never be too late to be who you might have been, but American Brian Baker could be running out of time.
Baker came up the junior ranks as Andy Roddick was winning his first major title in 2003. With a run to the Roland Garros boy’s final, Baker established himself as an American who could win on clay. At the time, the two looked poised to be this generation’s Sampras/Agassi rivalry, with Roddick’s big serve and preference for faster courts, and Baker’s early return and clay court credentials. Surely the two would contest Slam finals and continue the run of dominance of American men since the early 90s.
But when Roddick retired last year, he did so without ever having played Baker. Baker’s inability, however, to set up an encounter with his would-be rival will go down in his resumé as an “incomplete” rather than a “failure.” Successful as his junior career was, the Nashville native played precious few matches on the senior tour for the last ten years; his one highlight, ironically enough, was a win over senior French Open champion Gaston Gaudio at the US Open in 2005.
From there, Baker would not enter another Grand Slam for the remainder of an injury-filled decade that required five surgeries (two on his left hip, one on his right, hernia and Tommy John elbow surgery). Instead of being one half of a great American rivalry, Baker became a cautionary tale of perceived burnout and chronic injuries. During the time off, he took up a coaching position at Belmont University. Dreams of his own success were officially on the proverbial back burner.
Oddly enough, the desire to return to a world that had caused him such pain and disappointment came when he was furthest away from it. No longer the hotshot junior prodigy, Baker could not rely on a tennis federation that had long since forgotten about him. When he asked for a wildcard into a low level Futures qualifying event, the USTA refused. Faced with the daunting task of starting from scratch, Baker responded with unparallel grace and character. He went on to win that tournament along with several others leading up to the Savannah Challenger, an event that awarded a wildcard into the 2012 French Open.
Baker won there too, but this run of good form would not stay hidden in the minor leagues for long. Days before the French Open was set to begin, Baker caught fire at an ATP event in Nice:
As a qualifier, Baker took out big names like Gael Monfils and Nickolay Davydenko en route to his first ever Tour final at 27 years old. At an age where his contemporaries start looking at the back halves of their careers, Baker played 2012 like Rookie of the Year, with a run to the fourth round of Wimbledon (again as a qualifier) the highlight for a man who had only one Grand Slam win to his name for the better part of a decade.
Coming into 2013, Baker was cautiously optimistic for the sophomore year of his second career. Far from lofty in his goals for the new season, the American was mostly concerned with maintaining his clean bill of health: “I want to stay healthy and get fitter, to get into Top 50 by May. I want to get to the second week of a Slam.”
Everything seemed to be going to plan as the first Slam of the year got under way. Unseeded, Baker won a grueling five set match to set up a second round battle with compatriot Sam Querrey. Another American who has struggled with injury, Querrey is the highest ranked US man in the draw after John Isner’s withdrawal.
Finally faced with an opportunity to play a big name American, Baker was game for the challenge and took the first set in a tiebreaker. Barely two games into the second, Baker felt a pop as he moved for a backhand and knew something was wrong. Hopping off the court, the trainer suspected a torn ACL, a diagnosis that could have meant another year off the court. Thankfully (if one could ever be thankful for an injury), an MRI revealed only a torn lateral meniscus, an injury similar to the one from which Andrea Petkovic currently suffers.
Like the German, Baker will likely be sidelined until the end of the clay court season, where all his success began a year ago. Like the German, Baker’s career, already defined by traumatic injuries, continues to be marked by bad luck and tragic circumstance.
Players Limp into the New Season
It shouldn’t really be a surprise. There were plenty of players injured by the end of last season, and the off season isn’t exactly long enough to heal just any injury. Yet somehow, I still expected everyone to turn up all bright and shiny and new at the Australian Open. It seems that just isn’t the case. As of January 9th, just one week before the first main draw matches will start in Melbourne, at least eight men have withdrawn from the Australian Open and at least five of the women. This does not include players who were forced to withdraw from matches this week, but have not yet decided against playing in Melbourne.
The withdrawals have been trickling in for months and the maladies range from possible career enders to minor injuries that should heal up in a couple of weeks. Notable absences include Alisa Kleybanova, who is still battling Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Dinara Safin, whose chronic back problems have prevented her from playing since May, Robin Soderling, who’s having an awful bout with mononucleosis that has kept him out of competition since Wimbledon, Tommy Robredo, who has only played a couple of matches since March, Venus Williams, who revealed she has Sjogren’s Syndrome last year, and several others.
Even more concerning than the growing list of withdrawals from the tournament, is the almost equally long list of players who have injured themselves in the past week, yet still plan to compete. The almost inhuman Roger Federer tops the list of surprise injuries. He was forced to pull out before his semifinal in Doha last week due to a back injury. Federer has participated in forty eight consecutive Grand Slams, so I expect we’ll be seeing him come Monday. However, the real question is will we be seeing him come week two? Serena Williams, the 2010 champion, and Kim Clijsters, the 2011 champion, were both forced out of warm up tournaments with a sprained ankle and hip injury, respectively. Under normal circumstances, both women would be tournament favorites, but as it stands, the WTA field is wide open, which is a fairly common occurrence these days.
Sabine Lisicki, a 2011 Wimbledon semifinalist, doesn’t seem to have much luck when it comes to injuries. She was forced to retire from her match in Sydney with an abdominal strain, which seems like her thousandth injury on tour. Julia Goerges and Flavia Pennetta didn’t fare much better in Sydney. Julia came down with a viral illness and Flavia had to pull out of the tournament completely after retiring from her final match in Auckland.
Denis Istomin was a real winner in Brisbane when, after his first round opponent, Florian Mayer, was forced to retire, he received a walkover from the ailing Tommy Haas. Chennai appeared to be the most injury free tournament last week, with just one walkover to speak of.
If you can remember all the way back to September, we were all discussing the record number of withdrawals and retirements from the US Open. It seemed like each day more players would drop. The Australian Open is well known for its tough weather conditions, so add in the heat and exhaustion to the existing injuries. Will anyone make it to the end of Week 2?
Joachim "Pim-Pim" Johansson To Call It Quits
Yesterday, another injury-plagued player said goodbye to the ATP tour. Sweden Joachim Johansson announced he is retiring from the tour at age 25 due to lingering shoulder problems that have troubled him over the past few years. Although he can train pain-free for a few weeks and play one tournament at a time, he realized over the past month or so that he would be unable to return to the tour full-time and ultimately decided to call it quits after having had three surgeries; he has been told that having more surgeries will not fix the problem.
Johansson is probably best remembered for knocking out World #2 and defending champion Andy Roddick in the 2004 US Open quarterfinals in a 5-set night match. The following January, he played a memorable match with Andre Agassi, in which he served a record-tying 51 aces in a four-set loss. Then in February, Johansson made it into the top 10 for the first time, reaching a high of #9. He also won three singles titles, in Memphis in 2004 (which we remember for the ‘perfect’ 100% serving set he played against James Blake in the second round), and in Adelaide and Marseilles in 2005.
Looking back, Johansson’s last professional matches came in his home, Sweden, at the 2007 Stockholm Open last October. He won his first round match against Carlos Berlocq and was then forced to withdraw before his second-round match, only to never play professionally again. Of course, Johansson says he will always play tennis and that it will always be a part of his life. Word from the Swedish press is that he hopes to be a coach or trainer to youngsters in Sweden. Always nice to see a retired star give back to the sport, especially in a country like Sweden, which has a long and decorated tennis history but has experienced somewhat of a decline in recent years.
Known for his huge serve and forehand, Johansson played an aggressive style that was particularly potent indoors, where he won two of his three singles titles. He got injured when he was in the prime of his career and playing his best tennis, and many believed he would achieve great success and remain in the top 10 for a long time. Although none of us called him one of our favorite players, as fans of the sport, we will miss another player whose career is unfortunately forced to end prematurely due to serious injury and we wish him luck in whatever endeavors he pursues in the next chapter of his life.