It wasn't too long ago that prodigies ruled the tennis landscape. Many of the game's modern legends celebrated extraordinary success in their formative years on tour – Chris Evert, Tracy Austin and Boris Becker all captured Grand Slams before the age of 20. Steffi Graf and Serena Williams beat opponents into submission to capture their first majors at 17. Michael Chang was the same age when he stunned the tennis world to take the '89 French. Heck, Martina Hingis captured three major titles mere months after blowing the candles off her 16th birthday cake.
But the extreme youth talent movement has faded some from the sport. In past decade, there've been just two teenage Slam winners -- 17-year-old Maria Sharapova at Wimbledon in '04, 19-year-old Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros in '05 -- and fewer finishing in the top echelons of the respective tour rankings. The women's circuit has fared better than the men's, with recent stars like Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka holding down spots at the top of the game after their teenage breakthroughs. Meanwhile, ATP wunderkinds from the past few seasons -- like Kei Nishikori and Donald Young -- saw their careers deflate after sparking the interest of the public eye. Age restrictions, injuries, inexperience, burn out and the increasing physicality and depth of the tours have all contributed to the near-disappearance of Slam-toting phenoms.
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Melanie Oudin are two current teens known prominently around the world -- but what about the other young guns that are prepping to go far at the year's first major? Here are eight you should keep an eye on.
The affable 18-year-old American captured the hearts and minds of fans at his home major last year – where, as a qualifier, he upset Ivan Ljubicic in round one before nearly taking down an in-form Sergiy Stakhovsky in a thrilling five setter. Despite blowing match points in the against the Ukranian, Harrison kept a great attitude about the loss and afterwards resolved to work even harder with new co-coach Martin Damm.
Post-Flushing Meadows, Harrison lit up the minor leagues – reaching a final and scoring a couple impressive wins over Dustin Brown and Donald Young. Along the way, I had the chance to see Harrison play first hand in the Charlottesville. The kid is the real deal: beautiful game, nice serve and clearly a good work ethic (though he did chuck his racket under the umpire's chair after his second round defeat in the tournament... alright, perhaps the post-loss ‘tude is still developing).
Harrison closed out 2010 by triumphing at the Australian Open Wildcard Playoff, where he championed last year’s junior US Open champ Jack Sock in a rousing four-setter. He’s currently subbing in for James Blake at the World Tennis Challenge in Adelaide, playing singles against Michael Llodra, Kei Nishikori and Ljubicic (again) while pairing up in dubs with Johnny Mac. And the week before, he surged through qualifying at Brisbane before falling in round one to world No. 5 and eventual champ Robin Soderling, 6-2 6-4. In a Facebook status afterwards, Harrison said he was glad he “had the chance to compete against a player of [Soderling’s] level” and that he hopes to play him again in the near future... yep, I’ll admit that I “liked” it.
Prediction: Big Upset Potential Not to sound like a total moron, but I think Harrison’s result will be largely dependent on draw placement. He showed at the Open last year that he’s not intimidated to go up against a seed early on, so perhaps drawing one again Down Under will really light a spark under his competitive fire.
Click Here for highlights of Harrison's marathon with Stakhovsky in Queens.
Despite both breaking through to her first Tour-level final and nearly knocking out Jelena Jankovic in the first round of the U.S. Open last year, this young Romanian is still probably best known for the breast reduction surgery she had at the start of the 2010 season. As much controversy as her decision caused among the U.S. fraternity population, without the double D’s (and the back pain they rendered) Halep has been posting up much better results.
The world No. 78’s got a nice looking backhand and good movement, and so far has had her best results on clay – she took home the 2008 junior Roland Garros title and had the misfortune of running into red-hot Sam Stosur in the first round of last year’s French. Somewhat similar to clay, Plexicushion played on Down Under has a gritty feel and relatively high bounce, so it’s no surprise that the youngster had a good tournament in Auckland – reaching the quarters before losing to Yanina Wickmayer in straights. I think 2011 should prove to be Halep’s watershed year.
Prediction: New Breakthrough She hasn’t developed the weapons yet to take down top players – and still openly admits to struggling with nerves in her bigger matches – so I’m not expecting too deep a run for Halep at this year’s Australian. But pushing through to a maiden Slam third round would be welcome.
Here are some of Halep's highlights against Stosur on the terre battue.
In the present-day Australian tennis world, what Lleyton Hewitt wants, Lleyton Hewitt gets. For example: the two-time Slam winner complained so much about Rebound Ace, the sticky, high-bouncing hardcourt that formerly carpeted the Australian Open, that the tournament changed its surface to Plexicushion – a surface allegedly more tailored to Hewitt’s game – in 2008.
So when Hewitt’s camp asked young up-and-comer Bernard Tomic to have a practice hit at Wimbledon 2009, they were stunned when the phenom turned them down – allegedly claiming the elder champion “wasn’t good enough” to spar with. The irascible Hewitt’s original surprise at the snub transformed into simmering anger, and last January he criticized Tomic in front of the press, claiming he shouldn’t even play for Australia’s Davis Cup team. Since then, Tomic has transformed from a future savior of Australian tennis into a despised center of controversy.
But much of the venom he’s received has been self-inflicted. After a marathon at last year’s Aussie Open against eventual semifinalist Marin Cilic, Tomic lashed out at organizers for scheduling it so late in the night – the players didn’t leave Rod Laver Arena until 2 AM. The media then sided with the tournament’s decision, sparking a war of worlds – they’ve since targeted Tomic for his lackluster professional results, poor attitude and stubborn choice to stick with his dad as his coach. But the truth still stands: Tomic, only just 18, has an enormous amount of potential with his long, lanky 6’4” build and smooth-like-butter strokes. What will be crucial for the Australian-by-way-of-Croatia is moving on past all the unwanted drama that’s surrounded his blossoming career thus far.
Prediction: Same Old, Same Old After barely scoring a wildcard again this year from AO organizers, Tomic better make good use of it. He’s been to the second round for the last two years – look for him to do the same in ’11.
Watch: Tomic wasn't so hot in his first warm up of the year, going down easily to Florian Mayer in Brisbane.
Out of all the young guns in this slideshow, Hercog’s the most established of the bunch. She’s already cracked the Top 50 (peaking at No. 43 in September), reached the third round of a major (last year’s French) and she nearly robbed Venus Williams of the Acapulco trophy this past February. She also has two WTA doubles titles to her name so far, in addition to the junior French doubles title she captured in 2008.
Like Halep, the Slovenian has been a one-surface pony – nearly all of her notable results thus far in her budding career have come on clay. She’s got a nice delivery on the serve, a backhand with a lot of variety and a great build – standing nearly 6’. But, Hercog’s natural instincts are to retreat, in spite of her height and the tools she has to put together a well-rounded attacking game. She has to start ripping the first delivery instead of safely kicking it in; coming over the backhand more rather than playing short slices and drop shots with it.
Hercog could be a real future star of tennis – a formidable athletic specimen with a lot of assets, crafted much like her Acapulco conqueror – but just has to start taking more risks with her game.
Prediction: Out Early Hercog’s been less than stellar in the lead up to the year’s first major, falling in straights to veterans Iveta Benesova and Jill Craybas. Things don’t look too promising in Melbourne.
Check out these awesome highlights from Hercog's first tour final against the elder Williams.
The 108th-ranked phenom hasn't made the main draw yet – he's still stuck in qualies, prepping to play his second match after a 6-1, 6-1 beatdown over an unknown Italian in his opener. Dimitrov has long been touted as the next generation's Federer or Nadal, with excellent success in the juniors and years of coaching from the prestigious Mouratoglou Tennis Academy in Paris.
In 2009, Dimitrov received a string of wildcards into Tour-level main draws – despite making a couple brief splashes, like extending Nadal to a competitive third set at Rotterdam and snagging a precious spot into the Wimbledon main draw (where he retired in his first round match), all of the appearances essentially boiled down to one large publicity stunt.
But last season, like many of his younger counterparts, Dimitrov took a step backwards – building up his game and his rankings on the Challenger circuit. In fact, 2010 saw him amass a total of six Challenger trophies while appearing in just two Tour-level tournies (one of them being Oz Open qualifying). Though his rise ended up being more methodical than meteoric, the Bulgarian took the smarter path. Standing 6'2" and armed with a lethal backhand, I have full confidence Dimitrov will continue to breeze through the qualifying draw and make a proper Grand Slam debut.
Prediction: A Couple Solid Victories? If he wins his next two matches in qualifying, I can certainly see Dimitrov winning a round or two in the main draw – before falling in a crushing five-setter or something. Would be really great to see him go up against a high seed in a first round blockbuster.
Here's a rundown of Dimitrov's efforts against Nadal from a couple years ago.
Jovanovski was the youngest player ranked in the year-end Top 100, finishing 2010 perched in the mid-70s. It was a year in which she qualified for her first Grand Slam main draw at Wimbledon, made her Fed Cup debut and scored rousing victories over Kateryna Bondarenko, Aravane Rezai and compatriot Jelena Jankovic. While many players decide to take November and December off to rest and train, Jovanovski continued to play – racking up wins on the Challenger circuit and getting her ranking even higher.
The work has paid off – the 19-year-old Serb currently finds herself in the semis of Sydney, one of the most jam-packed women’s draws we’ll see all year. She beat Kanepi in the opener, again took down Rezai in the second round before absolutely crushing Flavia Pennetta – who had just come off a very impressive win over Zvonareva – in the quarters. Jovanovski’s game takes after yet another one of her countrywomen – her service motion and desire to control points with the forehand are very Ivanovic-esque. And like the rest of the young women featured here, 2011 could usher in amazing experiences for Jovanovski and her powerful game. She’s got a tough fight in the Sydney semis against Li but, certainly isn’t lacking the firepower or belief that will be needed to score another upset.
Prediction: Surprising First Round Loss In the current state of the WTA, many up-and-coming players find it difficult to replicate recent good play when it really counts – at the majors. For whatever reason – fatigue, nerves, pressure – I think Jovanovski will be unable to back up her tune-up success in Melbourne.
Here's a clip from Bojanovski's match against Magdalena Rybarikova in Fed Cup last year.
“Treeing” is a popular verb in the tennis community – it can sometimes mean being beat out by a lesser opponent who had a great day, or smacking a few unbelievable shots that never could be pulled off regularly. But it’s also code for playing out-of-your-mind – so well that it’s like you’re hitting down from the perch of a tree.
It’d be an understatement to say Lauren Davis has been treeing to the extreme as of late. She captured three huge junior titles in a row at the end of 2010 – including the prestigious Edie Herr and world-renowned Orange Bowl, both in the 18s division – as well as a couple low-level Challenger victories on the WTA circuit. The then17-year-old took her hot streak to the USTA’s Australian Open Wildcard Playoff, where seven other competitors – including U.S. Open standout Beatrice Capra and 15-year-old Evert Academy upstart Madison Keys – watched as Davis stormed to the title, failing to drop a set. In the playoff’s final round, Davis dusted junior Grand Slam champ and Fed Cup Final participant CoCo Vandeweghe 6-2, 6-2, capping off an extraordinary finish to her 2010 season. The short-statured American possesses beautiful footwork and a low center of gravity, and can do serious damage from the backcourt with her forehand.
Prediction: Respectable Early Exit Ranked in the 400s on the WTA, Davis hasn’t yet been tested by the top players on tour. I’m not saying she’ll be in for a rude awakening Down Under, but I’m not exactly expecting a Capra-esque run to the third round either.
Alright, so Berankis isn’t a teen anymore – he turned 20 in June. But on the men’s tour, that’s as young as you’re going to find... so suspend your belief, at least for the next couple paragraphs.
I think I saved the best (the most promising?) on this list for last. Berankis is a product of the Bollettieri Academy – a former junior world No. 1, Orange Bowl titlist and U.S. Open winner. He’s already broken records in his small home country of Lithuania and in the last year skyrocketed up the rankings from outside the Top 300 to the mid-80s. He’s armed with a flawless serve, big forehand and the best junior tennis upbringing a kid could ask for.
Like Dimitrov and Harrison, Berankis made great strides on the Challenger circuit last year – winning a couple of events and using them as stepping stones into bigger, high-profile tournaments. He pushed Fernando Verdasco in the quarters of San Jose, won his first match at a major at Wimbledon (after going through qualifying) and lost a five-set heartbreaker to No. 15-ranked Melzer in the second round of the US Open. Berankis has already won some quality matches in the warm up period for the Australian, and I think he’s prepped for success at the year’s first major.
Prediction: Second Week Bold prognostication, I know. But now that the Lithuanian phenom’s gotten his ranking high enough to gain direct entry into the Australian, he won’t have to waste precious energy on qualifying matches. With a high level of confidence to match his high-stakes game, I think Berankis is poised for a shocking run Down Under.
Laura Robson: The 16-year-old Brit is out of AO qualifying with a hip injury, but she should recover soon and be thrust back into the British media circus in no time. Just came off a very lackluster performance in Hopman Cup.
Filip Krajinovic: 18-year-old Serbian superstar and Bollettieri protegee has made slow progression up the rankings, but reached the semis of his home country's clay court tournament and pushed James Blake hard in the opening round of Miami in 2010.
Kristina Mladenovic: Tall, big-serving French teen, like Krajinovic, has stalled out in the WTA rankings (she's currently just outside the Top 300), but should make good progress the rest of this year.
Zarina Diyas: The young Kazakh broke through to the semis of the Tour-level Prague Open in '09 and demolished top seed Jelena Jankovic in Moscow at the end of last year.
The Pliskova Twins (pictured): The sisters, both 18, captured one junior Grand Slam each last season -- Karolina winning in Australia (over Robson) and Kristyna taking the Wimbledon trophy. They're tall, lean and getting better with each day. How'd you like to see them take on the Williamses?