By the time you read this article, the 2011 Australian Open final would have taken place between Na Li of China and Kim Clijsters of Belgium.
This is Na Li’s first Grand Slam final and follows an intriguing pattern which we saw in 2010 when the likes of Sam Stosur, Francesca Schiavone and Vera Zvonareva all contested Grand slam finals, names familiar to Tennis fans but not to the general public. Mainly due to the fact that we were not used to seeing those names in Grand Slam finals previously.
For instance, Francesca Schiavone has now reached legend status in Italy, she played a wonderfully artistic French Open final. Schiavone also won the Federation cup for a third time in 2010 and this week participated in the longest Grand slam match of all time against Svetlana Kuznetsova which lasted four hours and 44 minutes. And let’s not forget Francesca is doing these things at the age of 30!
Meanwhile, Na Li turns 29 years of age in February, plus Vera Zvonareva and Sam Stosur are both 26 years of age.
So why are there so many mature players getting to and winning big tournaments in the modern game? In years gone by, many of the top players had won a whole host of tournaments by their 21st birthday—Monica Seles, Martina Hingis, Steffi Graf, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Gabriela Sabatini all were Grand Slam champions before turning 21.
In the case of Graf, Seles and Hingis, they were No. 1 in the world for literally hundreds of weeks in a stretch. Amelie Mauresmo won Wimbledon in 2006 at the age of 27 and has set a pattern of more mature players succeeding at Grand Slam level. Therefore, it looks like the days of the teenage protégés may be over. And one reason for that is the conscious decision the WTA took to introduce the age eligibility rule.
The age eligibility rule was introduced in 1994 and has been updated and reviewed a few times since then, see some updates that were made in 1998 here.
Basically, players are not allowed to play a full schedule until they are 18 years old. Players age 17 can play 13 tournaments plus major tournaments. Players age 16 can play 10 tournaments plus major tournaments and players age 15 can only play a very limited number of tournaments. Players age 13 and 14 are not allowed to play any WTA tournaments.
Other updates in the 2000s have included the mentoring programme, one example being Monica Seles mentoring Ana Ivanovic.
The age eligibility rule ensured two things:
1. Players like Jennifer Capriati, who got to grand Slam semifinals at the age of 14, became a thing of the distant past
2. The risk of player burnout, which has blighted the career of so many top players, is reduced considerably.
One of the factors of player burnout was certainly the fact that parents were getting their daughters to join the tour as early as possible and play as many events as they could, when their bodies were not developed and they were not mentally and psychologically prepared to deal with the pressures of professional sport.
As a result, many players from Jennifer Capriati to Andrea Jaeger went off the rails. Other players of that era who did survive retired really young, like Gabriela Sabatini who retired age 27, whilst Graf and Sanchez Vicario both retired at the age of 29. Hingis initially retired from tennis at the tender age of 22.
Jennifer Capriati did make a great comeback to win three major tournaments and get to world No. 1, but unfortunately has suffered tremendous problems since been forced into retirement because of injury.
In terms of the game today, it’s becoming less likely that teenagers will win Grand slam tournaments in future. The last time that happened was in 2004 when Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon age 17 and Svetlana Kuznetsova won the US Open age 19. Rather interestingly, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin retired before the age of 26 before both making comebacks (Henin has since retired again through injury).
Both of these players were the last of the generation who grew up in the 1990s to compete at the highest level as teenagers in the early 2000s against the golden generation of Hingis, the Williams sisters, Davenport, Mary Pierce and Jennifer Capriati. Amelie Mauresmo and Elena Dementieva also came through at the same time of Henin and Clijsters.
It seems to me that players with a lot of experience are now winning the big tournaments. Ana Ivanovic won the French Open in 2008, but has really gone backwards since then, her game was not ready to compete at the highest level consistently, which affected her confidence.
Other up-and-coming players like Victoria Azarenka seem to be taking longer to break through at Grand Slam level than they might have done in the past. Caroline Wozniacki is currently No. 1 in the world but has yet to win a Grand Slam title and clearly needs to make some improvements to her game before she’s the finished article.
Although the WTA doesn’t have the absolute star names it had 10 years ago, perhaps in the long run the tour will be healthier if players who are mature physically and emotionally are winning the major tournaments and go on to compete in the tour until their 30s and not as we have seen in the past when players started playing a full schedule at the age of 14 and be off the tour before the age of 25.
It will be interesting to see how long it takes for players like Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka to win Grand slam tournaments. But I think the age eligibility rule has been good for the WTA tour and consequences of that rule is really manifesting itself now.