Teenagers make statement at Australian Open

Kimiko Date-Krumm is the oldest woman in the Australian Open
draw at 42, with some competitors less than half her age still in
high school.

Eleven teenagers advanced to the second round, compared with
three in 2012. So many teenagers are moving up in the rankings that
former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki feels like a veteran at 22.

”There are still a few older ones than me,” she said after
beating 16-year-old Donna Vekic of Croatia in the second round 6-1,
6-4. ”I still want to try to feel young out here. But, you know,
it’s the way of life, I guess – 22, it’s old in the tennis world
soon.”

Just not yet. The next generation of female players have made a
statement at the Australian Open, but there’s no expectation
they’re ready to hoist a Grand Slam trophy like Martina Hingis and
Monica Seles did at 16 and Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova did
at 17.

Of the 11 teens in the second round, only three progressed –
17-year-old American Madison Keys, who took out 30th-seeded Tamira
Paszek; 19-year-old American Sloane Stephens, who beat another
19-year-old, Kristina Mladenovic of France; and 18-year-old Laura
Robson of Britain, who ousted eighth-seeded Petra Kvitova.

It’s much tougher than it was a decade ago for a young player to
break through and actually win a major. Part of the reason is the
sheer physicality of the game today, a change brought by better
training and conditioning, more powerful rackets and, of course,
more powerful players like the Williams sisters and Sharapova.

Stephens plays Robson next in a potential glimpse of major
finals to come.

”We’re the same age, I guess it’s a rivalry. I mean it’s not
like Federer-Nadal rivalry,” Stephens said. She paused, before
continuing: ”It could be. We’ll see.”

Robson, the former Junior Wimbledon champion who will turn 19
next week, enjoyed a huge upset win over Kvitova on Rod Laver
Arena.

She said after her victory that she definitely feels she’s
closing in on the top players.

”This year, you know, I set my expectations a bit higher,”
Robson said.

The British player climbed from No. 131 to 53 in the rankings
last year, thanks to her impressive run at the U.S. Open where she
defeated Kim Clijsters and Li Na en route to the fourth round.

Serena Williams, who easily beat 19-year-old Spaniard Garbine
Muguruza in the second round, isn’t ruling out another teenage
Grand Slam winner. She thinks Keys has the game and the poise to do
it.

”I think it will happen again probably soon,” she said. ”I
think if the person is strong enough physically and mentally, I
think it’s completely possible.”

”Madison Keys is like 6-foot-2, and she’s very strong and she’s
only 17. She has several years while she’s still a teenager to win
a Grand Slam.”

Vekic reached her first WTA final in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, last
year at 15 – the youngest WTA finalist in seven years – and was the
youngest player in the main draw at the Australian Open.

These days, teenagers are restricted in how many top-level
tournaments they can play, a change enacted in response to Jennifer
Capriati’s troubled teen years. Capriati struggled with the
pressures of the tour after cracking the top 10 at 14 and left the
sport, burned out, at 17. She began a successful comeback two years
later.

Players younger than 15 are mostly prevented from playing at the
WTA level, while those between 15 and 18 are limited in the number
of tournaments they’re allowed to play. The effect is teenagers are
staying at the junior level longer, making it tougher for them to
eventually make the jump to the top flight.

Although most lost their second-round matches at Melbourne Park,
the younger players did show tremendous potential. Under a blazing
sun on Court 7, 18-year-old Yulia Putintseva, who was born in
Russia but represents Kazakhstan, lost a tight three-setter to
Spanish veteran Carla Suarez Navarro. She fought to the very end,
pumping her fists and punctuating every point with a ferocious
”Come on!”

On the court next to her, fellow 18-year-old Daria Gavrilova of
Russia was locked in a tense match with Ukrainian Lesia Tsurenko.
Shuttling between the two was Hingis – the youngest Grand Slam
champion of the 20th century – who has been helping both players as
a coach at the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy outside Paris.

After her match, Putintseva alternated between giggles and
confident boasts about her future. She said she was working on
controlling her temper and was proud she didn’t break any rackets
on Thursday.

”In a match like this, I would (normally) break five,” she
said, laughing.

Putintseva also feels ready to move beyond the juniors, which
she has found limiting. ”I think I have the level to play already
these (Grand Slam) tournaments,” she said. Part of the reason is
Hingis, who has been helping her learn to handle the pressures of
the sport.

”I hope that she’ll continue to work with me and we try to win
a Grand Slam together,” she said, with more giggles.