Teens make statement in Australian Open

At 42, Kimiko Date-Krumm is the oldest woman in the Australian
Open draw and she has little in common with her competitors, aside
from tennis. On the courts around her on Thursday were rivals less
than half her age and some not yet out of high school.

Eleven teenagers advanced to the second round this year,
compared with three in 2012. So many teenagers are rising through
the rankings, in fact, former world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki feels
like a veteran at the age of 22.

”There are still a few older ones than me,” she joked 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 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; 18-year-old Laura Robson of Britain, who beat eighth-seeded
Petra Kvitova; and 19-year-old American Sloane Stephens, who beat
another 19-year-old, Kristina Mladenovic of France.

Keys lost her third-round match on Friday to No. 5-seeded
Angelique Kerber of Germany 6-2, 7-5. Robson plays Stephens next on
Saturday.

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.

”You have to be more physically ready, and also mentally. It’s
just different times,” said Vekic, who’s one of the brightest
hopes on the tour. The Croatian 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.

Perhaps more critically, however, is the fact that 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 the age of 14 and left the sport, burned
out, at 17. She began a successful comeback two years later.

Today, players younger than 15 are largely 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
that teenagers are staying at the junior level longer, making it
tougher for them to eventually make the jump to the top flight.

Teary-eyed after her loss Friday, Keys said her inexperience in
big matches caused her to be nervous against Kerber.

”I think it was the occasion, center court,” she said. ”I
think I almost psyched myself out and was thinking I had to play
better than what I did have to play. And I think I just got really
nervous.”

Robson, however, showed incredible poise against Kvitova in a
three-hour match in Rod Laver Arena, winning 2-6, 6-3, 11-9.

The former Junior Wimbledon champion, who will turn 19 next
week, 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.

Robson 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,” she
said. ”I would have been disappointed to lose today, for
sure.”

Her next match against Stephens could be a 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.”

Although most of the other young players lost their second-round
matches at Melbourne Park, they 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, but 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 she 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.

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 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 (1.88 meters), 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.”