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Between The Lines
December 1, 2001 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Tomorrow's Superstars of Women's Tennis

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

December provides a clear break between the old year and the new in pro tennis. The standings for 2001 are now in the books, while here we review the progress of the game's rising stars.

On the men's side, Andy Roddick at age 19 finished in the world's Top Sixteen for the first time, slightly behind the timetables of Agassi and Sampras a decade ago. Meanwhile in the women's game, the array of rising aspirants is rich in quality. Three of the current teenaged crop are already in the world's Top Eight, and seven others join them as members of the Top 64.

Not surprisingly, the female newcomers are most skilled in the heavy-hitting, baseline styles that are now dominant at the top of the women's game. All are right-handed, and nearly all hit their backhands with two hands. None of them are small women. As we will see, there is a hint of uniformity in their timetables of upward progress to date.

Are any of them likely to achieve future Slam championships and superstardom?

As perspective in answering this question, we note that of today's high-ranked superstars--Davenport, Capriati, Hingis, and the Williams sisters--all finished in the Top Eight at age 18 or earlier. The same is true of Monica Seles, still an active superstar though no longer in the Top Eight. Probably the latest bloomer of the group was Lindsay Davenport, whose upward progress is given here.

--at age 16, Top 200
--at age 17, Top 32
--at age 18, Top Eight
--at age 21, Top Four
--at age 22, Number One

TEEN-AGERS ALREADY IN THE TOP EIGHT

Our elite teenagers--the three who finished in the Top Eight for 2001--all made big gains in the rankings from a year ago.

Currently the world's top teenager is the Belgian player Kim Clijsters, physically large and strong at 5-9 and 151 pounds, age 18. Two years ago she finished in 47th place, and in year 2000 she moved ahead of all players her age or younger into 18th place. Her 2001 record was solid from start to finish, showing 17-4 in the four Slams including a runner-up finish at Roland Garros, where she lost to Capriati in three sets. She was runner-up at Indian Wells, and won three lesser tournaments. She claimed one match victory over Hingis and one over Davenport, both three-setters, but lost eight other meetings against the non-teenaged members of the Top Eight. It added up to 5th place in the world rankings for 2001, behind Davenport, Capriati, Venus, and Hingis, and ahead of 6th-place Serena.

Gifted Justine Henin, at 5-6, 126 pounds, and age 19, joined Clijsters in capturing Fed Cup for Belgium last month. Her rise to 7th place in 2001, from 48th a year ago, was even more radical than her teammate's. Henin's greatest moments in 2001 came in reaching the semis at Roland Garros and the final at Wimbledon. (She lost to Clijsters at Garros in three sets and to Venus Williams at Wimbledon, also in three.) She defeated Capriati in three sets at Wimbledon but otherwise lost all six matches against the older members of the Top Eight as well as two of her three meetings with Clijsters. Wiry and slender of frame, Henin hits with marvelous technique and surprising power, most remarkably with her one-handed backhand. The suspicion remains that in future classic battles between the two, the relentless weight of Clijsters's shotmaking will often wear down Henin amid extended points, games, and sets.

Finishing 8th in 2001 was Jelena Dokic, up from 26th last year and 43rd in 1999. She is 5-6 and 126 pounds, age 18. Born in Belgrade, she emigrated to Australia at 10 with her family, lists Tampa as residence and Yugoslavia as her tennis nationality. She won four tournaments in 2001 including two Tier Ones--the Italian Open and Kremlin Cup. She split two matches with Clijsters, but she lost all eleven meetings with the other members of the Top Eight, all in straight sets.

Our three elite teenagers have reached indisputable stardom at young age, but a substantial gap yet separates them from the top foursome. The final event of 2001--the Sanex world championship in Munich, a 16-player elimination--betrayed problems for them in climbing higher in 2002. There, Henin lost to Serena in straight sets, Dokic lost to Davenport in straight sets, and Clijsters lost to Davenport in three sets, 7-6 in the third. It thus seems that, of the three, only Clijsters has good chance of rising soon.

A YEAR AWAY?

Of the seven other teenagers in the current Top 64, Iroda Tulyaganova posted the most promising record in 2001, climbing from 75th place in the 2000 rankings to 20th place now. Born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, 5-7 and 139 pounds, age 19, Tulyaganova was junior singles champion of Wimbledon 1999. Her upward surge accelerated in June 2001, when she showed three wins in the grass-court event at s'Hertogenbosch and two more at Wimbledon before losing to Henin and Tauziat, respectively. Later, she claimed victories on clay over Schnyder, Dementieva, Clijsters, and Henin along with a good loss to Dokic in three sets. Her progress is unquestionably upward.

Next in line is Czech-born Daja Bedanova, 5-8 and 119 pounds at age 18, who finished 28th in 2001, up from 54th a year ago. An encouraging pattern emerged in her tournaments after mid-summer--i.e., a fine early-round win followed by a loss to a higher-ranked player. Thus she defeated Sanchez-Vicario and then lost to Venus Williams in San Diego, she defeated Barbara Schett and lost to Davenport in LA, she won over Maleeva and lost to Shaughnessy in Canada, and finally defeated Seles and Shaughnessy at U.S. Open, then lost to Hingis. It was a solid showing for a newcomer.

At 5-11 and 123 pounds and age 18, Daniela Hantuchova of Slovak Republic won enough matches to finish the year in 38th place after finishing 108th in 2000. She also exhibited an ability to extend the higher-rankers, carrying Capriati to three sets in Oklahoma City early in the year and Davenport to three in Zurich.

Three precocious newcomers verify that Russia is closing on the top ranks of women's tennis. All three are physically tall, and all showed good gains to enter 2001's Top 64. Lina Krasnoroutskaya, 5-9 at age 17, reached the quarters at Roland Garros and the fourth round at Wimbledon. Up from 133rd place a year ago, she finished 34th in 2001. Meanwhile Nadia Petrova, 5-10 at age 19, won three matches at Roland Garros and three at Wimbledon. She showed some good losses--in three sets to Dokic, Capriati, and Bedanova--along with a late-year win over Testud in Fed Cup play. She finished the year 39th, up from 62nd in 2000. Finally, Elena Bovina, 6-2 and age 18, started well at Indian Wells, winning four matches including one over Tulyaganova before bowing to Clijsters. Late in the year, however, her pattern became one of first-round losses. She ended up 49th, up from 135th.

Finishing narrowly in the Top 64 but without a strong pattern of rise in 2001 was Marta Marrero of Spain, age 18. Marrero won three matches at Australian Open in January, then showed good success on clay, her favorite surface. She lost twice to Tulyaganova, including a straight-set loss at U.S. Open.

The long-range prospects of the players discussed in this section remain open, but all clearly need substantial upward moves in 2002 to sustain superstar hopes. The strong finish of Tulyaganova suggests that the Uzbek woman is the one most likely to rise from the pack in 2002.

YET TO BE WATCHED

Can a player break out upward in the rankings after passing age 19?

Unquestionably the probabilities decline markedly at about that age. But we note here several 20- and 21-year-olds who may be ready to challenge the odds.

Elena Dementieva of Moscow, 5-11 and 142 pounds, age 20, now in 15th place, slipped from 12th in 2000. That year, she took second place in the Olympics and reached the semis in the year-end Chase tournament, defeating Davenport and Clijsters. Her best result in 2001 was in the Ericsson at Miami, when she defeated Davenport to reach the semis. After a foot injury which largely removed her from the European clay season, she had a nice run at U.S. Open, defeating Huber and losing to Clijsters in three sets. She had a strong win over Hingis in Moscow, and in November led the Russian Fed Cup team by winning three singles matches, including a three-setter over 9th-ranked Mauresmo, but she then lost convincingly in the final round to Clijsters. Two other players merit notice because of strong upward gains in 2001. Australian Alicia Molik, at 6-0 and 159 pounds and age 20, possesses as good a serve as is seen in women's tennis. Her best tournament was on grass at Birmingham where she defeated Dokic. She rose from 115th place to finish 47th. Meanwhile Italian player Francesca Schiavone, 21, achieved her best results on clay, winning three matches in Rome and four at Roland Garros. She rose from 80th place in 2000 to finish 31st.

PROJECTING AHEAD

Will Clijsters break into the Top Four in 2002, as seems possible? Will Tulyaganova continue her remarkable climb, which seems probable? Will Dementieva maintain her leading ranking among the rising young Russians, indeed over injury-troubled Kournikova who is herself only 20? Finally, how many of our young protagonists will ultimately reach superstardom?

For perspective on the last question, I looked at the year-end rankings from four years ago. Heading the teen-aged contingent in 1997 were 17-year-olds Martina Hingis and Venus Williams, ranked 1st and 22nd, respectively. Eleven other teen-agers finished in the Top 64. Many of these eleven remain familiar names on the tour today--Nagyova, Kruger, and Serna, for example. But in every case, their hopes for Slam championships and tennis superstardom have passed.

Only Clijsters today appears on track with Davenport's path of several years ago. Henin and Dokic are not far behind, and Tulyaganova and Dementieva can also claim faint chances of reaching the top, though their chances could pass very soon. For the other young stars cited here, solid careers just short of the highest levels will, in all probability, be the rewards for their years of effort and sacrifice.

Many answers will unfold in the new year. We will witness the skills and courage of these young champions on the various fields of honor. Yet as always, the verdicts are already being prepared on the practice court and in the training room.

--Ray Bowers

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This column is copyrighted by Ray Bowers, all rights reserved.

Following interesting military and civilian careers, Ray became a regular competitor in the senior divisions, reaching official rank of #1 in the 75 singles in the Mid-Atlantic Section for 2002. He was boys' tennis coach for four years at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Virginia, where the team three times reached the state Final Four. He was named Washington Post All-Metropolitan Coach of the Year in 2003. He is now researching a history of the early pro tennis wars, working mainly at U.S. Library of Congress. A tentative chapter, which appeared on Tennis Server, won a second-place award from U.S. Tennis Writers Association.

Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ray by using this form.


 

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