Of the Top Ten women in the final rankings for 2002, nine were repeaters from
last year. Only Lindsay Davenport, who was sidelined much of 2002 recovering
from surgery, dropped out of the high group. Still, despite this stability,
the Top Ten provided two cases of extraordinary rise.
The most significant gain in the standings was that of Serena Williams, now
age 21, who improved from sixth position in 2001 to a commanding #1. Serena
captured Garros, Wimbledon, and U.S. Open this year. No-one in women's tennis
delivers her degree of power off the serve and ground with winning
consistency. She typically hits out courageously, and in her toughest matches
usually finds a way to hold down her errors just enough to prevail. An
example was in her narrow win over Capriati at the late-year championships in
Los Angeles. Capriati, playing superbly, had fewer unforced errors and seemed
slightly superior in corner-to-corner shotmaking and mobility. But somehow
Serena made her advantages--a stronger serve and slightly heavier
groundstrokes--prevail. Serena's formula failed, however, against a much
fresher Kim Clijsters in the next day's final.
The other high-ranking improver was Daniela Hantuchova, 19, the only newcomer
to the Top Ten, who climbed from 38th place last year to finish eighth in
2002. Nearly six feet tall, she delivers a power game including a superior
backhand two-hander. She won Indian Wells in February, defeating Henin and
Hingis, and reached the quarters before losing to Serena at both Wimbledon
and U.S. Open. Hantuchova and Husarova led Slovak Republic to the 2002 Fed
Cup championship. Daniela lost in the first round at Los Angeles, however,
having just arrived from the Fed Cup final in the Canaries.
Besides Daniela, two other teenagers finished in the Top Ten. Kim Clijsters,
19, captured fourth place despite injury absences, up from #5 last year,
while Jelena Dokic, 19, finished ninth, down from eighth. An extremely strong
riser at #22 this year, up from 84th, was Greece's Eleni Daniilidou, who
reached age 20 in September at nearly 6 feet and 150 pounds.
Three Russian teens are among five others in the Top Fifty, including #26
Bovina, who is 6-2 and 160 pounds at age 19. Worth following in 2003 will be
three players still in their mid-teens, all in the Second Fifty. Swiss player
Myriam Casanova, 17, showed frequent wins over Top Fifty players including
Henin and Daniilidou. Angelique Widjaja of Indonesia, 17, won the year's
final event, in Thailand, over a field containing eight higher-ranked
players. Dinara Safina, age 16, is the sister of superstar Marat Safin, whom
she strongly resembles in facial appearance. Safina was an impressive 12-5 in
main-draw matches on the 2002 tour.
The Greatest Teen Ever
Becoming curious to learn about youthful players of the past, I found that
the earliest achiever among modern players was Jennifer Capriati, who as a
14-year-old in 1990 won 11 of 14 matches in Slams, reaching the Garros semis.
The youngest Slam champion was Martina Hingis, who won Australian Open at 16
years + 3 months. Others winning Slams at 16 were Monica Seles and Tracy
Austin. The recent-era player winning the most Slam championships as a
teenager was Seles, who captured eight before her stabbing at age 19. Steffi
Graf won six as a teenager, Hingis five.
The teenaged superstar phenomenon extends back in tennis history. During the
1920's, Californian Helen Wills won the U.S. Nationals three times as a
teenager enroute to a career total of 19 singles Slams. But the credentials
as the greatest-ever player as a teenager, almost beyond argument, belong to
another Californian, a member of the next tennis generation, a player I
Maureen Connally was born in San Diego in late September 1934. She went to
the U.S. Nationals at Forest Hills as a 14- and 15-year-old, and she lost in
the second round on both occasions. She won the U.S. Nationals at 16 years +
11 months in 1951, then won both Wimbledon and the U.S. at 17. At age 18 in
1953, Little Mo won all four Slams, thereby achieving the first women's Grand
Slam. Then at 19 she won both Garros and Wimbledon, making a total of nine
Slam triumphs as a teenager and a W-L record in Slams of 52-2, where her only
two losses came in those first tries at Forest Hills. I watched her at Garros
Connally's was primarily a heavy-hitting game from back court, founded on her
ability to drive the ball firmly and consistently within inches of the lines,
machine-like. She foreshadowed Chris Evert, not only in her tactics but also
in her unrelenting determination and concentration during matches. Connally's
time preceded Open tennis, but during her time at the pinnacle there were no
plausibly dangerous opponents active in the pro ranks.
Connally never competed after age 19. In summer 1954 while on horseback she
was badly hurt in an accident with a truck. She died of cancer at 34. Her
story is one of tennis's most compelling.
Youth in Men's Tennis
Lleyton Hewitt again finished #1 atop the men's game, but the year's Top Ten
included only three other holdovers. Besides Hewitt, the repeaters from 2001
were Agassi, Ferrero, and Henman.
There were no male teenagers in the year's first ten, nor can I find any in
the first hundred. Among several teenagers in the second hundred, three
18-year-olds seem especially worth monitoring. All three are 6-2 in height or
taller and have already shown some success on the main tour. Croatian Mario
Ancic at 6-4 defeated Federer at Wimbledon and also Kafelnikov at
Indianapolis this year. Sweden's Robin Soderling won his first-round match at
U.S. Open this year. I watched Canadian Frank Dancevic achieve an impressive
first main-tour win here in Washington in August. But the year's most
remarkable teenaged achievement happened at the Monte Carlo Masters in April,
when French youth Richard Gasquet won his first-round match at age 15.
Gasquet also won his first set at Garros before succumbing to eventual
champion Albert Costa.
We expand our gaze slightly to include players who were 19 during part of
2002 but were 20 at year's end. Andy Roddick heads this group, finishing the
year in tenth place, up six places from 2001. Andy's superior serving ability
and extreme power from back court are wonderful assets, which seem likely to
produce a first ten finish next year. A third major asset--improved volleying
ability, perhaps--would open the way for further rise. The age cohort also
includes Tommy Robredo of Spain and Mikhail Youzhny of Russia, both finishing
in the year's top 32. A promising record at age 20 was that of French player
Paul-Henri Mathieu, who rose nearly a hundred places to finish #39. Mathieu
won three matches at Garros, eventually losing to Agassi in five sets. Late
in the year he won consecutive indoor tournaments at Moscow and Lyon.
The game seems solidly in the hands of players now in their early 20's. Four
of the year's top-ranking six stars were aged 21 or 22 at year's end. All
four were high achievers as teenagers just a short time ago, and all seem
likely to remain near the top in coming years. The year's #1 player, Lleyton
Hewitt, at 21 won Wimbledon and again won Masters Cup. Finishing #3 and #4
were Europeans Marat Safin and Juan Carlos Ferrero, both now 22. Ferrero has
yet to win a Slam but captured Italian Open in 2001 and Monte Carlo in 2002.
A runner-up at Garros this year, his record confirms that clay is his best
surface. But he reached the final at Masters Cup indoors in Shanghai,
carrying Hewitt to five fierce sets. Finishing at #6, missing #5 by an
eyelash, was Swiss player Roger Federer, now 21, up from 12th place in 2001.
The same age group produced several big risers in the rankings. Hard-striker
Fernando Gonzalez of Chile, now 22, rose from #135 last year to #17,
including a semi-final appearance at Cincinnati. James Blake, age 22 years +
11 months at this writing in November, rose from #88 to #28, winning
impressively here in Washington. Paradorn Srichaphan, who reached 23 in June,
climbed from #112 to #18 after an outstanding second half.
A search for history's top male teenager offers interesting fare. Boy Wonder
Vincent Richards won the U.S. doubles in 1918 at 15 as partner of Tilden,
then again in 1921 and 1922. Michael Chang remains the youngest singles Slam
winner, having captured Garros in 1989 at 17 years + 3 months. He finished #5
for that year but then with hip trouble departed from the first ten until
1992 at age 20. Previously, the youngest Garros champion had been Mats
Wilander, a winner at 17 in 1982. (Mats also won the Australian at 19.)
Before him the Teen Angel, Bjorn Borg, won Garros at barely 18 in 1974.
Earlier the same year, Borg won the Italian at 17. Borg at 19 triumphed again
at Garros, and he won all twelve of his singles matches in Sweden's 1975
Davis Cup triumph. Other teenaged achievers include Pete Sampras, who became
the youngest-ever U.S. winner in 1990 at age 19. Two 19-year-olds, Lew Hoad
and Ken Rosewall, won Davis Cup for Australia in 1953 over a strong U.S.
challenge. Earlier that year as 18-year-olds, Rosewall won the Australian and
French singles, and the twosome narrowly missed a Grand Slam in doubles,
losing in four sets at Forest Hills.
Perhaps I've overlooked other good candidates. But it seems clear that our
choice as history's top achiever as a teenager must be either Borg or
Rosewall. Significantly, Rosewall's teen years came at a time when top pros
Sedgman and Gonzalez were kept outside Slam and Davis Cup competition. Borg's
Garros win in 1974 was comparably diminished by the barring of Jimmy Connors,
who won the year's other three Slams and demonstrated elsewhere that year his
ability to defeat Borg on clay.
My choice is Rosewall, by the margin of his achievements in doubles.