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Between The Lines
December 1, 2002 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
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The Young and Rising
in Pro Tennis

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Ray Bowers

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 deeply admired.

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 in 1954.

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.

--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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