In the very early days of the new 2013 WTA season, we’ve already had our first “must-see” event, in this case the quarterfinal in Brisbane between Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens. Though Williams won the competitive encounter 6-4, 6-4 as then went on to take the title, the first time meeting between the veteran and the youngster brought to mind other classic matches in WTA history where a more established player took on a rising star.
Chris Evert vs. Monica Seles: 1989 U.S. Open, Fourth Round
Evert, who had recently announced that 1989 would be her last year on tour, took on the very young 15 year-old Seles. Seles had already beaten Evert in the finals of Houston earlier in the spring before going on to reach the semis of Roland Garros where she lost to Steffi Graf.
Many thought that this would be Evert’s last ever match and that led to a sell-out crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium and increased media presence. But the 34-year old American appeared ready to teach Seles a lesson right from the start despite the overwhelming consensus she would lose. Evert never let Seles into the match and cruised to a commanding 6-2, 6-0 win.
”I kept thinking that isn’t it ironic that I would draw her of all people, and if this is my last big match, wouldn’t it be even more ironic if she beat me?” Evert told the New York Times after she had won.
Evert eventually bowed out of the U.S. Open and tennis when she lost to Zina Garrison in the next round, but it was her final tour win over Seles that proved experience can trump youth any day.
Jennifer Capriati vs. Martina Navratilova: 1991 Wimbledon, Quarterfinals
Though she was the undisputed queen of grass court tennis during her reign over the lawns of Wimbledon, at age 34, Navratilova was feeling the pressure of being the oldest woman left in the draw. Navratilova faced another 15-year old phenom, in this case Jennifer Capriati who became a media sensation when she turned pro at age 13. Though she had reached the semis of Roland Garros the year before, Capriati had yet to beat anyone ranked inside the top four.
Capriati used a simply yet effective strategy of attacking Navratilova’s serve at every opportunity. Her piercing returns backed up with accurate passing shots against the always net charging Navratilova proved a perfect combination. Though the match was suspended by rain, it didn’t change the outcome. Navratilova, who admitted being afraid of Capriati’s return, double faulted on match point to give Capriati a 6-4, 7-5 victory.
Capriati lost in the semifinals to Gabriela Sabatini but went on to have a Hall of Fame career that included winning three Majors and reaching No.1 in the world.
Kim Clijsters vs. Laura Robson: 2012 U.S. Open, Second Round
In a scenario somewhat similar to the Evert/Seles match from 1989, last year’s U.S. Open featured a match between a veteran who had already announced her retirement against a rising young player.
But the similarities between that match and the one in 1989 ended there. Unlike Seles, Robson had not yet proven herself either on the big stages or against the very best in the world. Though Clijsters at this point was seeded No. 23, and had played sparingly up to that point, she was expected to win based on having won three U.S. Open titles.
The match itself was a tight one. Clijsters didn’t serve well, but after dropping the first set in a tiebreak, the Belgian looked poised to stage a comeback after forcing yet another tiebreak in the second set. But Robson, thanks to heavy-hitting from both sides, didn’t waver and held on to close out the match and Clijsters’s career 7-6(4), 7-6(5).
Robson backed up her result by beating Li Na in the next round and pushing Sam Stosur in a close fourth round loss. Robson is currently ranked No. 53 in the world and considered by many to be a future top ten player.
The Future – Experience Counts or Will Youth Be Served?
Though teenagers often won some of the sport’s biggest prizes in the past, recently the WTA has been dominated by women closing in on age 30 or older. With Williams herself poised to possibly become the oldest No. 1 in WTA history, this trend may continue. But as we saw in the Williams/Stephens match, never doubt that somewhere a young player is always ready to take on a veteran in hopes of adding her name to the sport’s long line of champions.