Not so long ago, women’s tennis was chock-full of teenage champions. A 16-year-old Tracy Austin threatened the Evert-Navratilova duopoly in the late 1970s. Monica Seles won the French Open at the same age in 1990. Martina Hingis broke countless “youngest ever” records and won five Grand Slam titles before she turned 19.
Recently, however, the average age on the WTA Tour has been creeping up. This has a lot to do with the age restrictions introduced after Jennifer Capriati – a top ten player at the age of 14 – suffered burnout and personal problems in the mid-nineties. But the demanding physical nature of the modern game also makes it harder for young players to challenge for the biggest prizes. In days gone by, teens lacking in muscle were able to finesse their way to the top; in the 21st century, they are simply blown off the court.
So which of today’s teenage cohort will prevail at tomorrow’s Grand Slams? Here is a look at where the ten youngest players in the WTA top 100 (as of July 29th, 2013) currently stand.
Age: 19 years, 9 months
Current ranking: 84
Lauren Davis is one of the most undersized players on the list at just 5’2”, but she has a strong serve, powerful groundstrokes and likes to play aggressively. Her best wins to date have come against top 30 players Yanina Wickmayer and Sorana Cristea, and she came within a few points of upsetting compatriot Sloane Stephens in the quarter-finals of the Hobart International back in January.
Davis hasn’t been in the best of form recently – her win-loss record since April is 3-8 – so she will be hoping for a boost on the American hard courts, her favourite surface.
Age: 19 years, 9 months
Current ranking: 83
Caroline Garcia first gained widespread attention when she lead Maris Sharapova by a set and 4-1 at the French Open 2011. Although she initially failed to build on that success, spending most of 2012 at ITF tournaments and the qualifying rounds of main-draw WTA events, she has slowly gained momentum in 2013.
Wins over Francesca Schiavone, Chanelle Sheepers and Jie Zheng have pushed the Frenchwoman into the top 100, and her hard-hitting game has been praised by Andy Murray and Serena Williams. The keys to future success for Garcia are savvier shot selection and greater consistency.
Age: 19 years, 9 months
Current ranking: 63
This powerfully built Spaniard didn’t have a glittering junior career, but she proved her worth in Miami in 2012. There, she beat Vera Zvonareva and Flavia Pennetta to make the last 16. She was on the verge of another major scalp at the US Open that year, but lost a tight three-setter to Sara Errani.
In 2013, Muguruza opted to avoid ITF events and concentrate on the bigger tournaments. In the spring, she pushed Venus Williams to a 7-5 deciding set in Florianopolis, reached the fourth round of Indian Wells and upset Caroline Wozniacki on her way to the last 16 in Miami. Her best result came on the grass courts of ’s-Hertogenbosch in June, where she qualified for the main draw and made it to the semi-finals, beating Mona Barthel and Dominika Cibulkova along the way.
Unfortunately, an ankle injury will keep Muguraza out of action until 2014. But with her aggressive game, big forehand and unimpeachable fighting spirit, she has the talent to make it all the way to the top.
Age: 17 years, 1 month
Current ranking: 62
The youngest player by far in the top 100, Donna Vekic has already accomplished more than most of her colleagues. She has reached two WTA finals, in Tashkent last year and in Birmingham two months ago; she has also managed to crack the top 70 despite a limited playing schedule.
The Croatian moves well for her height and has an aggressive mindset. If she can stay healthy – something that can’t be taken for granted with very young athletes who are still growing – it’s surely only a matter of time before she starts challenging the top players on a regular basis.
Age: 19 years, 5 months
Current ranking: 58
Eugenie Bouchard won junior Wimbledon in 2011 and 2012, and has quietly climbed the senior rankings thanks to steady nerves and a consistent, defence-based style of play.
Her best win to date came in the second round of Wimbledon 2013, where she upset former world number one Ana Ivanovic in straight sets. If she can keep beating the players ranked below her, while stepping up the court a little more frequently, the Canadian could reach the top 50 before the end of the year.
Age: 19 years, 10 months
Current ranking: 51
While some of her fellow teenagers have forged a steady path towards the upper echelons of the women’s game, Monica Puig has landed in the big league with a bang. The charismatic Puerto Rican qualified for only two WTA tournaments in 2012, but in recent months she has gone from faceless newcomer to one of the tour’s hottest prospects.
Having pushed Angelique Kerber and Venus Williams to three sets in the first few months of the year, she came to life on red clay. Wins over Julia Goerges and Francesca Schiavone saw her reach the quarter-finals of the Portugal Open, and she beat Nadia Petrova on her way to round three of Roland Garros. At Wimbledon, she thrashed fifth seed Sara Errani and went on to reach the last 16, where she had Sloane Stephens on the ropes.
Although only 5’7”, Puig hits big and covers the court well. Most importantly, she believes she can beat the best in the world. Few seeds will be happy about facing her on hard courts this summer.
Age: 18 years, 10 months
Current ranking: 49
Elina Svitolina is the only player on this list to have won a WTA title. Although the field in Baku was relatively weak for an International event, she produced mature, composed tennis to lift the trophy, shooting into the top 50 as a result.
Formerly a top-ranked junior, Svitolina has power and imagination. Although she still tends to go for too much when pushed into defensive positions, she has plenty of time to iron out the kinks in her game and become a serious contender.
Age: 19 years, 5 months
Current ranking: 47
Germany’s latest tennis sensation had a brilliant 2012, winning the junior French Open and six ITF titles. She has continued her upward trajectory in 2013, beating the likes of Su-Wei Hsieh and Yaroslava Shvedova. Her biggest successes have come on clay courts: she reached the last four of the International event in Katowice, pushed Victoria Azarenka at the French Open and made back-to-back quarter-finals in Budapest and Bad Gastein last month.
Beck has become a top 50 player with a high-risk, high-reward playing style. If she can cut down on the unforced errors and hit with more spin and margin for error, she could be a threat to the big names at the US Open.
Age: 18 years, 5 months
Current ranking: 40
Without a doubt, Madison Keys is the fastest-rising young player on the women’s tour. She began the year ranked 137th, but after reaching three quarter-finals and the third round of both the Australian Open and Wimbledon, she has broken the top 40.
Tall, strong and with a lightning-fast serve, Keys’ best win to date was a 6-3, 6-2 thrashing of Li Na in Madrid. She also played brilliantly at Wimbledon, pushing Agnieszka Radwanska to the limit before falling in three sets. The American still has a tendency to get down on herself when matches aren’t going her way, but as she matures she is bound to threaten the top players more regularly.
1. Laura Robson
Age: 19 years, 6 months
Current ranking: 32
Laura Robson is already the best British player in decades, but the question is: how good can she become? The Londoner has beaten more top players than any other teenager on tour. She took out Kim Clijsters and Li Na at the US Open last year, and has upset Petra Kvitova, Agnieszka Radwanska and Maria Kirilenko in 2013.
There’s a lot to like about her game. A former junior number one, she is a powerful baseliner with an eye for the audacious winner. Robson needs to keep working on her lateral movement, and her serve, although sometimes a weapon, is liable to desert her. Similarly, she needs to develop a Plan B for those days when the big shots don’t come off as expected. But with so much upside, it would be a surprise if she doesn’t make the top 20 in the near future.
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