Down the line: Tennis is ageing but there’s still youthful hope in the WTA

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The new 'swiss-miss': Bencic has drawn comparisons to 5-time Grand Slam winner Martina Hingis.

The fact that tennis is ageing is not lost on anyone as we’re constantly seeing more and more 30+ year olds winning big titles and enjoying breakthroughs on both the men’s and women’s tours.

But the WTA has been offering up some glimmer of hope for the younger generation every once in a while and only a week after 20-year-old Caroline Garcia won her first tour-level title by upsetting Jelena Jankovic in the Bogota final, Croatian teen Donna Vekic did the same to Dominika Cibulkova in Kuala Lumpur for her maiden triumph.

Vekic is the first female player below 18 years old to win a WTA title since Vania King won Bangkok in 2006.

But she’s not the only teenager to make some noise on the ladies’ tour recently.

Last July, Elina Svitolina won her first WTA trophy in Baku as an 18-year-old, and the Ukrainian – who is the youngest player in the top-40 – has impressed lately with her fourth round showing in Miami and third round in Charleston.

Belinda Bencic, the 17-year-old who is dubbed the new ‘Swiss Miss’ in reference to Martina Hingis, made the semis in Charleston as a qualifier, taking out Maria Kirilenko and Sara Errani en route, to enter the top-100 for the first time.

So although the WTA’s top-10 have an average age of over 26 and include no teenagers, Bencic, Svitolina and Vekic are three young prospects that are easing the minds of those worried about the future of women’s tennis.

Add 20-year-olds Eugenie Bouchard and Garcia in the mix along with American pair Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys and it seems we have a healthy youthful group coming up in the ranks.

While none of these are a 14-year-old Jennifer Capriati cracking the top-10 or a 16-year-old Hingis winning the Australian Open, they’re still the cream of the crop carving a place for themselves in an era where 30 is the new 18 in tennis.

Week ahead

Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer are the top seeds in Barcelona while seven of the women’s top-10 are playing in Stuttgart, headlined by top seed Agnieszka Radwanska.

Maria Sharapova, begins her title defence today with a tough first round against Lucie Safarova.

Grigor Dimitrov is a tournament top seed for the first time as he leads the pack in Bucharest while Daniela Hantuchova is top dog in Marrakech, where Tunisian Ons Jabeur is also in action.

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Rafa vows to rebuild confidence

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Moving on: Nadal hopes to set things up in Barcelona after his shock loss to David Ferrer in Monte-Carlo.

World No1 Rafael Nadal yesterday admitted he has been struggling with confidence this season but refused to use it as an excuse for last week’s early exit in Monaco.

The 27-year-old Spaniard, the top seed for this week’s Barcelona Open, lost in the quarter-finals of the Monte Carlo Masters to compatriot David Ferrer.

It was his earliest loss in the Principality since 2003 and came 12 months after his eight-year winning streak at the event was ended in the final by Novak Djokovic.

“I started the season okay except for some lack of confidence and competitiveness in important moments of certain matches,” said Nadal, whose campaign in Barcelona begins in the second round tomorrow against Nikolay Davydenko or Albert Ramos. “I’ve faced adversities throughout my career, and this is just another one.”

The Spaniard has experienced some mental lapses since his Australian Open final defeat to Stanislas Wawrinka last January but he insists it’s time to move past it.

“I cannot continue using the Australia Open final as an excuse, that is past,” said the world No1. “In Monte Carlo I should have achieved more. No one can win all the time, I’m no exception. I’ve lost before and I’ll lose again. But I’m not bitter or mad at myself.”

Nadal, winner of 13 Grand Slam titles, said there was no disgrace in losing to veteran Ferrer, who is ranked sixth in the world.

The action in Barcelona yesterday saw rising Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut enjoy an explosive start, steamrollering Lukasz Kubot of Poland 6-1, 6-0 to book a second round meeting with world No17 Kei Nishikori.

The Japanese No4 seed will be playing for the first time since a groin injury forced him to withdraw from his Miami semi-final against Djokovic last month.

Meanwhile, Wawrinka played down his French Open hopes despite his Monte Carlo Masters title success against Roger Federer, claiming that the sport’s big names remain in a class of their own.

The win in Monaco left Wawrinka with fresh confidence in his big-swinging game.

“I play well on clay. It’s normal that I would be a favourite for the French Open, but I don’t think so because I’m very far from players like Rafa (Nadal), Novak (Djokovic) and Roger (Federer),” said the Australian Open champion. “I think the big four will always be the big four – Rafa, Novak, Roger and Murray. They won all the tournaments since many years and you cannot change that.

“The rankings may be different, but the statistics are the same. I will not change anything in the way I approach the tournaments.” .

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Sport360° view: Wawrinka and Ferrer shake-up ATP Tour

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Brothers in arms: Wawrinka (l) and Ferrer (r) step up to disrupt top 3.

Many have been holding onto the theory that Stanislas Wawrinka winning the Australian Open this year can change the dynamic of the 2014 season. 

And we need to look no further than Monte Carlo to find some truth in the above belief.

When Wawrinka manages to beat Roger Federer for only the second time in 15 meetings (and the first time in five years) in the same tournament where David Ferrer conquers Rafael Nadal on clay for the first time in 10 years – then perhaps it’s time for us to borrow the words of Bob Dylan and say ‘the times they are a-changing’.

Both players overcame their much more successful countrymen, getting past their inferiority complexes and mental limitations against them, to post victories in one of the most important tournaments of the year.

Wawrinka took it further by beating Ferrer in the semis, followed by a win over his good friend, idol and doubles partner, Federer, to lift the trophy at the Monte Carlo Country Club.

The stands boasted an interesting mix, one would only expect in the principality – with Prince Albert, Princess Charlene, Paolo Maldini, Kaka, Tommy Hilfiger and Bob Sinclar all in attendance.

The title win allowed Wawrinka to hold on to his No3 ranking, committing Federer to the unusual spot of Swiss No2 for at least a little bit longer.

Not only does the top Swiss have a tour-leading three titles this season, but Wawrinka is now 6-0 against top-10 players in 2014.

This time last year he was 1-5 with no titles for the season.

With Novak Djokovic suffering a wrist injury and Nadal showing vulnerabilities on clay, Wawrinka has very much placed himself in the mix for the French Open title.

The last man to pull off the Australian-French double in the same year was Jim Courier in 1992.

Could Wawrinka actually reach a milestone not achieved by Federer, Nadal or Djokovic?

Wawrinka’s Monte Carlo win and Ferrer’s victory in Paris-Bercy last year were the only two Masters 1000 events in the last 30 that were won by players outside the ‘Big Four’.

People may have banked on Juan Martin del Potro or Tomas Berdych to be the ones sharing the big titles with the traditional elite on the ATP Tour.

But with the former out with a wrist injury and the latter yet to repeat his 2010 heroics – when he beat Djokovic and Federer back-to-back to make the Wimbledon final – it’s Wawrinka and Ferrer who have stepped up.

Wawrinka is obviously a step ahead of Ferrer, having already won a Slam and boasting a more aggressive game, with a backhand that can fire winners from every corner and can hold its own against Nadal’s supersonic topspin forehand.

But let’s not forget that Ferrer is a French Open runner-up, unlike Wawrinka.

Looking ahead to Roland Garros, it’s the first time for ages we can actually list more than one name as serious title contenders.

The numbers remain stacked heavily in Nadal’s favour but if this season has taught us anything so far, it’s that stats are becoming more and more meaningless in the face of an awakened beast.

Just ask Wawrinka.

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