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Tennis Blog Page

Veterans Thrive

Elina Frumerman

By Ian Kington, AFP/Getty Images

By Ian Kington, AFP/Getty Images

In women's tennis, gray is the new blonde.

The WTA Tour has long thrived on a steady pipeline of pigtailed prodigies, from Chris Evert and Tracy Austin in the 1970s, Steffi Graf and Monica Seles in the 1980s, and Martina Hingis, Jennifer Capriati and the Williams sisters in the 1990s.

But the stream of teenage phenoms has slowed.

So far this year, 10 of 12 Grand Slam semifinalists have been 25 or older, and none have been younger than 20. The top seeds at Wimbledon, defending champion Serena Williams and five-time winner Venus Williams, are 28 and 30. This month's surprise French Open winner, Francesca Schiavone of Italy, turned 30 last week.

At the same time, the steady trickle of under-20 Grand Slam champions is on the wane.

Maria Sharapova of Russia, then 19, was the last teen to snag a major at the 2006 U.S. Open. By contrast, Switzerland's Hingiswon three majors as a 16-year-old in 1997 and Germany's Graf won the sport's last calendar-year Grand Slam in 1988 three months past her 19th birthday.

Whether the trend is good or bad for tennis — or the players' themselves — is open to debate.

"Players having success at a young age is what makes stars," says Sharapova's longtime agent, Max Eisenbud.

Not so, says Larry Scott, the CEO of the WTA from 2003-09 before becoming commissioner of the Pacific-10 Conference last year. Scott says the chase for fame and fortune at the expense of physical and emotional development is "fool's gold."

"You not only want star power, but you want them to stick around so fans get to know them," Scott says. "Justine (Henin), Kim (Clijsters) and Venus and Serena are great because they've been around awhile."

Part of the answer is visible to the naked eye. Female players today are bigger, stronger and faster — qualities needed to survive in today's muscle-bound, baseline bashing game.

"They're triple the size and strong," says former teenage prodigy Anna Kournikova, who spoke Tuesday at Wimbledon after competing in an "invitation doubles" event with fellow 29-year-old Hingis.

Kournikova reached the Wimbledon semifinals in 1997 as a 16-year-old but her career was cut short at in 2003 due to back injuries.

Patrick McEnroe, who cultivates some of this country's best talent as head of the USTA's High Performance program, says the women's game is merely catching up.

"The men's side has been that way for a while," McEnroe says. "Even the most talented 18-year-old on the planet cannot compete if he is not a physical specimen. We're starting to see that in the women's game, which I happen to think is a positive."

Another factor is the WTA's age-eligibility rule. 

Put in place in 1995 following the notorious flameout of still-in-the-news Capriati, the regulations restrict the number of tournaments women under 18 can play. For instance, a 14-year-old can play eight pro events a year; a 17-year-old can play as many as 21.

WTA officials are aware that the rules could be contributing to the growing ice age for teenage sensations. They applaud the rule for creating longer and healthier careers, even if they admit that bodies mature at different rates.

The tour commissioned a study in 2004 that showed players in the top 150 had careers that lasted almost 25% longer with fewer incidents of retirement before age 22.

"I'll take a long and healthy career any day over a premature burnout," current WTA CEO Stacey Allaster says.

What's more, Allaster says, all the business metrics that matter — attendance, price money and sponsorship — have been steady or on the rise in a time of economic hardship.

"We have a duty to care for these young girls," Allaster says. "We can't succumb to commercial interests."

Not everyone sees it so black and white.

Five-time major winner Hingis, who turned pro at 14 and was grandfathered into the 1995 system, says she didn't agree with the rules.

"Now it's even harder" for young players to break out due to the restrictions, Hingis said Tuesday.

"When you're younger, you learn faster," Hingis says. "I think when you're like 18, at that time it's already harder to learn."

Russia's Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who won two junior majors by 15, says she felt "held back" and under increased pressure to perform at the few WTA events she was allowed to enter.

She says many players circumvent the rules by playing more junior events or simply practicing more hours.

"I know they want to protect us from injuries, but I don't think it's right," says Pavlyuchenkova, who turns 19 July 3 and is ranked No. 32.

There also is the question of earning power, and buzz. Few disagree that the younger a player has success, the greater the potential financial rewards.

"I believe 100% that Maria would not be the star she is today if she would have won Wimbledon at 20," says Eisenbud, who is in favor of the rules but believes they should be "relaxed." 

Pavlyuchenkova contends that how much a teen can play should be decided on a case-by-case basis, as the LPGA does.

Famed Florida coach Nick Bollettieri can see both sides.

Bollettieri, whose many products include former No. 1 Seles, says the pluses outweigh the minuses, even if he doesn't believe that there should be an arbitrary line in the sand.

"If someone makes it by ranking, not just age, it should not be a barrier," he says of the limitations. "In this country, you can be an actress at 9 or 10 years old. I understand if you play them too soon you could get them injured, but it's the right of the family."

Although one teenager currently is in the top-10 — 19-year-old Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark — and six populate the top 100, officials acknowledge the demographics of championship tennis have shifted.

"Ten years of data is pretty consistent," Allaster says of the 2004 study, "but we're in a new year with a bit of a change."