August 1, 2010

The Teenybopper

While most of us American tennis fans turned our focus to the series of tournaments leading up to the U.S. Open this week, there's still a bunch of action going on in Europe, and this week the world's top-ranked teenaged tennis player made us all aware that she's still one to beat out on the courts.

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova began making a name for herself at the end of last year when she beat Venus Williams in back-to-back tournaments, once as a qualifier in Tokyo. This year she made her first Tour championship in Monterrey, winning two matches on that final Sunday to claim the crown. Earlier today she won her second trophy, rallying from a set and two breaks down to beat compatriot Elena Vesnina for the Istanbul title. Now ranked twenty-ninth in the world at just nineteen years of age, Pavlyuchenkova is easily the youngest woman in the top thirty and she seems like she's only going to get better from here.

It's funny when you think of it, that there are so few teens in the top echelons of tennis these days. I remember being somewhat shocked about all the hype around Melanie Oudin received during her run at the U.S. Open last year -- then seventeen years old, she was almost a full year older than Maria Sharapova when she won Wimbledon in 2004 and two years senior to Martina Hingis who won the Australian at just sixteen.

It's no question that the game has changed from even those relatively recent days. There are certainly some young standouts -- Caroline Wozniacki is just out of teen territory and Victoria Azarenka, whose impressive performance in Stanford today won her a fourth career title, took her first three when she was still nineteen. But by and large its the veterans -- Serena and Venus Williams, Kim Clijsters, Sam Stosur -- who are really dominating. It could be the age limits, restricting the number of tournaments a Pro plays until she turns eighteen, or it could be that the established players are so strong that "kids" can no longer keep up with them like they could just fifteen years ago.

But the Juniors circuit certainly provides some clues as to who might be a future star. Pavlyuchenkova won three Major girls' titles in 2006 and 2007. More recently, players like Laura Robson and Sloane Stephens are beginning to make strides in the main draws of tournaments after already making names for themselves in the ITF events. Some go off to great things -- Azarenka and Wozniacki were also Junior champions just a few years ago -- some you might not hear of again -- anyone remember Angelique Widjaja who won Roland Garros and Wimbledon in her day?

And if Pavlyuchenkova's performance on Tour so far is any indication, she could be one that comes out on top. With plenty of years left in her career, she's certainly already established herself as a contender, and today's come-from-behind victory just confirms that fact.

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