June 27, 2014

The Rising Class

Remember the days when we used to marvel at how young tennis champions were?

Well these days, they seem to get older and older -- Serena Williams has won four Majors since turning thirty, David Ferrer made his first Slam championship at thirty-one, last year's U.S. Open semifinalists had a combined age of a hundred and seven.

But this year we've finally started to see the next generation step up to the plate -- whether it was Grigor Dimitrov finally reaching the second week of a Major, Genie Bouchard shocking her way to two consecutive semis or Simona Halep finishing runner-up at the French, there have been more than a couple new faces hanging around the final rounds, and many of them are bringing down the average age of the field. And this week in particular, we've seen even more young players give us a taste of what the future of tennis will look like.

Andrey Kuznetsov is a little older than the rest of this bunch, but the 2009 Juniors champ at Wimbledon hasn't yet made a real splash on the big boys' Tour. Ranked well out of the top hundred, he hadn't qualified for an ATP-level event since Barcelona, but he did beat veteran star Radek Stepanek at a Czech Challenger event in April. And this week at the All England Club he notched his first career win over a top ten player, trading sets with David Ferrer before closing him out 6-2 in the fifth. He lost earlier today to Leonardo Mayer, though, but having now scored his best Slam performance to date, he might have the confidence he needs to do even better down the road.

Still alive is Jiri Vesely, who's been on my radar for a while this year. He won his first match at a Major last month in Paris, but the 2011 Juniors champion in Melbourne looks even better on the lawns of the London, despite having no pro record on the surface before this week. Just a shade off his highest career ranking at #68 in the world, the twenty year old Czech survived a five set battle with former top ten player Gael Monfils in his second round, by far the biggest win of his career. And if he recovers in time there's no reason he can't go further.

He'll actually face another young standout next -- Australian teenager Nick Kyrgios, who won the Boys' Aussie crown just last year. This past January he won just his third match on the ATP Tour, beating last week's Den Bosch finalist Benjamin Becker in his Melbourne opener, and then pushed twenty-seventh seed Benoit Paire to the limit in their late-night second round. He's been tested in London too -- the Wimbledon wildcard needed more than three tiebreaks against Stephane Robert on Tuesday and came back from two sets down to take out Eastbourne runner-up Richard Gasquet a match later. With almost six and a half hours on court already, he might not have much more gas this fortnight, but prospects sure look good for what he can do going forward.

A couple young ladies have also been rising to the occasion this week. Nineteen year old Madison Keys is riding a seven match win streak going into her third round, having defeated Jelena Jankovic and Angelique Kerber on the way to her maiden title in Eastbourne last week. So far at the All England Club, she avenged a loss to eventual Strasbourg champ Monica Puig in her opener and then took out low seed Klara Koukalova to match her performance here last year. And while there will be plenty of challenges ahead, the now #30 player in the world should stand a good chance against Yaroslava Shvedova in tomorrow's match and could very well ride that momentum even longer.

The same applies to last year's Wimbledon Girls' champion Belinda Bencic, who'd shown promise on the adult Tour before hitting the lawns this week. The seventeen year old, the youngest player in the top hundred, beat Kimiko Date-Krumm, the oldest, in her Australian Open first round and then notched wins over Maria Kirilenko and Sara Errani on her way to the Charleston semis. So far in London she survived a tough test from dark horse Magdalena Rybarikova and earlier today finished off her second round with a win over fellow young gun Victoria Duval. She's going to be challenged even more from here -- her next opponent, French Open runner-up Simona Halep, a rising star herself, is 15-2 at her last three Majors. But something tells me the young Swiss is going to put up a fight.

Perhaps, though, the biggest surprise of the tournament so far has been little-known Tereza Smitkova, ranked just #175 in the world. The young Czech qualified for her first Major main draw at Wimbledon and then beat doubles #1 Su-Wei Hsieh and 's-Hertogenbosch champ Coco Vandeweghe in quick succession. In a nearly three hour match today -- the decider took almost a hundred minutes -- she came back after losing the first set to Bojana Jovanovski, who'd already ousted two-time Slam titleist Victoria Azarenka Wednesday, to become the by far biggest Cinderella left in the bottom half of the draw. And though she'll only face her first seed in the fourth round, #22 Lucie Safarova, she might just be able to prove her luck's not about to run out.

Of course the trick for all these players will be to repeat their success not only in the later rounds, but later in the season and even after that. It's always a shame to see Cinderellas' momentum fizzle out as they fail to repeat past success. But most of these guys and gals have been building up some strong resumes all this year, and the others, hopefully they can do the same.

After all, it won't be long before it's their time to take over the reins in this sport. And they're going to want to lay the groundwork now.

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