By Blair Henley
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal opened with the words, “Women’s tennis is getting old.” And the author is right…sort of.
The chances of another Tracy Austin or Martina Hingis coming along are admittedly slim given the tremendous amount of physical strength needed to compete in today’s who-can-hit-it-harder game. But just because there aren’t any teenagers in the world’s top 30 doesn’t mean that women’s tennis has lost its youthful glow for good.
Think about it as a long winter. There’s always a point, usually in February or March, that you could swear the snow and sleet are going to last forever. It seems that women’s tennis has reached that point with its drought of young superstars, and its governing bodies and sponsors are sounding the alarm. Their concern is understandable given that phenoms generate revenue and interest, but they shouldn’t push the panic button just yet.
History suggests that when one model is phasing out, another will step up to take its place. It may take longer than we would like, but when Serena, Venus, Clijsters and Henin have reached the twilight of their careers, you can bet someone will be there to push them out the door.
Here’s why we shouldn’t completely give up hope of seeing a new teenage prodigy. With all the chatter about the physicality of the women’s game, there is also the inevitable talk of the death of tennis as an art form. The concept of “building a point” is as outdated as the iPhone 3G. If tennis truly has been reduced to mindless bashing from the baseline, shouldn’t we be seeing more young players, not less?
It’s doubtful that a 16-year-old will ever hold a Grand Slam trophy again (you can thank the WTA age rules for that), but many girls are physically mature by the time they hit 17 or 18. With the tactical side of the game becoming virtually nonexistent, it stands to reason that a younger, less experienced player would benefit from a “strategy-less” strategy. Hit it as hard as you can? My 6-year-old cousin can understand that.
Maria Sharapova is a perfect example. She was only 17 when she beat Serena Williams to take her first Grand Slam title in 2004. At that age she was every bit Serena’s equal in the height and strength department. Just because talent like hers doesn’t grow on trees doesn’t mean it will never come around again. Perhaps a little patience is in order.
One potential hindrance to a cyclical resurgence of younger players is the outrageous amount of media pressure budding stars face in today’s game (remember Melanie Oudin?). It’s not uncommon for coaches and parents to post practice videos of their tennis prodigies on YouTube and some even build websites for their pint-size players (google Alexus Jones). Parents are looking to rake in the sponsorship dollars before their kids even know what that means.
Another relatively recent development is the growth of women’s team sports like soccer, softball, basketball and lacrosse. With more college scholarships available thanks to Title IX, athletic talent is being siphoned away from tennis to the detriment of the women’s tour.
There’s no doubt a young tennis phenom with staying power is hard to find, but it’s not impossible. So while we’re waiting for the second coming of Maria Sharapova, it would be nice to see some entertaining personalities on the women’s tour other than Venus and Serena.
Think Francesca Schiavone. Her childlike excitement and humorous commentary throughout her 2010 French Open run made her win exponentially more enjoyable. Fans would be more patient waiting for the “next big thing” if there were a few more colorful characters out there. There’s no denying it– loose cannons (of any age) are fun to watch.