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Thursday, September 8, 2011
In the new era, teenage dreams deferred

By Viv Bernstein

NEW YORK -- Madison Keys, one of the young hopefuls in American women's tennis, made her U.S. Open debut this year and drew raves by reaching the second round. But by the time the business end of this tournament was underway, Keys was long gone from the main draw and into the junior tournament.

At 16, in her first Grand Slam draw, nobody thought she had a chance to challenge for the title. Including Keys.

"I just think that there's so much nerves, it's just a new experience for you," said Keys, who is no lock to win the junior tournament, either. "So, I mean, I think it would be great if you win it on your first try. But not many people win their first tournament they play."

Actually, a lot of teenagers have made their mark in their first Grand Slam tournaments. Chris Evert was 16 when she reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open in 1971 in her first Slam. Monica Seles was 15 when she made the French Open semifinals in 1989. A year later, Jennifer Capriati topped that by advancing to the French Open semis as a 14-year-old in her Grand Slam debut.

And teenagers have won plenty of titles over the years. Tracy Austin was 16 when she won the U.S. Open in 1979. Martina Hingis nearly captured all four Slams in 1997 when she was 16: She won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and lost in the final of the French Open. Serena Williams was 17 when she won the U.S. Open in 1999.

But good luck finding a teenager who could pull that off now. In the last decade, there has been a shift in women's tennis. In the 1990s, teenagers won 15 Grand Slams on the women's side. In the 2000s, that number dropped to three. In 2001, the average age of a Grand Slam finalist was just under 21. In 2010, it was up to 27. This year, through three Slams, it's 26.5.

Young is out. Experience is everything.

"The days of the prodigy are long gone," said Lisa Raymond, 38, a winner of nine doubles Grand Slam titles who is playing in the women's doubles quarterfinals with Liezel Huber here. "You're not going to see a Hingis or a Capriati or a Seles winning majors at that age -- ever again. The game is so much more physical now. The strings, the racket technology, the players are fitter -- it all adds up to a bigger game. Everything is bigger than it used to be."

The players are not only fitter, they're tougher mentally as well. And that also makes it harder for young players to break through to the upper echelon.

"I think it's a more demanding sport now and you just have to have more going your way, such as the mental aspect of the game which is experience, dealing with pressure," Evert said before the tournament. "And there's maturity."

Indeed, it takes time to develop physically and mentally. Francesca Schiavone was 30 when she won her first and only Grand Slam title at the 2010 French Open.

"Mentally, we have more experience and we can use, I think, much more our arms, talent, shot and tactic," Schiavone said earlier in the tournament here. "I think we put now all together. Physically you have to work every day if you want to be fit. Mentally, I think when you grow up you decide much more what you really want and how to go through. Someone can help you, but you know where you want to go. I think this is the difference between young and old."

There is also the controversial issue of opportunity. Former champions such as Martina Navratilova and Hingis have come out against rules implemented by the WTA in 1995 to limit the number of tournaments teenagers can play. Navratilova and others believe those limits are keeping young players from developing early.

Stacey Allaster, president of the WTA, disagrees.

"Statistically, there are just about the same number of 19- and 20-year-olds in the top 200 and the top 100 today as there were in the year 2000," Allaster responded in an email. "The Age Eligibility Rule was implemented in order to reduce the rate of premature retirements and extend player careers, and it has been very successful on both fronts, while not limiting mobility for younger players."

Then again, maybe it's not experience or limitations holding back a wave of young players. Maybe the wave doesn't exist. That's Pam Shriver's theory. Shriver was another young up-and-comer, reaching the U.S. Open final in 1978 when she was 16 before winning 21 Grand Slam doubles titles.

Shriver believes Serena and Venus Williams were the last great prospects to come along in women's tennis. The two have combined for 20 Slams. Since the sisters' arrival, other teenagers have won just three titles. Maria Sharapova captured Wimbledon at 17 in 2004 and Svetlana Kuznetsova was 19 when she won the U.S. Open later that year. In 2006, Sharapova won the U.S. Open at 19. That was five years ago -- the last time a teenager won a Grand Slam.

From 2000-05, the average age of Grand Slam finalists was 21. In the seven years that have followed, it is 24, as few young players have challenged for titles.

"I think actually we haven't had the superstar since Serena won here at 17," Shriver said. "Monica Seles was talked about for five or six years before she played a match. Steffi Graf was hyped -- everybody talked about how amazing she was. The Williams sisters, they talked about them when they were 10.

"I don't know of a 10-year-old we've talked about in the last 12 years. Now, it's kind of weird. Even though the age rule is in, all it does is limit the dose. It doesn't keep you from playing junior tennis or keep you from developing your game. I just think we've had a patch also in the world, we haven't had that phenom. And we were used to them coming along every five years."

The closest we've come to a young phenom in recent years is Caroline Wozniacki. She reached the U.S. Open final in 2009 when she was 19, losing to Kim Clijsters for the championship. Wozniacki has gone on to reach No. 1 in the rankings and has held that spot for 47 weeks, longer than all but eight players in modern history. But she has faced ever-increasing criticism for failing to win a Grand Slam or even make another final in that time.

Maybe all that criticism of Wozniacki isn't fair, after all. Maybe, at 21, she's just too young to be a champion.