Do you remember the 2006 US Open women's final?
Maria Sharapova's masterly all round performance. Her famous little black dress. It was also Justine Henin's third Grand Slam final loss that year after making it to the last stage of all four majors. Looking back, the match has also become a landmark for a different reason. In these nine years, since Sharapova held aloft the US Open trophy as a 19 year old, no other teenager has emerged as a Grand Slam winner in women's tennis.
You only need to look at the other tennis majors to realise that the slow disappearance of leading women's players under the age of 20 from the highest stage has been happening for a while. The last teenager to win the women's title at Wimbledon was Maria Sharapova in 2004 when she first burst on the scene as a precocious 17 year old. For the Australian Open you've to go back to 1999 when Martina Hingis won the third and last of her titles at Melbourne Park at 18, while for the French Open you'd have to go to Iva Majoli's win in 1997. This long drought at Roland Garros is in stark contrast to the period from 1987 to 1992, when the French Open women's singles title was won six consecutive times by teenagers. Serena Williams' sheer dominance over the last few years aside, the median age of Grand Slam winners in women's tennis has stayed well north of 25 years for the past decade.
" It was the success and popularity [of young virtuosos] that played a key role in the overall growth of prize money and endorsements for women's tennis players."
Moreover, no teenager has held the world's number one year-end ranking since Martina Hingis in 1999, though Caroline Wozniacki did manage the feat as a 20-year-old in 2010. As per the October 12th, 2015 WTA rankings, the youngest player in the women's top-10 list is the fourth ranked 22-year-old Spaniard Garbiñe Muguruza. The closest a teenager is to getting a place in the top 10 is the 18-year-old Swiss Belinda Bencic who's currently ranked 13th, and, interestingly, is coached by Martina Hingis's mother, Melanie Molitor.
What's the big deal you might say? Don't all sports go through phases of dominance by certain players leading to others losing out on bigger successes? The men's side in tennis would be a case in point with 34 of the last 40 tennis majors having been won by just three men, two of whom are reaching 30 while the third one is enjoying his best run in years at 34. In retrospect, the 80s were a more fertile ground for young male players with as many as four teenagers winning Grand Slam titles -- 17-year-old Mats Wilander at the 1982 French Open, 19-year-old Stefan Edberg at the 1985 Australian Open, 17-year-old Boris Becker at the 1985 Wimbledon and another 17-year-old Michael Chang at the 1989 French Open. Since then, teenage major winners in men's tennis have been far rarer -- the last one was a 19-year-old Rafael Nadal in the 2005 French Open, only the second teenager to lift a Grand Slam trophy since another 19-year-old, Pete Sampras, won the 1990 US Open.
Here are certain factors that have impacted professional tennis in general and women's tennis in particular in the last two decades leading to dearth of younger players at the highest level:
The game has become more physical
New equipment technology has made tennis increasingly "power driven and concussive". This shift is quite visible in women's tennis, which is now more physical than ever with grinding baseline play replacing the deft serve and volley game. Teenage players, in addition to not being fully grown, lack the power and muscle required for succeeding against this style of play.
Competition is more intense
Tennis is arguably the most financially lucrative sport for female athletes with four of the top five spots in the 2015 Forbes list of richest female athletes held by tennis players. Combine this with the improved fitness levels of top players and new entrants are up against a progressively deeper pool of talent.
The financial cost for competing on the tour is high
While tennis rewards its top players with substantial prize money and attractive endorsements, for a new player the cost of competing on the tour can be prohibitive once you factor in expenses associated with travelling and lodging with a coach, trainer and any other family or support staff. The changed nature of the game in conjunction with a longer "break even" financial cycle leads to some talented younger players to reconsider playing professionally.
"Maybe, for women's tennis, 25 is the new 18."
"Age eligibility rule" limits the number of events for teenage players
One factor that has specifically impacted the women's game from an age perspective is the "age-eligibility rule". In 1995 the WTA implemented its age eligibility rule governing the number of professional tennis tournaments a player could participate in depending on her age. While some reviews and modifications have been made to the rule over time, the basics have remained intact. As per the 2015 WTA official rulebook, 14-year-old players are limited to eight professional tournaments in a year plus Fed Cup matches. A 15-year-old player can enter 10 professional tournaments along with the WTA season-ending finals (if she qualifies for it) plus Fed Cup matches. The pattern continues with the maximum number of professional tournaments increasing to 12 for a 16-year-old player and 16 for a 17-year-old player. High-performing players between the ages of 15 to 17 can also earn up to four "merited increases per birth year", which lets them compete in more events if they fulfill their player development requirements. The limit is lifted once a player turns 18.
So, where does this leave us?
The "aging" of men's tennis hasn't had any adverse impact on the game and most pundits generally agree that this is a golden period in the men's game.
Women's tennis has thrived in the past decades on the appeal of young virtuosos like Tracy Austin, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Jennifer Capriati and Martina Hingis. It was their success and popularity that played a key role in the overall growth of prize money and endorsements for women's tennis players. In my opinion, for the sport to become bereft of this prodigiousness is not only unwelcome but could also prove to be a threat to the overall popularity of the women's game.
That said, while the age eligibility rule and other factors have curbed the emergence of teenage prodigies in women's tennis, they've had a positive impact on players themselves with occurrences of burnout and early retirement having reduced in the last two decades. Moreover, with players being more mentally and psychologically prepared to deal with the pressures of professional sport, unbecoming incidents like those associated with Jennifer Capriati during the first phase of her career have become rare.
The new tennis season is almost here and while we might see a change of guard at the top it is highly unlikely that there will be a teenager winning a woman's Grand Slam title. Maybe, for women's tennis, 25 is the new 18.
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