Friday September 21st, 2012

Great Britain's Laura Robson, 18, has reached a WTA final for the first time. (Zumapress)

Clearing out the notebook on a day when another teenager scored a milestone victory.

1. Youth in revolt: It's been a banner month for the WTA Tour's teenagers. Last week in Uzbekistan, 16-year-old Croat Donna Vekic became the youngest WTA finalist in six years, putting her well within striking distance of being the youngest woman in the top 100 by the end of the year. Meanwhile, the woman who currently owns that distinction, 18-year-old Laura Robson, has followed up her breakthrough fourth-round run at the U.S. Open (where she upset Kim Clijsters and Li Na) by making her first career final this week, in Guangzhou, China. How long has it been since a British woman even reached a final? Well, Robson wasn't even born yet when Jo Durie played for the Newport title in 1990. If she defeats Taiwan's Hsieh Su-wei on Saturday, Robson would become the first Brit to win a WTA singles title since 1998 1988. That's no 76-year Ghost of Fred Perry, but it would mark the end of what has been a tremendous -- and not in a good way -- drought for British women's tennis.

Amid all the talk the last few years about players' success in their late 20s or 30s -- from the late bloom of Francesca Schiavone and Li to the continued dominance of Serena Williams -- the flip side has been the lingering questions about whether teenage phenoms would ever succeed like they did in the previous three decades. Only four teenagers are ranked in the top 100 -- Sloane Stephens (No. 37), Timea Babos (No. 60), Robson (No. 74) and Kristina Mladenovic (No. 95) -- and it's been six years since a teenager won a Slam. Maria Sharapova owns that distinction, winning the U.S. Open in 2006 at 19.

But is the concern over the lack of teenage champions misleading, if not slightly overblown? Since Sharapova's U.S. Open title, three teenagers have made major finals. Sharapova was mauled by Williams at the 2007 Australian Open; Ana Ivanovic got stage fright against Justine Henin at the French Open in 2007; and Caroline Wozniacki actually contested an all-teenage semifinal with Belgium's Yanina Wickmayer (cue Pam Shriver's astonished tone) before getting outclassed by Clijsters at the 2009 U.S. Open. Outside of the Slams, teenagers have won 11 titles since 2008, including victories for Wozniacki, Petra Kvitova, Agnieszka Radwanska and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Not a lot but more than you might expect given the cries of failure.

The discussion about the lack of teenage success seems to come consistently from a place of criticism and lament. Fans and pundits wonder, What's wrong with the kids these days? Is it the WTA's fault for instituting the age-eligibility rules that limit the number of tournaments a player can play before she turns 18? (Incidentally, often overlooked is the fact that underage players can earn merited increases of up to four tournaments per year if, to put it simply, they play well. That means a high-performing 16-year-old could play as many as 16 tournaments and a 17-year-old could play up to 20. That's a pretty full schedule at those ages.) Is there something wrong in the way young players are being taught and trained that leaves them unable to compete at the highest level? Or could it just be that the women's game has evolved to become more physically, mentally and emotionally taxing than it's ever been?

Today's women's game is a power game. Those who are gifted with touch and variety, aka the Radwanskas of the world, need experience to hone their craft. The likelihood of a Martina Hingis emerging anytime soon is difficult to imagine given the sheer athleticism and strength of the women today. It's no coincidence that the four teens in the top 100 are all either extremely gifted athletes (Stephens) or big ball strikers (Robson, Babos and Mladenovic). The ability to stand at the baseline and combat power with power is the currency upon which the women trade. For most young players, that power and, more important, that consistency takes time to develop. Let's give the kids that time.

2. Aussies feeling the pinch: The WTA is set to announce a new International-level tournament in Shenzhen, China, in 2013, and I can't think Tennis Australia will be too happy about it. The three week lead-up to the Australian Open would seem a prime time to bring tennis' high-profile names to the Aussie masses at tournaments like Brisbane, Sydney and Hobart. But with Tennis Australia already feeling the effects of the Hopman Cup exhibition in Perth, which is run at the same time as Brisbane and Auckland, it'll now also have to compete for players with another tournament, albeit a low-level one, in China. While Andy Murray, Williams and Sharapova have confirmed for Brisbane, Hopman Cup has already snared Novak Djokovic, Ivanovic, Venus Williams, John Isner and Bernard Tomic.

3. Retirements of a different sort: No, we're not talking Kim Clijsters- or Andy Roddick-style retirements here. Just your run-of-the-mill "goodness gracious, this season is long" retirements because of illness or injury. This week's tour events have had 12 retirements, including Marion Bartoli (gastrointestinal illness), Maria Kirilenko (back), and Marcel Granollers (abdominal). Captain Obvious tells me those numbers will keep rising as the season limps to a close. This year has been brutal.

4. Missing the missing: Gael Monfils made a welcome return this week in Metz, where he reached the semifinals on Friday after being off the tour since May with a knee injury. Meanwhile, Andrea Petkovic, who has fallen to No. 61 after a forgettable year of injuries, will continue her comeback next week in Tokyo. Regardless of results, these two are much-needed personalities on their respective tours and their absence has left a gaping hole both on the court (Monfils) and off it (Petkovic).

Let's take a moment to throw out some well wishes to three more players whom I'd love to see back at some point:

Alisa Kleybanova: Her inspiring return in Miami in March after a 10-month battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma was one of the feel-good stories of the year. Sadly, it's been radio silence from her since.

Robin Soderling: While Tomas Berdych has done his best giant-killing impersonation of Soderling these past two years, there's nothing like the original. The Swede's fearlessness, especially against the game's elite, was a breath of fresh air. General Sod loved to play the spoiler and the ATP Tour lost a whole lot of "KABOOM" when he fell ill with mono.

Svetlana Kuznetsova: Am I crazy to think Kuznetsova still has a Slam in her? Crazy as a Sveta, some might say. But the athletic Russian, who hasn't played since Wimbledon, is still hampered by a knee injury. While her game could range from mindless power and precision to sloppy ugly, Kuznetsova has always left her mark off the court. Kuznetsova is a true character. Her willingness to talk about anything and everything, combined with her merciless self-deprecation and keen self-awareness, has led to some of the funniest interview moments I've ever had.

5. I demand a recount: The debate over the greatest of all time is always a divisive one, with different people using different metrics with varied results. Which is why the results here of a Facebook poll between Roger Federer and Rod Laver are making me scratch my head. I can see valid arguments for each, which would leave me to believe the voting should be tight. As of this writing, the tally was as follows:

Federer: 994 votes

Laver: 41 votes Come on. Really?

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