Teenage Kicks Down Under
Published January 19, 2013 09:50
MELBOURNE, Australia - While Day 6 at the Australian Open saw defending champion Victoria Azarenka and 15-time major winner Serena Williams in action, arguably the most anticipated match was one featuring two teenagers making their third round debuts.
Sloane Stephens and Laura Robson may lack the experience - and silverware - of the aforementioned duo, but over the past 12 months or so both have accumulated their fair share of wins, not to mention column inches.
At 18, Robson was the youngest player left in the draw and with Stephens just 10 months older, their third round meeting was viewed by many as a clash between the two brightest talents among the WTA's next wave of stars.
The two had already met once this year - Stephens winning a tight two-setter in Hobart - and no sooner had Robson stepped off court after her rollercoaster second round win over Petra Kvitova than much of the talk around the Melbourne Park media center and beyond turned to the rematch.
Stephens has already garnered many a glowing review, including the endorsement of a compatriot who knows a thing or two about making it to the top.
"I think she's a great player and I always have," Williams said after her recent win over Stephens in Brisbane. "She's showing so much growth and improving so fast, coming on in leaps and bounds. I think she can be World No.1, I really do. I wish the best for her and I hope she can achieve that one day."
On Saturday, she looked every inch the future No.1, roaring out of the blocks before withstanding a Robson fightback to subdue the partisan crowd and run out a 75 63 winner.
And her effusive praise for her opponent after the match suggests that her poise on the court is mirrored off it.
"Laura and I are good friends," Stephens said after the match. "She's obviously a good player and I can feel we're going to have a rivalry like Federer and Nadal!
"She can be awesome. She has unbelievable timing, is an awesome girl, she's pretty. I mean, what more do you want?"
Stephens and Robson are members of a growing band of talented youngsters making their mark on the WTA; there are currently six teenagers in the Top 100 - with plenty more lurking on the edge - and 11 made it through to the second round at Melbourne Park - compared with three in 2012.
Could one of these go all the way to major glory in the not too distant future? Williams, who won the US Open as a 17-year-old in 1999, certainly believes so.
"I think it will happen again, probably soon," Serena said of the possibility of a teenager winning a Slam after her second round with 19-year-old Garbiñe Muguruza. "If they're strong physically and mentally, I think it's completely possible."
It has been over six years since Maria Sharapova won the US Open at 19 - the last under-20 to go all the way at a major - and since then only two teenagers - Ana Ivanovic and Caroline Wozniacki - have contested finals.
If Stephens is to buck the trend, the clock is ticking - she turns 20 in March - but there are a number of others with time on their side; Donna Vekic, 16, Madison Keys, 17, and the 18-year-old trio of Annika Beck, Yulia Putintseva and Daria Gavrilova all did their reputations no harm in the past week and have already impressed some of their more seasoned rivals.
Keys, in particular, has earmarked herself as one to watch, reaching the quarterfinals in Sydney and then the third round in Melbourne. Both times it took one of the WTA's elite to stop her - Li Na in Sydney and Angelique Kerber on Friday - and her athletic build, big serve and point-ending groundstrokes could see her joining them in the Top 10 before long.
"At the beginning of the match, I was shocked," Li confessed after her three set win over Keys in Sydney. "She has a huge serve and I was waiting a little bit in the back. In the second set I tried to play more aggressive and I was happy to come away with the match, it was a tough match.
"If she plays like this every match she will soon be in the Top 20, Top 15 and then Top 10."