A major critique of the current teen generation on the WTA Tour has been their inability to win big matches. Players like Azarenka, Wozniacki, Radwanska, Cornet, and Cibulkova have no problem racking up points by playing a full schedule and making a fairly deep run at each of their tournaments, but they crumble in the biggest late-round matches. Then it falls to veterans like the Williams sisters, Dementieva, Jankovic, and Zvonareva to actually take these titles. Over the last year, this trend has created a perception that the newest generation just is not good enough and that our current champions will not be unseated by a fresher crop.
At the Australian Open this year, it seemed as though the pattern would only continue. Teens were playing effectively, but all of the sudden Kleybanova runs into Dokic, Cornet chokes against Safina, Azarenka gets sick against Serena, and the Semifinals contain Safina, Zvonareva, Dementieva, and Serena. The old guard all over again. The Miami tournament seemed like it would only be more of the same, with Serena and Venus advancing deep in the event ready to ward off any brazen youthful challengers. Things did not go as expected, though, it was at that event that Victoria Azarenka made her statement that teens were ready to buck this trend. Certainly, the ease of Azarenka’s win over Serena can be somewhat attributed to Serena’s knee injury, but it nonetheless proves that she has both the talent and mental fortitude to win big titles.
From Miami to the green clay, where Caroline Wozniacki took up the mantle of impressive teen sensation while Azarenka took a rest to count her winnings and newfound celebrity. Wozniacki has been known for the past year as a player who will beat all the people ranked lower than her but cannot effectively break through against the top-10. Her win in Ponte Vedra Beach could be brushed off with this critique, as her highest ranked opponent was #29. This last week in Charleston brought a new set of accomplishments for Wozniacki as she cruised into the semifinals, where she went up against top seed Elena Dementieva. In the past, this is where Wozniacki would crumble. The Wozniacki of last year would lose this match in two competitive sets, but this week she overcame her own nerves and fought for a tight three set victory. Wozniacki made it one step further.
The only thing that could derail her celebration train was another plucky teen with even more to prove. Sabine Lisicki has not achieved the success of the other women in her age group. While they are on the verge of the top 10, Lisicki’s pro career so far has been marked with inconsistency. Her talent is undeniable, but she becomes plagued with unforced errors and has difficulty putting together successive wins. This week, spurred on largely by her upset victory over Venus Williams, Lisicki finally showed the impressive form she has been hiding from the world. With aggressive groundstrokes and enormous serve, she was able to oust a visibly exhausted Wozniacki in the Charleston final and score another victory for the teen contingent.
After more than a year of quarterfinal appearances and unfulfilled potential, the teens appear ready to make a serious move. With Azarenka, Wozniacki, and Lisicki suddenly playing career tennis and other emerging young players like Pavlyuchenkova and Kleybanova showing they can make a deep run here and there, the established veterans might finally have a serious challenge in front of them. This will be especially true with the equalizing power of the red clay waiting to receive the tour in the coming weeks. As the teens find their game, more and more players are being added to the list of potential challengers with every new event. This clouds the image of tour favorites, but it also ensures that this year’s French Open will be a sight to see.