Stars in the making
The WTA's future looks bright, though few Americans
Posted: Thursday October 11, 2007 11:08AM; Updated: Thursday October 11, 2007 11:08AM
MOSCOW -- Maria Sharapova suffered another tough defeat on Wednesday at the hands of one of the WTA Tour's crop of future stars, Victoria Azarenka, in her opening match here at the Kremlin Open. It was the two-time Slam champion's first match since her disappointing third-round loss at the U.S. Open.
Ironically, Sharapova's last loss was under similar circumstances, a defeat at the hands of a talented youngster with tremendous promise: Polish teenager Agnieszka Radwanska.
Azarenka, who hails from Belarus, earned her biggest result to date since winning the mixed doubles title at the U.S. Open with compatriot Max Mirnyi. She's one of a handful of dynamic young women who have surged in the rankings in the last year.
The WTA Tour is abuzz with excitement over these players' on-court talents and their off-court charisma. Along with Azarenka and Radwanska, there's also Israel's Shahar Peer, Hungary's Agnes Szavay, France's Tatiana Golovin, India's Sania Mirza and the Netherlands' Michaella Krajicek.
Radwanska had her breakthrough by winning in Stockholm, Sweden, earlier this summer. She reminds me of a young Martina Hingis -- while slight in stature, she maneuvers the ball around the court with great dominance and seemingly anticipates every shot off her opponent's racket.
Mirza has ignited a continent with her success. She is a cult figure in her native India, and can't walk down the street without a full security detail. She possesses one of the biggest forehands in the game, and is attractive and charming. She's also integral to growing the game in the Far East. Mirza posted her biggest result of the year by reaching the final in the WTA Tier-I event in Stanford, Calif., the first event in the hard-court U.S. Open Series.
Szavay is the first top-20 player hailing from Hungary since Andrea Temesvari. She also had an impressive summer, reaching the finals in New Haven, Conn., and backing it up with her first quarterfinal Grand Slam result at the U.S. Open.
Meanwhile, Golovin has the appeal of a movie star and the talent of a future champion. She won her first career title in Amelia Island, Fla., this year, and after some setbacks due to injuries, she has recently regained her form by reaching the finals in Stuttgart, Germany, last week before a tough three-set loss to Justine Henin.
Golovin hails from Russia and resides in France, but grew up alongside Sharapova at the Nick Bollittieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla. While she hasn't progressed with nearly the same flurry as Sharapova, she seems to have found her footing. She recently hired former world No. 1 Mats Wilander as her coach and, with tremendous marketability, is one big Grand Slam result away from being a star.
Krajicek has the best genes in this group of future stars. Her half brother is '96 Wimbledon champion Richard Krajicek, and you can see the resemblance in their fluid service motion. Michaella has an attacking game and a pure two-handed backhand. She needs to improve her movement and agility but will be very dangerous on faster surfaces like grass, where she reached the Wimbledon quarterfinals this year. Krajicek is also charismatic and bubbly, an ideal ambassador for the sport.
Of course, the one problem with this impressive list of future stars -- at least from my perspective -- is that there are no American women among them. Sadly, the best prospect of an American surging up the WTA rankings is recent mother Lindsay Davenport!
The highest-ranked U.S. prospect is Vania King at No. 81. And while she's a very solid, hard-working player, she has limited size and variety, and it's highly unlikely she'll fill the enormous gap left by the current American stars, like Venus and Serena Williams and Davenport.
Amazingly, the third-highest-ranked American woman is 29-year-old Meilen Tu at No. 45. My hat is off to Tu, with whom I grew up playing on the junior national team. But for a country spoiled by perennial Grand Slam champions, there is understandable and much-deserved concern circling the topic of women's tennis in America. For now, this influx of exciting young foreigners will hopefully raise the bar for our own youngsters.
Twelve-year ATP Tour veteran Justin Gimelstob writes for SI.com on alternate Fridays.