Thursday, December 21, 2006

#7: Is North America the New Hotbed of Tennis?

Well, let's not put the cart about twenty lengths ahead of the horse. But, at the very least, it should be noted that after all the talk of a revolution in Russia, and then a Chinese challenge, that one of the more under-reported stories of the '06 season was the distinct hint of what appeared to be a slight resurgence of young female tennis talent in North America.

For decades, it seemed like it was an American birthright for a tennis fan to have a handful (and sometimes two) of women at or near the top of the WTA rankings. So much so that there was often little inherent national pride in the fact that U.S.-born women were amongst the best players in the world. It was supposed to be that way, so why make a big deal about it?

That so-called "metaphysical certitude" is no longer.

The throwing off of the shackles of Communism and Soviet influence in the late '80s freed up the little girl athletic and lifestyle dreams to become reality in places where before they were largely fantasies. Anna Kournikova became a role model, and destroyed the myth of what a female athlete was supposed to look like. In her wake, from Russia and beyond, wave after wave of Eastern European (and later, Asian... especially after Beijing was awarded the '08 Olympics) girls have grown up believing that they could indeed follow in Kournikova's footsteps... and create new -- and bigger -- ones of their own.

Even with the rise in participation and popularity of female athletics in the U.S. over the past 10-15 years, the same rising tide that has made women's team sports (basketball, soccer & even softball) marketable entities in America somehow failed to raise tennis' boat in the States. Blame the rise of Tiger Woods (golf blitzkrieged tennis as soon as he won the Masters in '97), ESPN (which tried to gobble up all the top events to feed the network's "ego," only to badly mistreat the sport and turn it into niche programming that gets bumped off the air for softball and spelling bees), sports programming directors (only showing established Americans, even while the top U.S. stars aged and became less relevant), the USTA (which was content for far too long to let Nick Bollettieri do the hard work of finding and grooming new stars, while it was busy building new and bigger stadiums in Flushing Meadows) or whichever pseudo-organization you want for it, but the fact is that the long-delayed period of transition for women's tennis in the U.S. was finally recognized in the middle of the 2000's.

Thanks to the Williams sisters, plus Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati (both of whom managed to hang onto their top tier status into their late 20's), the inevitable American downturn was put off and ignored for quite a while longer than it rightly should have been. Then, when it did arrive, it did so just as Lindsay Davenport was finishing the '05 season at #1 and Venus & Serena were pulling their games out of mothballs long enough to both claim slam titles in the same calendar year for the first time since they broke onto the scene.

The irony of it all.

Behind the big four American stars, there was NOTHING waiting in the wings. Zero. Zilch. The best player was Meghann Shaughnessy, and she reached her career high five long years ago. The "Lost Generation" was personified by the plight of one Ashley Harkleroad, a talented and gritty young player who'd been pushed into the spotlight before she was ready (and primped up on court as if she was Kournikova's slutty little sister). She couldn't handle being the "next American star," and after topping out at #39 in 2003 her results took a dive, she stressed out, and her career nearly went down the drain.

So much was riding on Harkleroad, that the dearth of talent became even more apparent once she was (temporarily) removed from the discussion. A perusal of the current rankings tells you that the top-ranked American is Davenport at #25... and she's pregnant and seems unlikely to ever play again, judging from her comments last week. Capriati hasn't played since 2004, as she's battled against a shoulder injury and multiple surgeries. The Williamses barely had cameo roles in their own careers in '06, and have spent more time IN court than ON court in recent months.

Still, the sisters carry the American banner as the U.S.'s only slam champion hopes, and will continue to do so the rest of this decade. Meanwhile, the highest-profile tennis player, both on and off court, in the U.S. was born in Siberia.

A year ago, it would have been a stretch to think that there would be any new ripples in the American tennis waters as the '07 season approached, even while realizing that "tennis brigades" often come in bunches (such as the Sampras-Agassi-Courier generation that emerged from nowhere just as the death of MEN'S tennis in the U.S. was being bemoaned in the late '80s) as one player's victories spur on others to greater success (as happened when Anastasia Myskina's '04 Roland Garros win led to Russians winning the final two slams that year). The U.S. junior girls didn't look to include a Michael Chang (who was the first of that group of Americans to win a slam, at RG in '89) to kick start the rest... but then something changed over the course of last season that made one at least withhold judgment that ALL hope was gone.

For one, the USTA actually stirred. Moving the Player Development Program headquarters to the Evert Academy in Boca Raton was something that probably should have occurred a decade earlier, but it was better late than never. Bollettieri's set up had made fine work of producing talent, but it wasn't his job to find AMERICAN kids... and thus most of the girls who emerged from Bradenton were of the 'ova variety (Sharapova, Vaidisova) and the like. Starting this coming fall, as many as twenty juniors aged 14-18 will be housed in a dormitory-style residential training facility much like the type used to foster tennis talent around the world. It may take a while, but the effort will eventually bear fruit.

Call it symbiosis or pure luck, but almost as if on cue, new American names began to appear in the headlines in '06. Jamea Jackson led the U.S. Fed Cup team to an upset win over Germany, then defeated Sharapova on grass in Birmingham. Shenay Perry reached the Wimbledon Round of 16. Lauren Albanese won a U.S. Open 1st Round match, then reached the Girls SF. Chelsey Gullickson and Julia Cohen (currently the #7-ranked junior) showed promise. Bethanie Mattek got attention for her (lack of?) fashion sense, and then her tennis with a QF in Los Angeles (and who can't root for a lady who lists Brett Favre, Starbucks coffee and Krispy Kreme donuts as her "likes" in her WTA bio?). Even Harkleroad, now 21 and married to fellow player Alex Bogomolov, started to turn around her career, winning an ITF title and returning to the Top 100. Then, just last week, 16-year old Madison Brengle, a semifinalist at the most recent Orange Bowl junior event, won the U.S.'s wild card playoff for the Australian Open.

But is there a Chang in the bunch? Well, there was one player who made a big leap, and another that appears ready to resume her upward climb.

Vania King, 17, quietly climbed the ranks in 2006. She was never much of a force on the junior circuit, which she admits to having not particularly enjoyed playing. So far, the big tour has been more to her liking. In Week 7 in Bangalore, she reached her first WTA SF. By Week 11, she was ranked in the Top 100. She upset Alicia Molik in the 1st Round of the U.S. Open, then won her first career WTA title a little over a month later, sweeping the singles and doubles in Bangkok (defeating the likes of Molik, Safarova, Kostanic, Tanasugarn and Shaughnessy in succession) just three months after having officially turned professional. She was the first American 17-year old to win a tour singles crown since Serena Williams won the U.S. Open in 1999. By the end of her season, King was in the Top 50 and pushing Jelena Jankovic to a 6-4 3rd set in Quebec City. She lost that one, but it and the whole of her surprising '06 campaign was a shot across the bow of the rest of the American teenagers. King finally breathed some life in the next generation of American female players, but will her accomplishments, like Chang's, prove to be a clarion call to others who might be capable of accomplishing even more?

Alexa Glatch might be the player to watch to find out. While King is but 5-feet-5, the lanky "Cali Girl" Glatch, 17, is 6-feet tall, has room to grow, and says her favorite shot is the serve. Once the "most favored junior," Glatch suffered a setback in November '05 after breaking a bone in a scooter accident just months after having reached the U.S. Open Girls final. She finally returned to her promising early form in July, winning her first career ITF crown. Maybe she, not King, will end up being the star of this generation of American teens.

The USTA needs just one girl, any one, to hold up as proof that big-time tennis need not be virtually extinct outside of the Williams clan in the U.S.... and the search to find her in officially on.

Meanwhile, a little farther north, Canada is suddenly the home of two of the more promising young players on the horizon. Other than the nation's tenuous (and not very long-lasting) ties to Mary Pierce, the last Canadian female to make much of a dent in the rankings was former Top 10er Carling Bassett in the early 1980s. In 2006, Stephanie Dubois was the beneficiary of Kim Clijsters' misbegotten decision to play through a wrist injury in Montreal (the Belgian ultimately retired from the match), but she backed up her ranking spike after that win with a $50K ITF title in November. Dubois might come up with more surprises yet, but it's Aleksandra Wozniak and Sharon Fichman who are ready to elbow each other for position in the Canadian spotlight.

Wozniak, 19, is easily the most promising prospect since Bassett. Having reached the Girls Australian Open SF and Wimbledon Girls QF in '05, she rose into the Top 100 (her website touts her as the highest-ranked player ever from Quebec) and reached a tour QF back home in Quebec City late in the year. Fichman, barely 16, reached the Girls QF of both the Australian and U.S. in '06, and won both Oz & RG doubles titles with Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. She's currently the #5-ranked junior in the world.

==age 21 and under==
#45 Jamea Jackson, 20 (USA)
#60 Vania King, 17 (USA)
#86 Ashley Harkleroad, 21 (USA)
#93 Aleksandra Wozniak, 19 (CAN)
#121 Stephanie Dubois, 20 (CAN)
#126 Bethanie Mattek, 21 (USA)
#139 Ahsha Rolle, 21 (USA)
#186 Carly Gullickson, 20 (USA)
#197 Jessica Kirkland, 19 (USA)
#222 Neha Uberoi, 20 (USA)
#227 Valerie Tetrault, 18 (CAN)
#233 Sunitha Rao, 21 (USA)
#306 Lauren Albanese, 17 (USA)
#363 Mary Gambale, 18 (USA)
#372 Julia Cohen, 17 (USA)
#382 Ashley Weinhold, 17 (USA)
#403 Ekaterina Shulaeva, 19 (CAN)
#437 Heidi El Tabakh, 20 (CAN)
#454 Sharon Fichman, 16 (CAN)
#496 Ellah Nze, 18 (USA)
#498 Madison Brengle, 16 (USA)

At the moment, there aren't any young North Americans that could be dubbed future slam contenders, but there's something to be said for filling out the field and the rankings in between all the Russians and eastern Europeans. It's a step by step process, and at least now the first baby ones are being taken. North America, and especially the U.S., shouldn't find itself in this position in 2006, where tennis is still the most lucrative of all the women's sports in the world, but the road back has to start somewhere.

Maybe it already has with King in America, while Wozniak and Fichman might be set to build a foundation for greater success in Canada.

The WTA Top 20 won't soon be loaded with teeny-bopper Americanas or Canucks, but the talent pool is active with life once again, and success like King's (and, soon, maybe Wozniak's) is inevitably contagious. North America isn't the new hotbed of tennis... but it is lukewarm, and that's saying something after that seven year drought without a 17-year old champion after Serena's U.S. Open breakout (not to mention the 20-year absence of a Canadian near the top of the rankings). The aim may now be lower, but it need not be any less accurate. This isn't the time to reload, but to rearm, while everyone waits for a "star" to emerge.

Eventually, she will. She always has... and, birthright or not, she will again. One day.

PREDICTION DART BOARD: King will win two smallish tour titles this season, while Jackson and Wozniak will win their first career WTA crowns. Meanwhile, Fichman and Brengle will claim their first ITF titles.

All for now.


UP NEXT: ...and the "little babes" shall inherit the earth?



Blogger Zidane said...

Just a comment, you forgot in your list of top-ranked North Americans Marie-Ève Pelletier, at #226, who upset Na Li in Montréal (and then lost a three-setter to Nicole Pratt). Plus, Dubois is ranked #121, not #171!

If you wonder why Wozniak precises she is the best-ranked player from Québec, there are two reasons. First, presently the best Canadian tennis players are from the province of Québec (Wosniak, Dubois, Pelletier, Tétreault). Second, Quebekers are nationalist, their grant more importance to what happens in Québec than elsewhere in the country.

The problem in Canadian tennis is that there is absolutely no tennis academy of any kind. Tennis players have to prove themselves by their own means, which makes it difficult to develop their talent.

Fri Dec 22, 05:21:00 PM EST  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

I'll do these in order:

1) I didn't forget Pelletier. She was born in 1982, so she's 24. The list was of players aged 21 and under.

2) Good catch on Dubois. Thanks. I thought that was a bit lower than she'd been ranked a few weeks ago, but that was how I'd written it down yesterday. I've really got to stop making my 7's look like 2's, and my 2's look like 7's. That's not the first time I've made that mistake in reading my own writing. :(

3) Yeah, I know about the Quebec nationalist thing (I mean, Pierre Cantin is from Montreal, after all, so I've heard it all... haha, just kidding). I actually did a big report in college about Canada entitled "Two Nations Living Under a Single Flag" (or something like that -- it was a quote from someone 150 years ago or something). I didn't wonder why she said it, it just kind of caught my eye on her site so I included it. :)

4) Could some of the better players have been able to easily come to academies in the U.S. if they'd been good enough? Maybe it's not been financially feasible, though. Bassett, of course, was helped out by the fact that her father was absolutely loaded (with money, not booze, of course). Maybe the development of the current young talent will ultimately lead to a call for more institutional help such as what the USTA is doing with the Evert Academy.

Fri Dec 22, 06:47:00 PM EST  
Blogger said...

Ashley and Alex are divorced by the way. Ashley has a new coach, again, Chuck Adams. Maybe he can help her out. No one has helped her as much as Clerc. The coach before Adams did help her get her serve up over 100 MPH. It did help her some. She has good foot speed and a better serve but she doesn't seem to manage the match very well. When she was younger she was much better at managing matches. The other quirky thing about Ashley, she beats higher ranked players then turns around the next day a loses a match to a player that has no business beating her.

Look for Melanie Oden out of Marietta Ga. to be the next big thing from the USA. She's on her way, just how good she will be at the next level remains to be seen.

Tue Dec 26, 05:48:00 PM EST  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Ah, the world never stops turning for the old "American Anna," does it? :)

Wed Dec 27, 03:25:00 AM EST  

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