WTA Finals 2016

Teen slam winner unlikely: Ex-greats

All smiles high up at the observatory deck of the Marina Bay Sands SkyPark are (from left) Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Mary Pierce, Monica Seles, Iva Majoli and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario. The former Grand Slam champions are in town for the WTA Fi
All smiles high up at the observatory deck of the Marina Bay Sands SkyPark are (from left) Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Mary Pierce, Monica Seles, Iva Majoli and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario. The former Grand Slam champions are in town for the WTA Finals.PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

U-18 age restrictions and more physical game mean players need time to develop, they say

More fleet-footed fresh faces are finding their way to the top of the professional women's tennis world, but several former greats believe the sport is unlikely to see another teenager reach the heights of a Grand Slam title.

To them, the earth beneath has moved, and scaling the peaks of the sport is a feat that now has different demands.

Half of this year's singles field at the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global were born after 1990 - Simona Halep (1991), Karolina Pliskova (1992), Garbine Muguruza (1993) and Madison Keys (1995).

Among them, only 23-year-old Muguruza is a Grand Slam singles winner, after her triumph at Roland Garros earlier this year. The last teenager to win a Grand Slam was Svetlana Kuznetsova, who won the 2004 US Open at age 19.

Said retired four-time Grand Slam singles champion Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, who won her first major singles crown at Roland Garros in 1989 at age 17: "The younger players will win a bit later and it's different from when we were playing.

"We started younger, we retired younger. And now they are young, but they play a longer period as well."

  • TEEN RECORDS

    GRAND SLAM TITLE

    Last teen winner

    Svetlana Kuznetsova
    (2004 US Open, age 19)

    Youngest teen winner

    Martina Hingis
    (1997 Australian Open, age 16)

    TOP OF WORLD RANKINGS

    Last teen who became world No. 1 for the first time

    Maria Sharapova (2005, age 18)

The legendary Martina Navratilova, who won the first of her 18 Grand Slam singles titles at Wimbledon in 1978 when she was 22, believes there are two reasons it is unlikely that tennis will see another teenage Grand Slam winner: the physicality of the game today, and the WTA age eligibility rules, which only allow players aged 18 and above to play unlimited professional tournaments.

Said Navratilova: "The game is harder and everybody's hitting the ball harder, so you have to really be physically developed to be able to compete.

"The (age eligibility) rules work pretty well because the problem was that parents wanted their kid to be ready for the tour at 14, and it's not possible. And kids were getting burned out emotionally and physically.

"It really shouldn't matter whether you win your first Slam at 18 or 21 as long as you have 10 great years on the tour - that's the biggest thing and you'll have a better chance of having that if you delay the progression a little."

Nine-time Grand Slam champion Monica Seles, who won her first Slam at the 1990 French Open at age 16, said she would have opted to enter the WTA Tour slightly later if she could start over.

The 42-year-old, who played her last competitive tennis match in 2003 before retiring officially in 2008, added that one benefit of entering the tour later was the advantage of having the maturity to deal with the off-court aspects of the game.

"After the age of 25 or 26 you probably know yourself better as a person than when you were 22, so you know how to handle more of the off-court stuff - the wins, the loss and the social media part of the game," she said.

"My opinion is that you will see players stay longer in the game, also the prize money has gotten so big that if you are healthy, there's no reason you don't keep on playing.

"The players are now able to travel with physiotherapists and trainers, which all adds to the longevity of the players."

The advantage of having more experience certainly seems to be the case for 28-year-old world No. 1 Angelique Kerber, who is enjoying her best season so far. The German won her first two major titles this year at the Australian Open and French Open, and became the oldest woman to reach No. 1 for the first time.

Speaking to The Straits Times last week, she said: "I have a lot of experience and I know how it is to have ups and downs, and right now I can enjoy it more than maybe if I were 18.

"I know what to expect, I know the process and this is what I actually prefer - to be No. 1 at 28, not 18."

• Additional reporting by May Chen

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 28, 2016, with the headline 'Teen slam winner unlikely: Ex-greats'. Print Edition | Subscribe