“…but how can someone be World Number 1 without winning a Grand Slam?” is the question I get asked plenty times when I bring up the topic of the WTA. And fair enough, for the past decade, it has been a bit of a joke, but that is changing. For a start, the WTA is taking measures to regulate the number one status of players and secondly, an increasing amount of young, rising stars is attracting some fresh optimism on the circuit too.
The chances of Women being number one in the world, without having won a Grand Slam are becoming less and less likely. Which is good for the sport as it will mean that Grand Slam winners will be rewarded more for their achievement. Premature retirements from leading players like Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters plus injuries for Serena and Venus Williams meant that young, new players were thrown in at the deep end. On one side, it was their chance to show us what they had. On the other side, it gave everyone false hope that they were mature enough to be number one.
Young players plunged into the limelight at such an early age have been another reason. Think of Ana Ivanovic, Caroline Wozniacki, Jelena Jankovic or Dinara Safina to name just a few. All of whom have either won a Slam or reached the final; have yet to follow up their early form, which means the media is all over them, making them a nervous wreck each time they step on the court. The media seemingly forgetting that these girls were/are between just 19 and 25 years old, potentially many years ahead of them. Why is there so much pressure to win so much?
But there are some real reasons to be optimistic in 2013. There are exceptional talents that have the potential to be Grand Slam winners. Here are some to look forward to:
Kristina Mladenovic – This young Frenchwomen has already proven that she can be the next Mary Pierce or Amelie Mauresmo by putting in some very impressive performances. Her Fed Cup run showed just how impressive the 20 year old can be. She has catapulted onto the scene and her first round Wimbledon match displayed composure, flair and power to boot as she pushed Maria Sharapova to the limit.
Her main asset is her serve, which (provided she gets a first one in) would be a match for anyone. Naturally, her forehand and point construction is second to none and shows a great understanding of the game. Unlike most French players, she is mentally strong and does not let things get on top of her. One obvious weakness is her second serve, which is lethargic and gives her opponent cheap points. Once sorted, she will no doubt be knocking at the door of the top 10.
Eugénie Bouchard – Last year’s Junior Wimbledon champion has been meeting and exceeding expectations this year and is getting better and better each tournament. Her semi final run in Strasbourg in the run up to Rolland Garros turned heads showing that she has the game on all surfaces.
A three set defeat to Alizé Cornet and an impressive victory over Tsvetana Pironkova, both seeded higher than the Canadian, ensured that the 19 year old is ready for the top flight. What Bouchard is very good at is point construction: she has powerful and accurate ground strokes and a deft drop shot in her arsenal. She seems unfazed by opponents and has shown remarkable poise and lack of respect (a good thing!) for far higher seeded players. Her only possible weakness is big match composure, although I don’t think it will faze her too much; already a finalist in two junior Wimbledon Grand Slams.
3. Jamie Hampton – The first of the American sensations has already been a finalist in a WTA tournament this year, proving her growing credentials. Reaching the final of the recent Aegon International in Eastbourne, the Alabama based Hampton beat former number one Caroline Wozniacki en route. Her play is refreshing and unique; using a blend of power and technique. Her creativity has made her a difficult player to read and her knowledge of the game is equally as impressive. Court positioning is one of her key strengths although her game can get scrappy and inconsistent in big pressure matches. At 23 years old, she has already spent three years on tour so has had enough to mature mentally. Her physical attitude will come on with experience and more big matches. She is no doubt a great talent in an ever growing pool of American talent.
4. Sloane Stephens – The most successful of all the up and coming stars, Stephens is the natural successor to Serena Williams. Having already defeated the world number one in Melbourne this year, the 20 year old from Florida has reached a career high ranking of 17 before Wimbledon. Reaching the semi finals of the Australian Open and the 4th round in Rolland Garros, the American is proving a match on all surfaces. A dangerous and exciting player, Stephens is prolific on her forehand side, giving her opponents very little opportunity to return. A strong two handed backhand gives her whip on her returns and her big match temperament is no longer in question thanks to her outstanding results. A big prospect for the future and another one pulled from the hat of magic that is American tennis.
The message to the WTA, the world media and the public is clear: let them mature and let them lose. At their age, it is the only way they will improve and the only way they will be able to win Slams.