Women’s tennis is ageing. The world No 1 and reigning French and US Open champion is 32-year-old Serena Williams, while the Australian Open champion, Li Na, will turn 32 in two weeks.
Marion Bartoli was 28 when she won Wimbledon last July.
Women’s tennis is greying and it is not a recent phenomenon.
Over the past 14 years, there have been only three winners under the age of 20 at the 57 grand slams staged – Maria Sharapova at the 2004 Wimbledon (age 17) and 2006 US Open, and Svetlana Kuznetsova (age 19) at the 2004 US Open. Over that same span, only two other teens reached a major final – Ana Ivanovic (2007 French Open) and Caroline Wozniacki (2009 US Open).
Jennifer Capriati broke into the top 10 at age 14 and won the 1992 Olympic gold at 16.
The youngest woman in the top 10 at the moment is Romanian Simona Halep (age 22) at No 10 and there is only one other teen in the top 20: 19th-ranked Eugenie Bouchard, who is 19.
Only four other players under 20 feature in the top 100: Madison Keys (No 37), Elina Svitolina (No 39), Annika Beck (No 55) and Anna Karolina Schmiedlova (No 73).
In recent times, the list of grand slam champions has been dominated by mums and senior pros.
Kim Clijsters came back to the tour after raising a child to win three majors.
Francisca Schiavone triumphed at the 2010 French Open, 18 days short of her 30th birthday.
Li Na was 29 when she took the French Open title in 2011, while Samantha Stosur was 27 when she beat Williams for the 2011 US Open crown.
Williams has won four of her 17 grand slams titles after turning 30.
Not long ago, players approaching 30 would have been considered over the hill. But the times are changing and two of the game’s veterans, who will be in action this week at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, believe better planning has helped extend careers.
“People are more smart about their schedule,” said Venus Williams, 33, Serena’s sister. “People try to play a little bit less, so they can play longer in their career.
“I think the current champions that are playing now, we all have played longer. So everyone else is thinking, ‘Yes, I can play as well’. So I think that’s great for tennis, just in general, to be able to keep the stars in the sport, and keep the game interesting.”
Experience is not necessarily a bad thing, either.
“There are lots of very, very good players who are now in the 30s or older,” said Stosur, 29. “So it’s very tough for the young teenagers now to come out here and play. They can’t dominate this sport like maybe 10 or 15 years ago.
“I think the experience plays a big part and I think as the years have gone on, all the players have got better at understanding at how to do a good schedule and look after themselves so that they are healthy and can play for a very long career.”
Graded WTA restrictions on teenagers, to stop early burnouts, have played a part in halting the tide of teenage prodigies. At age 14, players can appear in only eight pro tournaments a year, while a 15 year old cannot enter more than 10. At 16, players can enter a maximum of 17 events, and no more than 21 at age 17. The age restrictions end at 18.
The WTA’s ploy seems to be working and the emergence of the likes of Bouchard, Halep and Sloane Stephens over the past two years have sent pulses rising again.
Two of them – Halep and Stephens – have earned a place in the main draw of the Dubai Tennis Championships, while Bouchard is trying to make it through the qualifiers.
Halep had not won a WTA title until last June and started 2013 at No 47 in the world. The Romanian has won seven over the past nine months, however, and was voted WTA’s most-improved player last season. Last night, she defeated Angelique Kerber to win the title in Doha.
Stephens, 20, has yet to win a Tour title, though she is strongly fancied to become a major player, given her sporting heritage.
Stephens’s mother, Sybil Smith, was an All-American swimmer at Boston University, while her late father, John Stephens, was the offensive Rookie of the Year for the New England Patriots in 1988 and played six seasons in the NFL.
Bouchard, a Quebec native, is also seen as having a bright future after her run to the semi-finals at last month’s Australian Open.
“Eugenie Bouchard – a star is born!!” tweeted legend Martina Navratilova during the Australian Open, and Yevgeny Kafelnikov, a former men’s world No 1, got excited as well. “It’s a lethal combination! She is very good looking and attractive, and she plays fantastic tennis! Genie Bouchard!” the Russian tweeted.
Bouchard has collected a legion of fans since, including a supporters’ group calling itself the Genie Army, and given her looks, Bouchard’s agent claims she could be more marketable than Sharapova. Beyond those three, there are plenty of other names being mentioned as future stars. Keys, Svitolina, Beck and Schmiedlova feature regularly among them, as do Donna Vekic, 17, and Belinda Bencic, 16.
Victoria Azarenka and Radwanska are 24, Wozniacki and Petra Kvitova are 23, and Ivanovic (26) still has time to add to her 2008 French Open triumph.
So, while the reigning grand slam champions, Serena and Li Na, might not have too many years ahead of them, there are plenty of others in the talent pipeline.
Updated: February 16, 2014 04:00 AM