Ten terrific teens on the tennis horizon

Let’s take a look at the most promising prospects poised to have breakout seasons.

The 5’11” Amanda Anisimova finished 2018 ranked No. 95 and has already notched eight victories over top-60-ranked opponents by the end of the year.   -  Getty Images

“Older champs get nervous playing young twerps.” — Pam Shriver, on reaching the US Open final at age 16.

“Every talent must unfold itself in fighting.” — Friedrich Nietzsche.

“You have to expect things of yourself before you can do them.” — Michael Jordan.

“I don’t want to see the future. The present is hard enough.” — Boris Becker, asked about his future after winning Wimbledon at age 17.

The stars of tomorrow are emerging today, especially among a bumper crop of talented teenagers. While the Big Three still reign among the men, the women’s field is wide open.

Eight different women have won the last eight majors. Not since Maria Sharapova at the 2006 Open has a teenager captured a Grand Slam women’s title. But that could easily change, if not this year, then in the early 2020s.

Let’s take a look at the most promising prospects poised to have breakout seasons.

Amanda Anisimova

Possessing the classic strokes of Sharapova, the big-point poise of Chris Evert and the alluring beauty of Anna Kournikova, Amanda Anisimova sounds like a winning formula on the court, and off it, where she figures to be a marketing bonanza if she becomes a champion.

Much like these former teen stars, Anisimova, who was born to Russian parents in Freehold, New Jersey, broke through early. At the 2018 BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, the then-16-year-old American upset No. 23 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-4, 6-1 in the second round. Anisimova then shocked No. 9 Petra Kvitova 6-2, 6-4 to snap the two-time Wimbledon champion’s 14-match winning streak. “She is unbelievably good,” raved Tennis Channel analyst Chanda Rubin.

Soon after her breakthrough, a foot injury sidelined Anisimova for four months and stalled her progress. But she regained her form in September at Hiroshima. After winning three qualifying matches, Anisimova zoomed to the semifinals and beat No. 1 seed Shuai Zhang before losing in the final to No. 2 seed Su-Wei Hsieh, a tricky change-of-pace artist.

The 17-year-old Anisimova now resides in Aventura, Florida, where she is coached by her father Konstantin. She started auspiciously this year at the Australian Open tune-up event in Auckland, ousting world No. 33 Barbora Strycova 6-3, 6-3.

The 5’11” blonde finished 2018 ranked No. 95 and has already notched eight victories over top-60-ranked opponents by the end of the year. An improved shot selection accounts for part of her rapid rise. “I think I’m using my mind more when I play,” Anisimova told wtatennis.com. “I’m playing smarter, and having longer points. I feel like I would rush more a couple years ago, and now I really take my time and go for my shots when I really want to.”

A more relaxed approach to competing has also paid dividends. “To me, having fun on court means being loose, you know, not focusing on the result, because I used to do that, I used to focus on winning and losing,” Anisimova said. “So, I think I’ve learnt how to forget about that and just be in the moment.”

Although Anisimova needs to improve her second-serve power and her defensive skills, she’s a can’t-miss prospect. As former world No. 1 Lindsay Davenport said, “Get used to that name because you’re going to see a lot of Amanda Anisimova in the next 10 years.”

Tennis fans got used to her tongue-twisting name and her imposing game at the Australian Open. Anisimova didn’t just beat, she destroyed two seeds, No. 24 Lesia Tsurenko 6-0, 6-2 and No. 11 Aryna Sabalenka 6-3, 6-2 before Kvitova gave her a 6-2, 6-1 lesson. The last time an American this young reached the fourth round at a major was Serena Williams at the 1998 French Open.

Wang Xinyu

China’s Wang Xinyu made her Grand Slam debut at the 2018 Australian Open thanks to winning the Asia-Pacific Wildcard Playoff. At 16 years and four months, she was the second youngest player competing in the main draw, and, aside from the unranked Margarita Gasparyan, the lowest ranked at No. 643. Xinyu’s Wildcard Playoff run included a 1-6, 6-4, 6-3 semifinal upset of the No. 1 seed, former No. 30 Misaki Doi.

Along with the Doi victory, the offensive-minded Xinyu scored two other top-200 wins last year. She upset compatriot Han Xinyun in the first round of the Shenzhen ITF $100,000 event in November, and she started her season with her first WTA qualifying victory, also in Shenzhen, over Jang Su-jeong 2-6, 6-1, 6-4. Xinyu also defeated junior world No. 1 Whitney Osuigwe in the final of the Osaka Grade A tournament in October.

Wang Xinyu’s immediate future is bright indeed. It wouldn’t be surprising if this talented teenager cracks the top 100, or possibly even the top 50, this year.   -  Getty Images

 

Wang Xinyu — not to be confused with Wang Xiyu, another outstanding Chinese 17-year-old — was born and raised in Shenzen. That gave her a huge home-court advantage when she played heavily favoured Maria Sharapova, her idol, in the Shenzen Open first round this January. The highly partisan crowd roared with delight when the slender speedster won points and eventually took the first set 7-6. At 2-all in the second set, Xinyu started suffering from leg cramps. Down 5-2, she was forced to retire as she writhed in pain. Sharapova consoled the weeping teen.

On Xinyu’s imposing groundstrokes, Tennis Channel analyst Chanda Rubin said, “Wang is a beautiful ball-stroker. She hits the ball hard and harder.”

Ding Chuan, an expert on Chinese tennis, said, “Unlike [two-time major champion] Li Na and Zheng Jie, Wang was born in an affluent family and doesn’t need to worry too much about the money [needed to play the pro tour]. Wang’s father used to be the head coach of Chinese women tennis team, so I believe Xinyu knows exactly what to do in the future.”

Wang Xinyu’s immediate future is bright indeed. It wouldn’t be surprising if this talented teenager cracks the top 100, or possibly even the top 50, this year.

Olga Danilovic

Rarely do two 17-year-olds play one of the year’s best matches. Olga Danilovic’s thrilling 7-5, 6-7 (1), 6-4 victory over home-crowd favourite Anastasia Potapova in the inaugural Moscow River Cup was rated third among the “Top 5 WTA Matches of 2018.” When Danilovic confidently put away an overhead on her fourth championship point, she made history as the first player born in the 2000s to win a WTA title. Besides lifting her first singles trophy, the smiling Serb became the first “lucky loser” to lift a WTA singles trophy since Andrea Jaeger in 1980.

After losing in the Moscow qualifying event, then-No. 187-ranked Danilovic capitalised on her opportunity in the main draw by upsetting No. 49 Kaia Kanepi, No. 10 Julia Goerges and No. 42 Aliaksandra Sasnovich. “‘Hit the ball. Hit the damn ball!’” she recalled about her championship points in a WTA phone interview after the match. “‘Hit the ball and play the point! You’ve got this, it’s here. Play the point, be great.’”

Danilovic’s new coach, Petar Popovic, believes the lefty shotmaker can become great. “We all know that Olga has a diamond talent, now we need to refine it,” Popovic told Sportklub. “I would like Olga to be in the Top 30 here after Wimbledon. That would be very nice.”

When Olga Danilovic confidently put away an overhead on her fourth championship point at the Moscow River Cup, she made history as the first player born in the 2000s to win a WTA title.   -  Getty Images

 

Fifteen months ago, the dedicated athlete began a rigorous training regimen in Barcelona. “Most of all I worked on strength and mobility,” Danilovic told Sportklub. “Now I stopped growing [182cm, 6’], and I can do a little more in the gym — not necessarily with weights, but squats, durability exercises and quadriceps work. They were heavy preparations, but my body was now ready to bear it.”

Like compatriot and world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, she can get quite emotional on the court. “I’ve been working on it, and that’s coming with age,” Danilovic said. “I’m not as dramatic as I used to be, but it’s still my style, and I feel that when there are no emotions involved, it shows you do not care enough. Before I was literally unconsciously upset, and now I catch myself and say to myself: ‘Calm down.’”

Danilovic says her father Predrag, who played basketball for the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks, gave her the best advice. “The first tip is to do what I love, and the other is to never surrender whatsoever happens,” she recalled. “These two sentences are always in my head. They are valid for tennis, but also in life. That is the purpose of life in a certain way.”

Destanee Aiava

As a five-year-old, Destanee Aiava was riveted watching Serena Williams win the 2005 Australian Open on TV. Smitten by the sport and her new hero, she declared she wanted to become No. 1 in the world.

Her catchy name evokes the future. And her booming game and rugged physique resemble that of her idol Serena.

Aiava already became the first player born this century to play in the main draw of a Grand Slam event, at the 2017 Australian Open. A year later, after qualifying for a wildcard berth at Melbourne, Aiava flashed signs of future greatness in a first-round duel against No. 1 Simona Halep. The 5’9” Australian led 5-2 with two set points and then 3-1 in the tiebreaker before succumbing 7-6, 6-1 to Halep.

“She is very talented, she is powerful, and I think she is going to be very good,” said the thoroughly impressed Halep. “She’s a little bit like Serena, she’s hitting the ball strong, she’s a powerful girl, and for sure she will be good in the future.”

As a five-year-old, Destanee Aiava was riveted watching Serena Williams win the 2005 Australian Open on TV. Smitten by the sport and her new hero, she declared she wanted to become No. 1 in the world.   -  Getty Images

 

The 18-year-old Aiava is clearly very good now. She proved that by overpowering former world No. 10 Kristina Mladenovic 6-3, 7-6 with explosive ground strokes at the season-opening Melbourne International. In the second round, Aiava lost 6-3, 6-2 to US Open champion Naomi Osaka, who said, “It was kind of like a younger me in a way. I felt like when I was playing her, she sort of matched my power, which was really surprising to me, because there are not that many people that can do that.”

Aiava, whose parents are of Samoan descent, boasts a strong sports pedigree. Her mother Rosie, a former rugby player, coaches her, and her father, Mark, a former Ultimate Fighting Championship coach, handles her fitness regimen.

Like Serena, who grew up in violent, economically depressed Compton, California, Aiava has experienced hard times. “I was one of those kids where our house was like a cabin, so I’m kind of used to that poor lifestyle, and I just want that lavish lifestyle,” Aiava told The Canberra Times. “Money is the motivation. My parents are separated, and I want to buy both of them houses. I’m the only provider now.”

While Aiava is a young woman on a serious mission, she deflects the pressure with the equanimity of a tour veteran. How does she do it? “I laugh a lot,” she said with a smile.

Coco Gauff

Cori “Coco” Gauff idolised Serena and Venus Williams ever since she started playing at age six in Delray Beach, Florida. “I grew up watching them,” says Gauff. “I started playing tennis because of them.”

Now some experts predict this 14-year-old African-American prodigy will become “the next Serena.” Her meteoric rise suggests she has what it takes to win Grand Slam titles as a teen queen like Chris Evert, Tracy Austin, Martina Hingis and Serena.

Gauff burst on the tennis scene when she reached the 2017 US Open girls’ final at age 13, the youngest player in the 18-and-under draw. She backed up that feat by capturing the 2018 French Open girls’ title, diving for a volley winner on championship point. Though Gauff didn’t win Wimbledon, the wiry-strong, long-limbed, 5’10” kid flexed her muscles there by whacking a 120mph serve, the third-fastest after Serena’s 125mph and Venus’ 123mph.

Athleticism is her strongest suit. It comes from her 6’2” father-coach Corey who played basketball at Georgia State University, and her mother Candi, formerly a track star and gymnast. Gauff excelled at basketball and track before focusing solely on tennis at age 12, when she transferred athletic skills, such as hand-eye coordination, speed and agility, from those sports to tennis. Corey and Coco periodically visit renowned coach Patrick Mouratoglou at his academy in France. There, she trains while he is mentored by Mouratoglou, Serena’s coach.

Some experts predict 14-year-old African-American prodigy Coco Gauff will become “the next Serena."   -  Getty Images

 

The Gauffs are leaving no stone unturned to develop a superstar. Since Gauff was eight, she’s had one-hour workouts two-four days a week with Jeff Drock, a tennis specific efficiency specialist and physical trainer. “The specific goals for Coco’s physical development,” Drock told Florida Tennis, “were to keep her upper body, lower body and core strong and resilient to [prevent] injury.”

Because Gauff was practising and competing so intensely that she regularly fell on hard courts and bloodied her knees and elbows, Drock initiated deceleration and balance drills. Then Drock said, “We added in preplanned agility and fast little steps to the equation. Next, we worked on properly executed sidesteps, crossovers and big-to-little step patterns… Coco has many natural gifts, and one might even compare her work ethic and capability to boxing champion Floyd Mayweather.”

Life is not all work and no play, though, for the well-adjusted Gauff. Home-schooled, she is involved in the church dance ministry and choir, announces at baseball games and goes to social outings with her siblings. “As parents, we’re very vigilant to make sure that she has the most normal childhood given her abnormal circumstances,” Candi said.

On her tennis goals, confident Coco harbours a Serena-like ambition. “My goal in tennis is to win Grand Slams and be No. 1,” she said. “I want to be the greatest.”

Five other teens to watch

Marta Kostyuk: When 15-year-old Kostyuk, ranked No. 541, stunned 25th-seeded Peng Shuai 6-2, 6-2 at the 2018 Australian Open, she became the youngest player to win a match at the Grand Slam since Hingis in 1996. The rail-thin Ukrainian then defeated wild card Olivia Rogowska before countrywoman and fourth-seeded Elina Svitolina stopped her run. “Kostyuk used to play with her mother from eight in the morning to eight at night,” recalled all-time great Martina Navratilova at the time. “She’s a perfectionist. She’s poised beyond her years. We’ll be seeing a lot of her in the future.”

Just three weeks later in her Fed Cup debut, Kostyuk upset No. 26 Daria Gavrilova 7-6, 6-3. She also beat No. 35 Alize Cornet 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 at Stuttgart. Though her schedule was restricted by the age-eligibility rule, Kostyuk still finished 2018 with a splendid No. 119 ranking.

When 15-year-old Marta Kostyuk, ranked No. 541, stunned 25th-seeded Peng Shuai 6-2, 6-2 at the 2018 Australian Open, she became the youngest player to win a match at the Grand Slam since Martina Hingis in 1996.   -  Getty Images

 

Anastasia Potapova: “I have more confidence, self-confidence, now that I’m now top 100. I know now that I can compete on this level,” Anastasia crowed in a WTA phone interview last September. And why not? The 17-year-old Russian had just culminated a highly successful season by reaching the Tashkent final. That propelled her ranking to a career-high No. 94.

Potapova, an aggressive baseliner — and a blonde beauty — like her idol Sharapova, enjoyed her breakthrough tournament at Moscow two months earlier. She knocked out No. 96 Kristyna Pliskova and No. 90 Tamara Zidansek before long-time junior rival Olga Danilovic stopped her in a riveting 7-5, 6-7, 6-4 final. Her rapid rise as a pro wasn’t surprising given she copped the Wimbledon girls’ title and No. 1 ranking in 2016. On her improvement, Potapova said, “I got better in every way. I mean, in my tennis skills, in my fitness, in my mentality. It’s all about everything.”

Potapova boosted her stock at the Australian Open by scoring a mild 6-4, 7-6 first-round upset over No. 55 Pauline Parmentier before No. 17 Madison Keys defeated her 6-3, 6-4.

Anastasia Potapova (left) and Dayana Yastremska with their girls’ singles winner and runner-up trophies, respectively, at Wimbledon 2016. In 2018, Potapova enjoyed her breakthrough tournament at Moscow, losing to long-time junior rival Olga Danilovic in the final, while Yastremska ranked highest, at No. 60, among players 18 or younger in the year-end rankings.   -  Getty Images

 

Bianca Andreescu: In 2017, Andreescu showed her considerable potential when she became the first player born in the 2000s to notch a top-20 win, defeating Kristina Mladenovic.

That potential was realised in spades at the ASB Classic in Auckland this January. After three qualifying wins, the highly competitive 18-year-old Canadian, ranked just No. 152, racked up four upsets over: No. 59 Timea Babos, 2018 Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki, the venerable Venus Williams and No. 28 Su-wei Hsieh to make her first WTA final — despite suffering from back pain. Power-serving, No. 14 Julia Goerges ended Andreescu’s fairytale run in an engrossing 2-6, 7-5, 6-1 battle.

“Andreescu got through four different [style] players,” said Davenport. “She was a great junior player, and she’ll be a good, solid pro player, too.”

Andreescu continued her winning ways at the Australian Open. She won three qualifying matches and then edged Whitney Osuigwe 7-6, 6-7, 6-3 in the first round. Also impressive in defeat, Andreescu extended 13th seed Anastasia Sevastova, the 2018 US Open semifinalist, in a 6-3, 3-6, 6-2 battle.

Iga Swiatek: On the junior circuit last year, Swiatek captured the Wimbledon girls’ title and reached the French Open semis. On the adult circuit, the 17-year-old Pole also prospered, capturing four ITF titles. Recently, she qualified and won her first-round match at the Australian Open.

After winning the Wimbledon girls' final with a dazzling display of touch and power — 33 winners, including eight aces — the versatile, outgoing Swiatek commented, “I was thinking that this is why I play tennis, to make the show, to make people clap, to make them enjoy the game. I feel like that’s my goal, to entertain. I think I learned [that] today. I didn’t know about it. That’s new for me.”

And that entertainment is new and great for women’s tennis.

Iga Swiatek captured the Wimbledon girls’ title and reached the French Open semis in 2018. On the adult circuit, the 17-year-old Pole also prospered, capturing four ITF titles.   -  Getty Images

 

Dayana Yastremska: Among players 18 or younger, Yastremska ranked highest, No. 60, in the WTA year-end 2018 rankings. She finished the season strongly, winning her first WTA title at the Prudential Hong Kong Tennis Open without losing a set. The 18-year-old Ukrainian proved she already can beat elite players when she upset two-time major champion Garbine Muguruza en route to the semifinals at Luxembourg.

“Yastremska absolutely crushes the ball,” said Davenport. “She’s a good athlete, very motivated, and a great fighter. She just has to learn [tactically] how to build points.” Towards that end, Yastremska smartly bolstered her team last August by hiring seven-time major champion Justine Henin as a coaching consultant. Henin joined travelling coach Olivier Jeunehomme. The move is already paying off. At the Australian Open, Yastremska upset former US Open champion Samantha Stosur and pushed No. 23-seeded Suarez Navarro to three sets..

As eager to compete against her fast-rising peers as against established world-class players, Yastremska told wtatennis.com in December, “All of the juniors from my generation showed themselves well this year. It was a cool race! Next year promises to be very interesting.”

So there you have it. Ten outstanding teenage players with high hopes for stardom. What will that future bring?

Donna Vekic, once a rising star herself, offers a sober perspective about the hard road to glory. Vekic won her first title when she was 17 but didn’t earn her second until she was 21 and has never ranked higher than No. 45. “You see all these young girls now,” said the 22-year-old Croatian. “I don’t want to name any names, but they’re winning. They’re like, they have the hype. And I’m like, oh, you have no idea what’s in store for you. It almost never happens.”