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Saturday, October 20, 2012

USA Today Article on Junior Competition Changes; Looking at the ITF Junior Rankings and Teens in WTA, ATP Rankings

Chris Oddo, writing for USA Today, prepared this article about the USTA's 10-and-under-tennis initiative and the recent groundswell against the junior competition changes, talking to an impressive number of people, both inside and outside the USTA.  I spoke with Chris at length by phone while I was in Tulsa, and a few of my comments made the published article. A meeting to discuss the changes, which I mentioned in this post on October 5, is scheduled for Sunday in Chicago, and once I hear anything, I will try to post it as soon as possible.

I decided to look at the rankings today, a rare day when my attention wasn't pulled in another direction by this tournament or that result.

Junior tennis doesn't have an off season when there's much time to reflect. The ITF junior calendar ends with the Orange Bowl, this year December 9th, and the new year begins before the old one actually ends with the first 2013 Grade A, the Abierto Juvenil Mexicano in Mexico, scheduled for Dec. 23-29 this year. With that packed schedule, it's hard to carve out a time to consider trends in the ITF world junior rankings, which many tennis fans and pundits believe to be pointless anyway.

Yes, they say, Roger Federer may have been the ITF World Junior champion in 1998, but Denmark's Kristian Pless followed him the next year, and Pless's best slam showing was the 3rd round at the Australian Open in 2002, when he reached 65, the 31-year-old's highest ATP ranking. 

Victoria Azarenka, currently the WTA No. 1, finished 2005 as the ITF World Junior champion, but she and 2001 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova are the only two ITF World Junior girls champions in this century to have reached the semifinals of a grand slam (they have 3 slam titles between them).

So rather than try to counter the objections to putting any stock in ITF Junior rankings, I'll just acknowledge them, and proceed.

With two more Grade As to be played in 2012, next week's Osaka Mayors Cup in Japan, and the Orange Bowl, the US has the most boys in the Top 100 of the current ITF rankings, with ten, although none are currently in the Top 10. France and Italy are next with seven each.  In the Top 50, the US and France are tied with five players.  The youngest player in the Top 100, by more than a year, is 14-year-old Stefan Kozlov of the US, who is ranked 68.

Two countries dominate the girls Top 100, with Russia and the US each having 12 players at that level, nearly a quarter of the total.  The US has two Top 10 players: No. 1 Taylor Townsend and No. 5 Samantha Crawford; Russia has one, Elizaveta Kulichkova. If you prefer the Top 50 cutoff, the US has a clear lead there, with eight players compared to Russia's five.  The youngest player in the Top 100 is No. 13 Ana Konjuh of Croatia, who will turn 15 in December.

The lack of teenagers at the highest levels of the sport has been a trend for a while now, but there are a few players under 20 who are climbing quickly.  One, who I mentioned in yesterday's post, is Croatia's Donna Vekic, the 16-year-old who is now ranked 108, and can still displace 18-year-old Laura Robson as the youngest woman in the Top 100 when the final rankings are issued on November 5th.  But because she is just 16, Vekic is limited to 12 professional tournaments between her 16th and 17th birthdays (she'll be 17 next June), so she may want to save those precious dates--she's used four so far--rather than use them in the remaining few weeks of this year.

Other teenagers besides Robson in the WTA Top 100 include Sloane Stephens, Lauren Davis, Timea Babos, Kristina Mladenovic and Garbine Muguruza, all of whom are 19.

The ATP rankings are where the men are separated from the boys, with no teenagers currently in the Top 100 as of tomorrow, when No. 49 Bernard Tomic of Australia turns 20. The ATP rankings page sadly lacks the same sorting function available on the WTA rankings page, but fortunately Jeff Sackmann's Tennis Abstract has recently added a section of ranking by age, and I hope I've convinced him to include a Not-Yet-20 table.

There was a chance that the year-end rankings wouldn't include a teenager in the ATP Top 300, but both Jiri Vesely, the 2011 ITF Junior World Champion from the Czech Republic, and former ITF Junior No. 1 Jason Kubler of Australia, both 19, have had good autumns and should finish in the 200s.  Australian Open boys champion Luke Saville, another former ITF No. 1, is the youngest player in the Top 400, with the 18-year-old currently posting consistent results on the Australian Futures circuit.

There's nothing in any of these numbers to suggest the Top 100 is going to get younger any time soon. But I also think it's a mistake to suggest the changes in the sport automatically preclude a "black swan", a player who is physically and mentally ready to compete at the top at a young age, as both Maria Sharapova and Rafael Nadal were.


Len Hayes said...

You've got to be kidding me. Only two ITF girls junior champs 'this century' have made it to the semis of a GS. Seriously, you're actually going to use 12 years of history as the basis to make some claim about the merits of the ITF junior rankings. Wow, talk about over-dramatizing a situation and playing fast and loose with the truth. And while you're at it, the word you're looking for is anomaly; 'black swan' isn't an expression, it's just a bird.