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Growing Pains
L. JON WERTHEIM
July 04, 2011
Once it was not uncommon for teenagers to rule the majors. Now, they're a rare sight in the later rounds
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July 04, 2011

Growing Pains

Once it was not uncommon for teenagers to rule the majors. Now, they're a rare sight in the later rounds

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You'd be hard-pressed to find a bigger tent than the one encompassing professional tennis. A workforce hailing from nearly 100 countries, Austria to Zimbabwe. Men and women. Big and small. A snapshot from Wimbledon last week: Kimiko Date Krumm—a 40-year-old Japanese player who lives in Monaco and is married to a German race car driver—nearly upset Venus Williams on Centre Court, while on an outer court 6'6" Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina defeated Olivier Rochus, a 5'6" Belgian.

In the later rounds, though, one demographic group will be conspicuously missing. It was 25 years ago that Boris Becker, then 18, defended his Wimbledon title. That same year, a 17-year-old Steffi Graf was beginning her ascent. Monica Seles won her first Grand Slam title at 16. Same for Martina Hingis. Serena Williams was 17. Now? When the new rankings come out on July 4, there will be no teenagers in either the ATP or the WTA top 50. The sport has become so physical that players who haven't reached full maturity are hopelessly overmatched. The meteoric rise has been replaced by incremental success.

Still, the future of the sport was on display last week. Consider: Bernard Tomic, a rangy Australian, stunned fifth-seeded Robin Soderling, 26, and then beat Xavier Malisse in straight sets on Monday to become the first 18-year-old to reach the quarterfinals since Becker in 1986. Born in Germany and raised in Croatia before moving to the Aussie Gold Coast, he leavens aTomic power with a deft slice. And he doesn't want for confidence. After beating Soderling, he essentially shrugged: "The better player I [face], I seem to fire up and play better."

Grigor Dimitrov, a 20-year-old Bulgarian, was labeled Baby Federer when he won the 2008 Wimbledon juniors, a curse akin to anointing a basketball player Baby Jordan. After a few years of wavering results and motivation, Dimitrov won his first match and then pushed 12th-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France, 26, to four sets with a stylish, Federer-like performance.

As for the women, Sabine Lisicki, 21, achieved the first big upset of the tournament, taking out China's Li Na, 29, the reigning French Open champion. A powerfully built German, Lisicki serves harder than any woman—and all but a few men—at 124 mph and hits a penetrating ball from both wings.

There's an American in tennis's Futurama cast as well. Ryan Harrison, a 19-year-old from New Braunfels, Texas, took seventh-seeded David Ferrer, 29, to five sets. Though Harrison regularly serves in excess of 130 mph, he plays a strategic game, relying on versatility. Plus, unlike so many of his peers just happy to be in the Show, Harrison is a fiery competitor. Against Ferrer he stomped and scowled and was warned for racket abuse. Regrettable conduct, perhaps, but it speaks to Harrison's high expectations. "If I'm serving well, I'm not going to get broken," he said flatly after the match. "I think I can win this tournament."

He might be right. It's just going to take longer than it once might have.

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