Coming into Australian Open 2014, few analysts would have picked Dominika Cibulkova to reach the women’s singles final given her lack of success in big tournaments.
However, that would not have been the case with 2014 titlist Li Na, who had reached the final in Melbourne two times before. If she managed to maintain a high level throughout the event, she seemed overdue to win the crown.
That she did in sterling fashion, besting Cibulkova 7-6(3) 6-0 on Saturday night and showing the world why many think she will grab the No. 1 ranking before she retires.
The projection that Canadian teenager Eugenie Bouchard would storm her way to the semifinals, or that none of the former champions and the world’s top three-ranked players – Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova – would reach the final, wasn't held by many, or by anyone at all.
So does that mean that rest of the 2014 season will be topsy-turvy and wide open?
Women’s pro tennis had become a bit predictable over the past five years as it had become more of a veterans game, with no teenagers making a sustained impact and only a small handful of younger players making noise.
A slew of experienced players won their first Slams in recent years, such as Samantha Stosur at the 2011 US Open, Francesca Schiavone (2010) and Li (2011) at Roland Garros, and Marion Bartoli at last year’s Wimbledon, while only two players of the younger set – Azarenka and Petra Kvitova – managed to raise major trophies.
The WTA was once a lair of teenager champions such as Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Martina Hingis and Serena Williams. But at the start of this century, players began to improve their fitness and the game became more physical, making it more difficult for players to make major splashes before they turned 20.
But that has not stopped the kids from trying.
In 2005, a very strong group of players led the ITF junior rankings. Nine years later, most of them have cracked the top 20 and have dug themselves into the top ranks around the age of 24 including Cibulkova, Azarenka, Kvitova, Agnieszka Radwanska, Caroline Wozniacki – all of whom are top-10 players – as well No. 15 Sabine Lisicki, No. 21 Sorana Cirstea and No. 29 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
While it’s possible that the top four of Serena, Azarenka, Sharapova and Li will grab the rest of the 2014 Grand Slam titles, as Cibulkova recently said, her generation is here to stay, and she can’t see veterans consistently pushing them around, or the teenagers quickly usurping them.
While that may end up being the case, there is no question that these days women around the age of 30 aren’t fading quickly or looking for a quick exit via retirement.
Even though she is 32, Williams has won two of the past four Grand Slams. Italian Flavia Pennetta has reached the quarterfinals or better of her last two majors at the age of 31. Her countrywoman, the 30-year-old Roberta Vinci, just won the Australian Open doubles title with her 26-year-old partner Sara Errani, and is still ranked in the top 15 in singles. Australian 28-year-old Casey Dellacqua pushed her way to the fourth round of the Australian Open, as did another 28-year-old, former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic.
However, mid-career players and youngsters had their day too. Ana Ivanovic, who is 26, reached only her second Grand Slam quarterfinal this fortnight since she won 2008 Roland Garros, and appears to backing up her claim that she still is top-five material. Another 26-year-old, No. 9 Angelique Kerber, reached the fourth round, as did 25-year-old left-handed Russian Ekaterina Makarova, who is ranked No. 22.
Sloane Stephens, who is only 20, was unable to repeat her Australian Open semifinal finish from 2013, but still played well enough to reach the fourth round in Melbourne, and is the youngest player in the top 15. Another 20-year-old, Garbine Muguruza of Spain, backed up her title run in Hobart with upsets of Kaia Kanepi and Wozniacki, and may be seeded at the next major. Romanian 22-year-old Simona Halep took down Jankovic and found herself in her first final eight.
But it was the Canadian Bouchard who deserves most of the kudos, as with her upset of Ivanovic in the quarters, she became the first woman from her country at since Carling Bassett at 1984 US Open to reach a major semifinal. A fast, powerful player who rarely concedes her position on the court, Bouchard has steadily risen up the ranking charts since she won the 2012 Wimbledon juniors, and showed in her semifinal loss to Li that with continued improvement, she is capable of upending the elite players at the big tournaments.
Stephens has shown the same, as has British 20-year-old Laura Robson, who has claimed big scalps at the majors before (including over Li at the 2012 US Open and Kvitova at the 2013 Australian Open), but she came into this tournament with a bad wrist and was shuttled out quickly. Elena Svitolina, 19, upended two-time Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova in the first round and went two rounds further before pushing Stephens in a loss.
By the looks of the second week draw sheet of the Australian Open, the forthcoming season will be hotly contested and no specific age group will dominate play.
Li and her fellow thirty-somethings will surely have something to say about winning the major tournaments, but the 2005 generation and the youngsters promise to push them hard.