Rising Stars

On the Baseline Tennis News

Call them the newbies, young guns, or simply, up-and-comers. As women’s tennis looks to the next generation, a group of talented young players have emerged from semi-obscurity with the potential to dominate the top 10 rankings, and give the veterans a run for their money.

Victoria Azarenka
Age: 20
Current Ranking: No. 11
She’s only been on the WTA Tour for three years, yet Victoria Azarenka has already made a name for herself. The Belarusian had her breakout year in 2009, winning three singles titles (first in Brisbane), and made it to three Grand Slam quarterfinals (including Wimbledon). She also reached a career high ranking of No. 6 in 2009. Her game has been a bit erratic since the start of 2010. She slipped back in the rankings, has battled a myriad of injuries, and has spent a good part of this year trying to find her form. Azarenka has shown recent improvement after making it to the final this year at Eastbourne, where she took out Kim Clijsters in the quarterfinal. As the 14th seed at Wimbledon this year, Azarenka had two comfortable, straight set wins in the first and second rounds, with both opponents ranked outside the top 100. She was ousted in the third round by No. 62, Petra Kvitova. Bottom line: Azarenka needs to become more level-headed if she wants to take her game up a notch.

Weapons: Baseline power hitter, dangerous backhand, solid net game.
Weakness: Serve, movement, a bit of a hot head.

Maria Kirilenko
Age: 23
Current Ranking: No. 28
Russia may have lost its strong hold on the WTA’s top-10, but with 15 players in the top 100, Russia’s next wave could change that. Maria Kirilenko is one of those players riding that wave. Kirilenko turned pro in 2001 – a veteran by some standards, but at 23, she’s just getting started. In case you forgot, she’s that player who took out fellow Russian Maria Sharapova in the first round of the Australian Open this year. Since then, she’s been slowly climbing up the ranking ladder, jumping 35 spots since the start of 2010. Prior to this year, Kirilenko’s best result at Wimbledon hasn’t been stellar—only making it to the second round. She advanced to the third round at Wimbledon this year, only to lose to Kim Clijsters on Friday. Just prior to Wimbledon, Kirilenko had to retire from her second round match at the UNICEF Open as a result of an abdominal injury, but seemed to be match-ready at the start of Wimbledon. It seems that grass seems to be a bit out of Kirilenko’s comfort zone (with five career titles on everything but grass), but she has the right weapons to develop a better grass-court game.

Weapons: Speed, serve and slice. Solid net game. Known for her volleys.
Weakness: Power

Aravane Rezai
Age: 21
Current Ranking: No. 20
It’s safe to say that 2010 has been Aravane Rezai’s breakout year. She started the year at No. 44, but since then has reached a career high ranking of No. 16 just one month ago. Rezai has upset many top-level players, including Venus Williams, Justine Henin, Jelena Jankovic, Maria Sharapova, and Dinara Safina. During the European clay court season, she came out of nowhere to defeat Venus Williams in the Madrid final, and took out Justine Henin along the way. Since then, Rezai has been on everyone’s radar. In terms of her grass court skills, Rezai’s best result at Wimbledon was the third round, back in 2007. She made it to the semis at Birmingham this year, but suffered a right wrist injury at Eastbourne in the second round. She wasn’t able to transfer her clay court success to grass, losing in the second round at Wimbledon just a few days ago. If she can improve her serve, she can become a contender on grass.

Weapons: Aggressive game, powerful ground strokes from both forehand and backhand.
Weakness: Serve

Agnieszka Radwanska
Age: 21
Current Ranking: No. 9
Part of another sister-act on the WTA tour, Agnieszka Radwanska is one of those players in the top 10 who always seems to fall under the radar, but is someone who has the skills to do some damage on just about any surface. She has had relatively quick success on the Tour, and been a top-10 presence since 2008, and is one of the few players under age 25 in the top 10. Her grass court skills are better than most. She won Wimbledon as a junior back in 2005. As a Tour player, she won Eastbourne in 2008 and made it to the quarterfinals at Wimbledon in 2008 and 2009. Coming into Wimbledon this year as the No. 7 seed, Radwanska advanced to the fourth round, only to lose to the No. 9 seed, Na Li in straight sets. Not her best result, but a solid performance. Look for Agnieszka Radwanska to be a force on grass in the coming years.

Weapons: Forehand
Weakness: Power

Yanina Wickmayer
Age: 20
Current Ranking: No. 18
Part of the Belgian trio (along with veterans Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters), Yanina Wickmayer burst onto the tennis scene in 2009, making it to the semifinals at the US Open. Since then, the six-foot-tall Belgian has climbed as high as No. 12 in the rankings, and has three career titles under her belt. Wickmayer has shown a promising grass court game, reaching the quarterfinals at Birmingham and was a runner up at the UNICEF Open (formerly the Ordina Open) in 2009. In her second Wimbledon appearance, Wickmayer has achieved her best singles performance to date, making it to the third round, only to be taken out by Vera Zvonareva. In time and with practice, Wickmayer should fare well on grass.

Weapons: Powerful serve, quick feet, ground strokes, solid net game
Weakness: Consistency, managing nerves.

Melanie Oudin
Age: 18
Current Ranking: No. 35
Melanie Oudin is the newest of the “newbies”. She has only been on the Tour since 2008, but was thrust into the spotlight in 2009 as a result of her success at Wimbledon and the US Open. She has been touted as the next great American player on the women’s tour, but has struggled to maintain consistency in her game since 2009. She came into Wimbledon this year being seeded for the first time, with the added pressure of defending her fourth round points from last year. She wasn’t able to recapture her success from 2009—ousted in round two by Australian Jarmila Groth in straight sets. Oudin admits that her favorite surface is hard courts, but is warming up to grass. Give this girl a few more years to develop her game—she’ll be completely warmed up by then.

Weapons: Speed, footwork, forehand
Weakness: Serve, consistency

Shahar Peer
Age: 23
Current Ranking: No. 15
It’s been a good year for Shahar Peer. She’s climbed back into the top 20 after falling back into the mid 30s between 2008-2009. In terms of her grass court skills, Peer may have a better game for hard courts and clay. Peer has even admitted that grass is not her favorite surface. She suffered a first round loss at Eastbourne this year. She reached her best result at Wimbledon in 2008, reaching the fourth round. With her right thigh wrapped, Peer was stunned in the second round at Wimbledon this year, losing to No. 54 Angelique Kerber of Germany. Future success on grass doesn’t seem likely for Peer, but never say never.

Backhand, great return game.
Weakness: Consistency

Wimbledon's Grand Finale: A Preview

Whatever your beliefs are about destiny, a Grand Slam can make you a believer, or turn you against it. Destiny has a way of taking your hopes, expectations, and predictions about a match and flipping them upside down and inside out. But sometimes, the seemingly unpredictable nature of destiny can be the one thing that gives every player a shot at a Grand Slam title. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned about Grand Slams, anything is possible.

We now know who is destined to play the ladies’ Wimbledon final: Serena Williams and Vera Zvonareva. Two veterans–one was expected to be in the final, and the other, seeded No. 21, wasn’t expected to make it past the third or fourth round. One has enough Grand Slam trophies to fill up a room, while the other is hoping to get her hands on her first one. Both have brought their A-game to Wimbledon. Serena and Vera have never played each other on grass. In fact, they haven’t battled it out since 2008. Serena holds a 5-1 lead in their head-to-head series.

Serena Goes Solo

Serena Williams will be playing in her sixth Wimbledon final on Saturday (sans her sister, Venus), and could potentially earn her fourth Wimbledon singles title. If this sounds familiar, it’s for good reason. With the exception of 2006, one or both of the Williams sisters have made it to the Wimbledon final each year for the past decade.

During the fortnight, I kept asking myself: Is it possible that Serena Williams has developed even more power in her game? Without a doubt, the 28-year-old isn’t giving her opponents many opportunities to fight back during her service games. In fact, her serve has been “en fuego” at Wimbledon, racking up 80 aces throughout the course of the tournament…a far cry from her sister Venus, who scored only 30 aces. Did I also mention Serena hasn’t dropped a set? She has shown some signs of wear and tear from her serve, with her right shoulder being taped for her quarterfinal doubles match. During her semifinal singles match vs. Petra Kvitova, Serena only scored seven aces–a bit of a change from her usual double-digit ace count in her previous matches.

Serena’s semifinal vs. No. 62 Petra Kvitova wasn’t exactly routine. Kvitova, who beat Dinara Safina at the 2009 US Open, held her own against Serena. She took an early 4-2 lead in the first set, throwing Serena off her game. A19-shot rally ensued, in which both players were stretching for seemingly impossible shots. Kvitova claimed victory over that point, but ultimately, Serena battled back to win the first set in a tiebreaker. There was a clear shift in momentum going into the second set. Kvitova struggled to match Serena’s power. She double faulted on her serve at 4-2, giving Serena a 5-2 lead, and essentially handed her the match, as well as a spot in the final.

Is Vera Zvonareva Ready?

There is a lot riding on the Wimbledon final for Vera Zvonareva. After battling a multitude of injuries and the occasional on-court meltdown, the 25-year-old will be vying for her first Grand Slam title. She finally has a chance to prove that she can keep her emotions in check and beat the best in the world. Zvonareva’s success at Wimbledon also comes at a time when most of her Russian compatriots are either injured, have suffered early round losses at Wimbledon, or have simply fallen by the wayside.

Zvonareva’s best result at Wimbledon was the fourth round in 2004. Her best result at a Grand Slam was the Australian Open semifinal in 2009. Zvonareva, a former No. 5 ranked player, didn’t have an easy draw this year at Wimbledon. She defeated Yanina Wickmayer and Jelena Jankovic, as well as one of the heavy favorites to win, Kim Clijsters. She went on to beat No. 82 Tsvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria in three sets in the semifinals, which earned her a spot in the final. That result will also put Zvonareva back in the top-10 after Wimbledon.

In her six matches at Wimbledon, Zvonareva maintained an incredibly high first serve percentage, averaging in the high 70s, and even had a first serve percentage of 94% in her match against Yanina Wickmayer. Zvonareva moves well, has one of the best backhands on the WTA Tour and has a solid net game. One of the things that could hold Zvonareva back: Double faults. She has the third highest number of double faults for the tournament (22). Serena has just 12.
The question: Is Vera Zvonareva mentally ready? Can she win a match of this magnitude? And, can she do it without breaking a racquet?

Zvonareva needs to have a flawless game and nerves of steel if she wants to win her maiden Grand Slam on Saturday against Serena. She also has to find a way to attack Serena’s serve and not let her dominate. Not an easy task. Zvonareva admitted in her last press conference that Serena’s serve is a big advantage, but if Zvonareva can find the right timing, she can return it. By the way, it’s also worth noting that Vera Zvonareva has also made it to the ladies’ doubles final, with Elena Vesnina.
So who is destined to win it all? I’m going to say Serena has the edge, but destiny might have plans for Vera.