Ten talented teenagers set to take the WTA Tour by storm
As an army of talented teenagers prepares for an assault on the heights of the women's game, we pick out 10 likely contenders who could make the breakthrough into the elite ranks this year
By Andy Schooler (Twitter: @NetTalkTennis). Last Updated: 03/04/13 4:05pm
Serena Williams played what was surely some of her best-ever tennis at the weekend as she defeated Maria Sharapova to cement her position at the top of the women's game.
The American's longevity is rare on the WTA - it's now almost 10 years since her famous 'Serena Slam' was completed - but even the most ardent of fans cannot expect her reign to go on and on.
She'll turn 32 later this season and the fact is there's a gathering army of young players on the rise ready to take a shot at the top.
Readers in the UK will know all about Heather Watson and Laura Robson's efforts to be among that pack. To underline just how well the British pair have done, only one younger player is ranked higher - the American Sloane Stephens who enjoyed a stunning run to the Australian Open semi-finals in January - while Robson is now the top-ranked teenager at 42nd in the WTA list.
But who else will be joining the Brits on an assault at the summit of the women's game in the coming years?
Kristina Mladenovic (France, age 19, ranking 49)
The only other teenager in the world's top 50 is a former world junior number one. Mladenovic, who stands over 6ft tall, has risen rapidly over the past 12 months, winning one of the WTA's new '125' events at the back end of last season. This term she defeated former Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova en route to the semis of the Paris Indoors. She won the girls' title at the French Open in 2009 and also lost in the final of Junior Wimbledon that year. Picks grass as her favourite surface - no great surprise with a serve coming down from such a height - so look out for her in SW19 this summer and the years to come.
Annika Beck (Germany, age 19, ranking 74)
Steffi Graf's shadow still hangs over women's tennis in Germany but with the likes of Angelique Kerber and Andrea Petkovic now grabbing plenty of attention, Beck has arguably arrived at just the right time to sneak in under the radar. At least for now; for if she manages to carry her junior and ITF circuit success onto the WTA tour it won't be long until she's also knocking on the door of her compatriots. Early signs are good. She ousted seed Yaroslava Shvedova in round one of the Australian Open and made her first WTA quarter-final in Shenzen. Won the French Open junior title last season and was the youngest member of the top 100 until recently.
Garbine Muguruza (Spain, age 19, ranking 76)
Women's tennis in Spain has fallen a long way from the days when Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario and Conchita Martinez were Grand Slam winners and regularly led the country to Fed Cup success. Just perhaps this 19-year-old could help bring back the glory days - Spain's last Grand Slam champion on the women's side was Sanchez-Vicario back in 1998. Unusually for a Spaniard, Muguruza prefers the hardcourts to the clay and she's shown why in recent weeks with runs to the last 16 in both Indian Wells and Miami. She beat Caroline Wozniacki in the latter event. Not the most likely on this list to hit the heights - she openly admits her mental game needs improvement - but certainly one to keep an eye on.
Madison Keys (USA, age 18, ranking 77)
While Sloane Stephens has grabbed the mantle of 'next big thing' in the States, it would be amiss not to follow this rising talent, one who has only just turned 18. Keys may not have had the eye-catching win over a 15-time Grand Slam champion that Stephens has, but a big scalp will surely arrive soon. With a strong serve and a crunching forehand, Keys has weapons to hurt higher-ranked players. She showed that when pushing Li Na to three sets in the quarter-finals in Sydney earlier this season; a week later she made the last 32 of the Australian Open. As Keys continues to develop physically, so will those 'key' shots. She's a headline writer's dream and will be doubtless be making them busy soon.
Donna Vekic (Croatia, age 16, ranking 88)
A few years ago the media went crazy about the rise of Serb tennis; Ana Ivanovic learning to play in a drained swimming pool etc. In the next couple of years, expect something similar with the Croatians, albeit there will be no pools involved. Instead the story will centre around north London where Vekic - the youngest player in the current top 100 - has actually spent a large percentage of her life. She has been coached in some form or another by David Felgate, Tim Henman's former mentor, since the age of 11 and the partnership has worked a treat so far with Vekic becoming the youngest player in seven years to reach a WTA final when she did so in Tashkent last autumn. It was achieved on her main-draw debut. Successful, learning abroad, a fluent English speaker and blonde; it all has a Sharapova-esque feel about it. She, of course, won Wimbledon aged 17.
Yulia Putintseva (Kazakhstan, age 18, ranking 92)
If anyone knows what it will take to topple Serena Williams, it's her coach Patrick Mouratoglou. So the fact that Putintseva is a member of his academy in France has to be a good sign for a player who looks a real 'pocket rocket'. Like Williams, the Kazakh has a muscular frame, one that provides plenty of power off the ground. The problem which could hinder Putintseva is that her power is packed inside a body which stands just 5ft 4in tall. The pint-sized Justine Henin reached the top but Putintseva is even smaller. Still, she's certainly got something about her, as her victory of Laura Robson in Dubai recently showed.
Ajla Tomljanovic (Croatia, age 19, ranking 171)
In a list like this, getting to 19 and being ranked just 171st in the world doesn't seem a big deal. But anyone who saw Tomljanovic in Miami last week will know she's got the talent to make an impact in this sport. She made the last 16 there, defeating top-30 star Julia Goerges along the way. And there's a proper reason why she's not ranked higher - the Croatian missed most of 2012 due to glandular fever. A graduate of Chris Evert's academy - Evert's brother John is now her coach - Tomljanovic has plenty in her favour as she tries to make it big. Her double-handed backhand looks a shot of real promise. A star in the making.
Ashleigh Barty (Australia, age 16, ranking 197)
The last three on my list may not be quite ready to make a major impact on the game, but what prospects they are. Barty has already grabbed plenty of attention with her impressive ball-striking, a skill being honed by former ATP pro Jason Stoltenburg. Aged just 15, she was the youngest player in last season's Australian Open and at this year's tournament she took the first set off world number 14 Dominika Cibulkova. Barty has since made the last eight in Kuala Lumpur. She is following the Australian tradition of being strong on grass as she's already won Junior Wimbledon and last season claimed an ITF title on the surface in Nottingham. Already inside the top 200, a big future beckons.
Taylor Townsend (USA, age 16, ranking 349)
With the physique of Serena Williams and a left-handed game inspired by her idol Martina Navratilova, there's already plenty of attention on Taylor Townsend, who hails from Chicago. She won the Australian Open girls' title aged 15 last season, while she also tasted junior Grand Slam success on the doubles court. Such results saw Townsend named ITF world junior champion for 2012. Now more focused on the senior circuit, Townsend recently won her first WTA match at main-draw level, beating Lucie Hradecka in Indian Wells.
Ana Konjuh (Croatia, age 15, ranking 868)
When I was talking up Croatia earlier, I had Konjuh very much in mind. She's the current world junior number one but has already become something of a Fed Cup star for her country. Despite her tender age, the 15-year-old won all three singles rubbers she played in this season's competition, including one against world number 33 Urszula Radwanska. Those victories were part of a 23-match winning run across the junior and senior circuits, one which included claiming the girls' title at the Australian Open. Konjuh added the doubles crown in Melbourne for good measure. Possessing a game beyond her years, the Croat will be a major threat at the other junior Slams this season before she turns her attention to the senior ranks in 2014. Undoubtedly one to watch in the coming months and years..