Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Where are they now?, Where are they going?

The Next Big Thing in tennis is not always the Next Big Thing. Here are are a few players who were "anointed" way too early in their careers:

Michelle Larcher De Brito
The Portuguese teenager broke through at such an early age that she was immediately called a "prodigy." When she was 12, Larcher De Brito won the Eddie Herr tournament, and she won the Orange Bowl when she was 14. Sadly, she became better known for her on-court screaming than she did for her tennis, although--in 2013, playing as a qualifier, she beat Maria Sharapova in the second round at Wimbledon. This victory fueled a possible resurgence for Larcher De Brito, but it wasn't to be. She has yet to win a WTA tournament, and is currently ranked number 245 in the world.

Tamira Paszek
The Austrian player was also considered a tennis prodigy by many. She reached the round of 16 at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2007, but that remains the peak of her career. That career has, at times, been interrupted by injury and other issues. Paszek has won three titles, but none since 2012, when she defeated Angelique Kerber for the Eastbourne title. She is clearly talented, but has not been able to reach anything near the success that was frequently predicted for her. She is currently ranked number 105 in the world.

Nicole Vaidisova
Vaidisova is a bit of a different story. The Czeck player actually rose to a number 10 ranking in 2006. She won six WTA events, and reached the semifinals of both the Australian Open and the French Open, as well as the quarterfinals (twice) at Wimbledon. An undeniable talent, Vaidisova sometimes struggled to control her temper. She retired from professional tennis in 2010. I recall that someone who knew her well remarked that the Czech star simply had a dislike for competition. In 2014, however, Vaidisova came back to the tour, but retired again not long ago.

It's hard to imagine the tremendous pressure--both internal and external--that is placed on a young player who has been chosen as The Next Big Thing. In some cases, perhaps that player just couldn't handle the rigors of tennis life after junior competition. In other cases, the family or public pressure may get in the way.

Recall Andrea Jaeger, who had a top 10 career, reaching the finals of both the French Open and Wimbledon, and the semifinals of both the Australian Open and the U.S. Open. Jaeger's career was cut very short by injury, but it also came out that she had little interest in competing; after retiring, she revealed that she had tanked some very big matches. Jaeger  (who had endured significant parental abuse), made it clear that her heart was just never in it--She would go on to become Sister Andrea, a member of the Anglican Order of Preachers, though she allegedly left the order several years ago.

And while tennis doesn't have a dramatic story of "failed prodigy shows them all," golf does. Michelle Wie was hailed as the ultimate gold prodigy, and had some very impressive sponsorships contracts, but when she didn't meet public expectations, she was treated very harshly by the sports media and by fans. But Wie hung on. She went to Stanford, made exceptional grades, and earned a degree. She also began painting, and--not surprisingly--experienced healing and a sense of focus from creating art.

In 2014, Wie won the U.S. Open, showing the world that she was indeed a very fine golfer, and doing it on her terms (she is still criticized for her putting style). So far, Wie has won four LPGA events, with the U.S. Open being the only major. She may never be a Lydia Ko or an Inbee Park, but one never knows--Wie is only 26, and the career of a professional golfer can last many years.

Every year, I wonder which of tennis's Next Big Things will "make the cut." Obviously, Garbine Muguruza has already done so, and time will tell about the likes of Karolina Pliskova, Madison Keys and Belinda Bencic.


Todd.Spiker said...

Another one that we sort of forget about being so highly touted is Pavlyuchenkova, who was as dominant a junior player as we've seen in the last twenty years and who seemed to be the logical next Russian to "hit it big." Even Sports Illustrated listed her in its group of athletes who were going to be "next big things." It's never quite happened though, even with her occasional moments of near-brilliance. But at least she still has time to live up to (some) the hype, and now finally seems to be training in a way that might actually give her a fighting chance, too.

Diane said...

Yes, I haven't quite given up on Pavs--she's kind of "in between worlds" right now. It could go either way. (Why do I sound like I'm talking about Sveta?)