Top 10 tennis prodigies.
Andrea Jaeger. One of the shortest careers in the professional game, due to injury, Jaeger retired before she reached her twenties. As a teenager, she terrorized the tour, though she has confessed to not giving her best efforts in a Wimbledon final as she believed that her opponent, Martina Navratilova, “wanted it more”. That was not the only occasion that Jaeger, who reached a career high of No 2 in the rankings, did not try as hard as she should have done: “If I had become No 1, it would have been for selfish reasons and by doing that, I would have lost the best part of who I am.” Andrea Jaeger is now a nun.
Mats Wilander. The seven-time grand slam champion who may now be better known to younger tennis fans as a commentator, burst on to the scene at the 1982 French Open. The 17-year-old unseeded Swede brushed aside big names such as Ivan Lendl, Vitas Gerulatis and Guillermo Vilas on his way to lifting the Coupe des Mousquetaires and becoming the then youngest ever major champion. Wilander added two Australian Open titles to his name before the age of twenty. As well as a TV pundit, the Swede is a ‘mobile coach’, travelling North America with his company ‘Wilander on Wheels’.
Tracy Austin. The injury-strewn Californian became the youngest ever US Open champion, beating Chris Evert in 1979, aged 16. Austin reached world number one in 1980, before winning at Flushing Meadows again in 1981, beating Martina Navratilova in the first ever US Open to be decided on a tie-break. Back injuries forced the pig-tailed blonde to retire prematurely at the age of 21. Austin can often be seen commentating alongside John McEnroe, with whom she’s built a famous rapport. “I think of my life as three careers – my tennis career, my career as a commentator and my career as a mum.”
Boris Becker. The fresh-faced 17 year old became the youngest ever Wimbledon champion in 1985, and also the first unseeded player to ever triumph on the second Sunday. Becker says: “Other places and memories fade, Wimbledon glows brighter.” The German successfully defended his title at SW19 in 1986. The often self-barracking red-head made the diving-volley his trademark shot, which along with his explosive serve captured him six majors.
Monica Seles. She won an astonishing eight slams as a teenager, more than anyone else. Seles was a formidable force as a youth, but suffered greatly after her tragic on-court stabbing. At the age of 15, at the conclusion of her first full time year on tour, she finished as world No 6. Known as one of the original ‘grunters’, which infuriated many, Seles explained her accomplishments: “Teenagers are fuelled by a naive invincibility that can lead to tremendous achievements. It just goes to show how much power the mind has.”
Michael Chang. He snatched the label of youngest grand slam champion away from Becker less than four years after the German had claimed it. Chang was unseeded at the 1989 French Open, but went on to win the title, which included defeats of Ivan Lendl and Stefan Edberg in five sets. The most memorable moment in his match with Lendl was Chang’s crafty underarm serve that caught the world no 1 off-guard. It could be argued that Chang underachieved by winning just one Major, but he played in an era of greats that included Sampras and Agassi, so he can be forgiven.
Jennifer Capriati. She was the youngest player to ever break into the world’s top ten, doing so when she was aged 14. The young American won Gold at the 1992 Olympics, but burned-out after that, taking a 14-month break from the game in the autumn of 1993. During this time, Capriati’s troubles were well-documented, including arrests for shoplifting and possession of drugs. When she returned to the game, she went on to win three slams in 2001 and 2002. Capriati describes her career by saying “I was such an early starter, an ‘early prodigy’, but really I feel like a late-bloomer.”
Martina Hingis. Often controversial and outspoken, Martina Hingis was just as talented. She became the youngest ever world No 1 when she reached the summit of the women’s game aged just 16 in 1997. By the time she was 20, she had won 13 Grand Slam titles, 5 singles and 8 doubles. Her success was halted by numerous injuries, and she finally retired having been accused of drug use in 2007. Hingis knew she was good and wasn’t backwards in coming forwards about it – “It’s always ‘Tiger Woods, Tiger Woods.’ I am better than he is. I’ve been on top longer and I am younger. I am just better.”
Rafael Nadal. He is the most recent male to win a slam as a teen – he captured the first ever French Open he played, in 2005. During the clay-court season of that year, he won 24 consecutive matches, breaking Andre Agassi’s record of consecutive wins as a teenager. Nadal reached No 2 in the world before he reached 20 and has gone from strength to strength since. With the career slam, Olympic gold and Davis Cup under his belt, as well as a winning record against almost every player on tour, the Spaniard produces a great argument to be considered the greatest of all time. However, he is always quick to dismiss such claims: “I think to talk about whether I am better or worse that Roger (Federer) is stupid, because the titles say everything, he’s much better than me.”
Maria Sharapova. As a 17-year-old, Maria Sharapova caused what the media described as ‘the biggest upset in memory’ by beating Serena Williams in the 2004 Wimbledon final. This was just the start for the Russian teen, who went on claim the world No 1 spot as an 18-year-old, and win the US Open as a 19-year-old. She has since won another major at the 2008 Australian Open, not to mention that she is the highest earning female athlete in the World, due to her marketability. When comparisons were made between her and other teenage prodigies, Sharapova put it bluntly, “I’m not the next anyone, I’m the first Maria Sharapova.”