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Sunday January 20, 2013

The boys are struggling to impress


WHEREe are the young guns? Shooting blanks.

Boris Becker won Wimbledon at 17. Michael Chang conquered the French Open at the same age. John McEnroe reached the Wimbledon semi-finals as an 18-year-old amateur. Lleyton Hewitt was world No. 1 at 19.

What happened to male teenagers gatecrashing the majors? Novak Djokovic says they are simply not good enough to be making their presence felt.

American Sloane Stephens and Britain’s Laura Robson led 11 teenage women into the Australian Open’s second round but among the men, local wildcard Luke Saville, 18, was the only player in the main draw under the age of 20.

He was beaten in the first round by Japan’s Go Soeda. Remarkably, no male teenager is in the top 100, or 200. The highest-ranked teenager in the world is Japan’s Taro Daniel at number 282 - and he turns 20 next week.

Djokovic played his first Grand Slam when he was 17, beaten in the opening round of the 2005 Australian Open by the eventual champion, Russia’s Marat Safin.

At that time, it was nothing unusual for a teenager to be appearing at a major championship. But those days would appear to be long gone.

“I believe the competition is evolving and it’s continued growing the last few years,” Djokovic said, after beating 34-year-old Czech Radek Stepanek on Friday to advance to round four at Melbourne Park.

“It makes it even more difficult for the youngsters to come up and make a breakthrough but you know, if you’re a world-class and quality player, you’re going to find your way through.”

The cream of the young crop now are Canada’s 22-year-old Milos Raonic (world No. 15), Bulgaria’s 21-year-old Grigor Dimitrov (world No. 41) and Australia’s Bernard Tomic, 20 (world No. 43).

Raonic and Tomic both went through to round three at Melbourne Park but Dimitrov fell at the first hurdle to 31-year-old Frenchman Julien Benneteau.

“Those kind of players are expected to become top 10 players in the near future,” Djokovic said. “We’ll see how they go.”

US Open champion Andy Murray said the increased physical fitness and mental strength of seasoned professionals made it more difficult for inexperienced players to break through.

“There are loads of guys that are very, very tough players, all with different games,” he said, before beating Dimitrov in the final of the Brisbane International this month.

“You need to give them time physically. The game has changed a lot. When you play in the Slams, obviously in really hot temperatures, that’s when physically you need to be extremely tough.

“That’s when you’ll find out about them, when they get through some tough, long five-set matches.

“When you’re used to winning in the juniors, the shots that you’re hitting in are winning shots. But when they’re coming back three, four, five times on the main tour, mentally that’s tough.

“You need to adjust your game a little bit. You need to get much stronger, so your ball is coming through the court much harder, and so that shots that used to be winners against you aren’t winners any more. It needs to take three or four shots to get it past you.

“It takes time to reach that stage now.”

Australian Tomic, who is the youngest player in the top 100, said he had now realised how much work was needed to be competitive at a high level.

“A year goes by really quickly. All of a sudden I was 19, now I’m 20. That was in October last year. I said, ‘Look, time’s flying. I do have the talent. I can play good. But I’m not using it’,” Tomic said.

“So I worked hard, as much as I could. It’s amazing, you know, what can happen in two months, let alone in the next year if you push yourself to improve every day.” – AFP


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