Prodigy is so, like, 1970. Fans once fell all over themselves for the likes of Chris Evert, Bjorn Borg, and others in the long line of youthful overachievers. But in the new millennium, the public has flung its collective arms around battle-scarred veterans and players of a certain age, including that pair of beloved 33-year olds, Roger Federer and Serena Williams.
If that’s going to change, Wimbledon is the place it may happen—there’s quite a history of youthful insurgency at the All England Club, as I’ll get into. And it if happens this year, 17-year-old Ana Konjuh may be the latest player fans fawn over.
Konjuh is a 5’9” right-hander with a strong build—her listed weight is 143 lbs—and the talent for getting it behind her clean, precise, relatively flat shots. She used those fusillades, and more, to win her first tour title a few days ago in Nottingham, the grass-court tune-up for Wimbledon, in an impressive display of stamina as well as skill, leavened with a good dose of intelligence. In doing so, the Croat became the the youngest WTA player to win a title since Tamira Paszek in 2006.
Because of rain, Konjuh was obliged to play her quarterfinal and semifinal on Sunday, and then face tricky Monica Niculescu in a Monday final. It was a lot to ask, but then this was the same youth who rose to prominence in juniors three years ago, after playing 17 singles and doubles matches in 14 days to win a pair of prestigious 18-and under titles, including the Orange Bowl. Later, Konjuh would go on to win the junior Grand Slam titles at the 2013 Australian and U.S. Opens.
In Nottingham, Konjuh struggled through the first set to cope with Niculescu’s slice-and-dice tactics. “She’s an uncomfortable player to play against,” Konjuh said afterward. “Especially on grass, with that many slices. It’s so frustrating. But she has that experience and she took the first set because I wasn’t ready for it.”
But Konjuh soon found her rhythm and rolled out her big guns, smacking heavy drives at precise angles. She took advantage of those openings by coming forward and volleying with composure and impressive touch. Off the ground, Konjuh is reminiscent of a young Lindsay Davenport, but she already seems to have a more well-developed sense of the all-court game than the American did at a comparable age.
As a result of her win, Konjuh is up to No. 55 in the WTA rankings, making her the top-ranked 17-year-old by a country mile. The next closest is No. 160 Katerina Stewart. In fact, Konjuh is already ranked second among the entire under 20-set, trailing only 18-year-old Belinda Bencic, ranked No. 31.
Either of those young women could emerge as the latest in a long line of 18-or-under prodigies who have made stunning breakthroughs at Wimbledon:
—In 1979, Tracy Austin was a Wimbledon semifinalist at age 16. But top-seeded Martina Navratilova proved too strong for her in the final four. Austin never did win Wimbledon, but she won the U.S. Open twice, and was ranked No. 1 in 1980.
—Andrea Jaeger, a 17-year old finalist at Wimbledon in 1983, was not so fortunate. A terrific athlete and one of the most combative players ever to prowl a court, Jaeger struggled with injuries and the emotional demands of the game. In ‘83, she ripped through Billie Jean King in the semis, 6-1, 6-1, but Navratilova proved too strong for her in the final. Jaeger, who never won a major but was ranked as high as No. 2, was a victim of burnout, gone from tennis by 1985.
—It’s hard to imagine, but Jennifer Capriati is still only 39 years old. Harder still to envision: Capriati was a Wimbledon semifinalist at age 15. And even more mind-bending: Capriati advanced to the that stage via a neat, 6-4, 6-4 win over local icon and No. 3 seed Navratilova. But Capriati fell short in the semis, losing 8-6 in the third to Gabriela Sabatini.
—Monica Seles was a Wimbledon semifinalist at 18. She won a tight, tense three-setter over Navratilova, but she was blitzed by rival Steffi Graf in the final. It was the last time she’d reach the final at SW19.
—It was an astonishing year for prodigies at Wimbledon in 1997, when a pair of 16-year-olds met in the semis: Martina Hingis and Anna Kournikova. It was a wonderful opportunity for both girls, as the winner would get an equally unlikely finalist in either nervous nelly Jana Novotna or clay-court specialist Arantxa Sanchez Vicario.
Hingis handled her Russian opponent with relative ease, 6-3, 6-2, then won her second Grand Slam title over Novotna in three sets. Hingis would come within one match of completing the calendar-year Grand Slam that year, losing only the French Open final.
Kournikova never did win a WTA title, but that was something of an aberration, for the was ranked as high as No. 8 and did win two Grand Slam doubles titles. Off the court, she would go on to become an Internet sensation thanks to her good looks and an ability—and willingness—to market them.
—In 1999, Wimbledon produced another 17-year old teenage sensation, Croatian Mirjana Lucic. She put up impressive resistance to No. 2 seed Steffi Graf in the semifinals, winning the first-set tiebreaker before the experienced veteran reeled her in. Lucic rose to No. 32, then struggled mightily and disappeared for nearly a decade. She re-emerged in the spotlight last summer using her married name, Lucic-Baroni, when she upset Simona Halep at the U.S. Open. Just a few weeks ago at the French Open, she defeated the highly ranked Halep again. Lucic-Baroni ought to be sponsored by the Grateful Dead: Oh, what a long, strange trip it’s been.
—Jelena Dokic also was 17 when she rocketed to the Wimbledon semifinals in 2000. Davenport had too much firepower for her in that round, and Dokic’s overnight success seemed to create as many problems as opportunities for the Croatian teen and her heavily involved, controversial father and coach, Damir. But despite the numerous ups and downs, Dokic did make it as high as No. 4 in the rankings, and she won six WTA titles. She’s one of the few players who have won main-tour titles on all four major surfaces: Clay, hard, carpet, and grass.
Like many prodigies before her, Konjuh has figured out a lot at an early age, and her recent success on grass makes her upcoming Wimbledon journey an interesting one to follow. But it will take more than forehands and backhands to sustain success on tour, for not every player who burst forth like a supernova at the All England Club has gone on to light up the skies over Paris, Melbourne, and New York, as her sensational breakout might have suggested.