September 4, 2008
After Losing to the Big Kids, Juniors Take on Players Their Own Age
By MICHAEL BRICK
To think it all happened just a week ago: There she stood, 16 years old, the hometown girl out of Upper Saddle River, N.J., playing before an audience of thousands at Louis Armstrong
Stadium in the United States Open. Facing the most dangerous woman on the WTA Tour, the young Kristie Ahn charged to the net, leaped for the ball, fell, did a split, came up empty and lay on the pavement for a good 10 seconds, unhurt, rousing the crowd to her side just as James Brown
“I remember just laying there and everyone’s cheering,” Ahn said after that match. “I was just taking it in.”
But it was all over in 84 minutes. Ahn, who had played her way into the tournament through the qualifying rounds, lost her first match in straight sets. Along the way, she took seven games from Dinara Safina, who has since advanced to the semifinals.
Now Ahn was left with a consolation prize of sorts, competing on Wednesday in the separate tournament for players 18 and younger. Though it pays no prize money, the junior championship affords a trophy, ranking points and entry into the main draw the next year. Three junior champions from years past — Andy Roddick
, Lindsay Davenport
and Stefan Edberg
— have gone on to win the Open.
This year, of the 128 juniors, nine girls and two boys had also sought entry to the main tournament. Of those, four girls received wild-card slots. Both of the boys and four of the five remaining girls were eliminated in the qualifying rounds.
Every year, most of these teenaged prodigies face elimination during the first week of play, in time to join their peers in the juniors draw. There are exceptions. In the past 40 years, more than 100 players eligible for the juniors have advanced to the Round of 16 in Grand Slam events. Among them were Chris Evert
at age 16 in 1971, Tracy Austin at age 14 in 1977, and Martina Hingis
at age 14 in 1995.
The list counts far more girls than boys “because they mature earlier,” said Faye Andrews, a coordinator of the junior circuit for the International Tennis Federation. “With the boys, it takes them a bit longer to compete at that level physically.”
Besides Ahn, the juniors who appeared in the main draw this year included Gail Brodsky of Brooklyn; Melanie Oudin of Marietta, Ga.; Asia Muhammad of Las Vegas; and Coco Vandeweghe of Carlsbad, Calif. They have all been eliminated. Vandeweghe, 16, whose direct lineage includes a Knicks
forward, a Miss America and a two-sport Olympian, lost in straight sets to No. 2-ranked Jelena Jankovic.
In the late-morning heat on Wednesday, Vandeweghe and Ahn took their places on Court 11 to compete in the second round of the junior tournament. Over the referee’s left shoulder, the stanchions of the marquee stadiums cantilevered skyward. Beyond a low fence, luxury cars stood open for the admiring. A couple of hundred spectators fanned themselves with flimsy bits of cardboard stapled to tongue depressors and emblazoned with the logos of corporate sponsors.
Before somber line judges, advertisements for beer they could not legally purchase and a pair of ball girls about their age, Ahn and Vandeweghe traded baseline blasts.
In the first set, Ahn flubbed two shots out of bounds, paced in a circle to regain her composure, failed at that, lost the game, walked to the back of the court and introduced her forehead to the back fence.
“Come on, Kristie,” somebody called.
Ahn won the eighth game on her only ace. Vandeweghe believed the shot had landed out and said so, pointing with her racket to a spot on the far side of the line from the judge
“I mean, I know it’s a tough line for you to see, because it’s that way, but. ...” Vandeweghe argued, raising her arms as if to indicate that no clause would arrive to complete her sentence.
After 73 minutes of play, Vandeweghe won the match, 6-3, 6-4, converting three of four break-point opportunities and hitting eight aces. Ahn hurried away; Vandeweghe signed autographs.
“I go match by match,” Vandeweghe said later. “It’d be great to win it, and stuff like that.”
In an interview, Ahn recounted the lessons of her turn on the premier courts.
“I guess to be, like, thankful,” she said. “It was an amazing experience.”