Was not sure where to post it. Maybe someone will be interested in it.
Are Ally Baker and Co. ready to challenge the Russians?
By Matthew Cronin
Given her fairly modest results this year, lefty junior Ally Baker of the US has received an enormous amount of attention. She's a tall lefty with a fairly big ground game. But, at age 16, she has yet to show Venus-Serena-Jennifer-Lindsay or even Chanda-like potential.
Because the current crop of US women pros is the best the nation has ever produced and because the Williamses are so young, there's no outcry about the lack of promising junior girls waiting in the wings to replace America's elite.
But there's little question as to who is producing the best juniors these days: Russia and the countries of the former Eastern Bloc. Baker found that at the Orange Bowl when she was crushed by eventual champ Vera Douchevina in the semis, who then pounded Anna-Lena Groenefeld of Germany, 6-0, 6-1 in the final.
The 16-year-old Baker is the highest ranked US girl in the ITF 18s at No. 18, which says that US fans shouldn't expect any of their own kids to be challenging for the WTA top-20 in 2003. Ashley Harkleroad certainly has a shot at the top-50 and Stanford student Amber Lui might make some waves in the summer after the NCAA championships are over. Carly Gullickson and Jamea Jackson have has some nice results, and it's hard to ignore the persistence of 18s Super National champ Alexandra Podkolzina of Concord, who has signed with the University of California-Berkeley.
RUSSIANS DEPTH UNFATHOMABLE
But the Russians appear to be a little stronger than all of them are right now. Not just Douchevina – who gave Russia its fourth Orange Bowl girls' 18s title in the last five years – but also Vera Zvonerova, who won two Orange Bowl titles, finished 2002 ranked No. 45 on the WTA Tour and just smashed Tatiana Panova on Monday in New Zealand. There's also ITF No. 1 Barbara Strycova, No. 6 Petra Cetkovska and No. 9 Lucie Safarova of the Czech Republic, as well Russians No. 3 Maria Kirlenko and No. 7 Maria Sharapova to contend with.
The US teens certainly have a tall order to contend with and it's a little unfair to count them out entirely. Baker is already a pro and did push Elena Likhovsteva to a third-set tiebreaker in the US Open main draw, but then dropped a close decision in the US Open juniors to eventual champ Kirilenko. Baker has already had two knee operations and will never be a speedster, so she's fashioning her game after her heroine, Lindsay Davenport. "She has a big serve and ground strokes and I like how she tries to move forward and come to the net," Baker told USTA.com. "I feel like I'm just at the beginning of my pro career; it's such a big transition to make. I'm really, really close and every match that I play I'm right in there. I need to put in just a little more work and gain more experience. Hopefully, it'll all just click one day."
If you can believe what former UCLA assistant coach Henry Hines says, Bevelry Hills' Iris Ichim should be included in the elite U.S. mix. The 17-year-old Ichim recently reached the final of the Chanda Rubin Tulsa ITF. "If Iris is on her game, she's better than anybody in her US age group," said her coach Henry Hines. "Right now, she just needs a little more big match experience. She can really punish you."
Hines has Ichim on a non-detourable pro track, where she 's working super hard with him off-court running in sand pits, working on strategy with former great Pancho Segura and getting her mechanics together with Marissa Irvin's coach Brian Teacher.
"We're a solid team who all believe that if she develops her game properly, she can be a great pro," Hines said. "We're not even thinking about the college option now. Iris has the full package."
This trend of focusing on developing elite pros rather than well-rounded student athletes who have a desire to attend standout universities is not new, but it's certainly picking up steam and is worth paying attention to.
During the month of December, ******************** spoke to the coaches of 12 different elite juniors and none of the kids have a strong desire to go to school over the pros. They all want to shine under the bright lights of the big top.
Take Bakersfield's Danon Beatty, who won the 16s Super National Hard Courts singles as well nine doubles crowns in '02. She's a fearless, tireless singles competitor who works with three different coaches – Jeff Hedberg and Hank Pfister in Bakersfield and Thomas Brinkoff in Santa Barbara. All have seen her go from being a talented yet erratic player to one who can calmly control the court with her backhand. "There were times last year when I was playing so bad that I was thinking, 'Oh my god, what am I doing,'" she said. "But now everything seems to be working for me. My forehand is more consistent, I'm working hard on my serve and my transition game."
Because she was ill, Beatty had to pull out of the Orange Bowl singles and was unable to test her game against the world's elite 16s. However, she got a good look at the singles competition. "My confidence is very high now , said Beatty. "The foreign girls are big but if I keep improving, I can play with anybody."
In '03, Beatty will step into the 18s and hopes that the USTA will come to her aid and help her travel to Europe for the junior summer tournaments. Instead of attending to high school classes, Beatty is taking independent study. Her dream comes as no surprise: to turn pro and take the world by storm. "I know that's everybody's dream," she said. "I'll take a full ride to college, but my dreams are a lot higher than that. I think I can pull it off."
Even the baby teens are already gazing at the pros. Because she is the little sister of former 18s national champ and Duke No. 1 Philip King, 13-year-old Vania King receives a lot of looks. "She really runs the show out there," said USTA coach Eliot Teltscher said. "She's a very strong and tough little girl. She's smart, technically sound and knows how to win."
King scored wins over top SoCaler Tracy Lin in the 18s, reached the semis of the 18s National Open, and was a runner-up in the 16s Orange Bowl doubles with Katy Pooler, as well as reaching the fourth round in singles. Rather than have her punching it out for the top spot in the 14s, her father and coach, David, has her pulling at the ponytails of the 18s. "She really showed me she could play up," said David . "Before I moved her up she needed to show me she could meet the challenge. Everything has improved – her strokes, her mental game, her fitness."
Vania is a wall from the baseline and good mid-match thinker. Part of that comes from the King family's insistence that their kids expand their minds off court. Vania not only is a top student, she also plays the piano and sings. While David concedes that the top international players hit a little harder than Vania does now (especially their serves), he says that once she gets in a rally, she can control points. "Once she's able to find her opponents weaknesses, she can beat anybody," he said. "She should peak around 16 and then we'll know whether she has to consider college.
While the name King has been on observers lips for two years now, the name Sarah Fansler hasn't. That changed in '02, when Fansler reached the final of the 14s Super National Hardcourts. Fanstler works with her step father, Frank Giampaolo, who spent 20 years working under the legendary Vic Braden. According to Giampaolo, Sarah stepped up in '02 because of the sheer number of hours they spent trying to get her to rid herself of inner demons late in matches. "We spent much more time on the mental and emotional sides," Giampaolo said. "What really helped her is going on court with specific strategies as to how to beat all types of players: a moonballer, a hard-hitting baseliner, a drop shotter, a net rusher. Instead of looking at the birds during changeovers, Sarah reads what-to-do notes. She didn't get nervous as much because she wasn't playing humans any more, but styles and systems."
Giampaolo thinks that Sarah is the best of her group and is also looking for Sarah to peak as a junior when she's 16 to 17. "Sarah can cream the ball right now but it doesn't always go in," he said. "She needs to improve her shot selection. I expect that once she turns 17, that she won't missing the easy put-aways that she sometimes misses now."
Maybe it's the 13 and 14 year-olds who will produce the next Venus and Serena or maybe Baker, Lui, Ichim et al will leap up to another level. Whatever the case may be, it's apparent today that the words "Game, Ms. X-ova "will be more common on umpires lips in the coming months than "Match, Ms. Jane Doe."