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Old Dec 11th, 2013, 12:55 PM   #1
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WTA Tour: New kids on the block , part 2

Part two of our look at young players to watch in 2014 on the WTA Tour:

Katerina Siniakova (Czech Republic)
Of her junior peer group, 17-year-old Katerina Siniakova is one of the less heralded. But while the attention has been focused on Taylor Townsend, Ana Konjuh and Belinda Bencic, Siniakova has been quietly proving herself on the pro tour. She first caught the eye in Miami: ranked 821, she took full advantage of her qualifying wild-card to beat Mandy Minella and Alexa Glatch to make the main draw. That was just the start of a remarkable rise into the top 200 this year: three $25K trophies in Belgium, Hungary and Poland followed, as well as impressive wins over Alexandra Cadantu, Kristyna Pliskova and Vesna Dolonc.

Alison Van Uytvanck (Belgium)
The young Belgian first caught the eye back in 2011 when, as a 17-year-old wild-card in her hometown WTA event in Brussels, she ousted Tour veteran Patty Schnyder in what was to be the penultimate match of Schnyder’s career. It was notable was that Van Uytvanck’s repertoire of shots seemed to match even Schnyder’s notoriously wide range: she possessed both a rare finesse on the drop shot and volley and had the ability to dominate with power. Perhaps, in light of her complex game, it shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s taken Van Uytvanck until this year to start to put it together results-wise – but her win in the WTA 125 event in Taipei to finish the year, beating her more established compatriot Yanina Wickmayer in the final, was an impressive run that saw her nudge her way into the top 100.

Victoria Kan (Russia)
For the last two years, 18-year-old Victoria Kan has largely eschewed junior competition to focus on the pro circuit – always a good sign in a young player. This year, it’s seen the tiny Uzbek-born Russian rise to the verge of the top 150 following two $25K victories, one further $25K final, a $50K final and finally, to wrap up the year, a win in the Sharm el Sheikh $75K event (scoring a victory over former top 50 player Timea Bacsinszky en route). Kan has mostly stuck to clay, so the jury is out on whether surface specialism awaits – although her most impressive victory over the year, over Virginie Razzano in the Linz qualifiers, came on indoor hard courts.

Luksika Kumkhum (Thailand)
Since 1996, Tamarine Tanasugarn has valiantly represented Thai tennis on the WTA Tour – but despite a series of unexpected comebacks well into her thirties, the 36-year-old appears to be sliding gently but gradually into well-earned retirement. Luckily, there’s a young gun ready to inherit her mantle. The 20-year-old Luksika Kumkhum has largely flown under the radar as she’s emerged on to the Tour, thanks to the limited schedule she’s stuck to in her formative years and some inconveniently timed minor injury issues mid-season in 2013. But she book-ended her year with strong performances in Australia (making her slam main draw debut after qualifying for the Australian Open and winning a round) and Asia (winning the Toyota $75K tournament) – and, along the way, she’s impressed observers by her ultra-aggressive, flat-hitting game, double-handed off both wings. Like many hard hitters, Kumkhum can be erratic and lacks any real defensive game as yet – but it can also make for eye-catching highlights reel tennis, and once she finds her feet on grass, she could be as consistently formidable a force at Wimbledon as her elder compatriot has been over the years.

Taylor Townsend (USA)
The 2012 junior No. 1 and Australian Open girls’ champion has had a strange 2013. She’s continued to find success at junior level, beating Ana Konjuh to reach the Wimbledon final before falling to Belinda Bencic, and has even scored a WTA-level win at Indian Wells, albeit over the endlessly slumping, erratic Lucie Hradecka. Townsend’s presence in Indian Wells was thanks to one of six WTA-level wild cards she received this year; one suspects that the USTA has been trying to make amends for its shabby treatment of the teenager in 2012, when the tennis world was treated to the unedifying spectacle of Patrick McEnroe publicly castigating a 16-year-old girl for her weight. One wonders, though, how much that incident affected Townsend’s long-term confidence. Her talent is undeniable; remarkable hand-eye coordination enables her to both unleash a heavy, whippy lefty forehand as a point-ending weapon and to display impressive touch at the net. But equally undeniably, Townsend’s transition to the pro ranks has been a tough one: in 2013, she put up a very modest 5-13 win-loss record. Retreating from WTA wild-cards to the ITF circuit following the US Open worsened matters, if anything: as peers such as Bencic, Konjuh and Siniakova solidified their spots in next year’s Australian Open qualifying, Townsend failed to win a match in four tournaments and saw her ranking fall out of the top 350. Clearly, she has much work to do – possibly more to do with match-play than her much-discussed fitness; let’s hope the off-season sees her resolve the issues holding her back.

And one extra:

Mayo Hibi (Japan)*
Unicorn alert: in 2013, the fifth best U18 player in the world is a net-rusher with a single-handed, mostly sliced backhand. The 17-year-old Japanese-born, California-raised Mayo Hibi’s game is a true throwback – which, along with her slight frame, makes her success on the ITF circuit in 2013 all the more remarkable. An 11-match winning streak over June and July saw her win $25K and $50K titles in New Mexico and California; she followed that up by winning the gruelling US Open National Playoffs to earn herself a US Open qualifying wild-card, before becoming the first female player in the history of that competition to back it up by winning a qualifying round as well. She’s scored two top 100 wins, over Ajla Tomljanovic and Lauren Davis – so even at this early stage of her development, she’s shown she can compete at WTA level. So why the asterisk? Well, Hibi may indeed prove to be a unicorn: instead of turning pro, she’s accepted a scholarship to UCLA beginning next year. On the face of it, it’s a baffling decision – but a possible reason is that, without ties to any national federation, she’d have to take the risk of financing her career entirely herself. It’s not unknown for players who find success at pro level to defer college commitments – Mallory Burdette, for example – but fans of variety may have to wait for Hibi to graduate – and hope her desire to pursue a pro tennis career continues.


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