Henin heads the teenage takeover

Belgium's young stars join an army of upstarts from eastern Europe pushing up the world rankings
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Whatever happens in today's rain-delayed women's final, wen the new rankings for the Women's Tennis Association are published tomorrow Justine Henin will be fifth and Kim Clijsters sixth. Henin is 19, Clijsters 18, both are Belgian. Welcome to the fast-changing world of the tour, where to be 30 is to invite the offer of Zimmer frame and bus pass. Dominique Van Roost retired at the end of last year, aged 27. She is Belgian, too, by the way.

Henin and Clijsters are in the vanguard of an exciting group of teenagers, mainly from Russia and the former Iron Curtain countries, who are vying for the top 10 places once filled for so long by such as Conchita Martinez and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario.

Clijsters is perhaps best known for the fact that Lleyton Hewitt, the Australian 20-year-old, is her boyfriend, but she is fast establishing herself as a contender for the very top spot. Although she did not celebrate her 18th birthday until last month, she had already won three WTA titles by the end of 2000 and this year has reached the finals of Indian Wells, losing to Serena Williams, and the French Open, where she took Jennifer Capriati to the limit in a marvellous contest.

To get to that final in Paris, Clijsters had needed to eliminate the petite Henin in the semi-finals in three sets. At Wimbledon Henin is the one who has pushed herself to the forefront on the strength of her astonishing single-handed backhand, already hailed as the best in the women's game. A year ago Clijsters lost in the first round of Roland Garros, while Henin failed to survive her first match on her debut at Wimbledon 2000. Such is the measure of their progress in 12 months.

World No 1 Martina Hingis, an ancient of 20, has already felt the thunder of the pursuing pack. Recently it was the turn of Venus Williams to be humiliated by Henin, 6-1 6-4 at the German Open. Perhaps we should expect nothing less, since Williams is 21 now.

Perhaps the teenager best known to British fans is Jelena Dokic, the Belgrade-born, Australia-trained prodigy who has reverted to Yugoslav citizenship but appears in no such state of indecision when it comes to advancing her career. She recently enjoyed a double celebration in Rome, marking her 18th birthday by winning the Italian Open, her first major championship. Dokic made the headlines by ousting Hingis in the 1999 Wimbledon first round and then marched into last year's semi-finals as a qualifier.

Though Henin, Clijsters and Dokic are the leading contenders for fame, there is a cadre of eastern Europeans pushing at the doors. The first to make her mark was Anna Kournikova, but she lived in Florida from the age of nine and has become more of a marketing agent's dream than a successful tennis player, since she is still waiting to claim her first title and, in any case, has been out of action for some months now with a stress fracture of the foot.

It is Elena Dementieva, a 19-year-old six-footer from Moscow, who has made much more significant an impact of late when it comes to action on the court rather than off it. She made the semi-finals of the US Open last September and showed her liking for tournaments in America by getting to the last four at the Chase Championships in Madison Square Garden two months later. The pro-US theme has been continued this season as the tall blonde got to a semi-final in Miami and the quarter-finals in Amelia Island and Indian Wells. Like Kournikova, however, she is still waiting for her first WTA singles title and others from her nation are giving every indication of catching up fast.

Nadia Petrova, born in Moscow but now living in Krakow, Poland, is another tall Russian who eliminated two seeds at Wimbledon last week before losing to Venus Williams in the fourth round. The other Williams, Serena, was the one who beat her at the French, but once more she had battled through to the last 16, a sign of genuine progress on vastly different surfaces.

Another Muscovite, Anastasia Myskina, who is 20 today, has already won one WTA Tour title (Palermo), while the Russian 17-year-old with the tongue-twisting name, Lina Krasnoroutskaya, has made huge strides this season with a quarter-final at Roland Garros and the fourth round of Wimbledon and Indian Wells.

Slovakia, the nation which gave Hingis to tennis, has high hopes of Daniela Hantuchova, an 18-year-old who made her Wimbledon debut this year and at a shade under six foot is not easy to miss. Even Uzbekistan, not known as a hotbed of tennis talent, has a 19-year-old heading for the top 50 – Iroda Tulyaganova, a quarter-finalist at Strasbourg and Tashkent.

Spain could never be left out of any list of fine young players and their brightest newcomer is an 18-year-old from the Canary Isles, Marta Marrero, who got to the fourth round of the Australian Open this year and the quarters at last year's French Open.

However, the Hingis-type plaudits are already being prepared for another Russian, Dinara Safina. She is only 15 but marched into the final of Junior Wimbledon's girls event on Friday. She is also from Moscow, and if you think her name might be slightly familiar, yes, she "is" the sister of Marat Safin.