By Matt Cronin
SLOANE STEPHENS: The American is the youngest and most accomplished young player on tour. She the youngest player in the top 15 at the age of 20, she reached the second week of every Grand Slam this year and has a legitimate shot to qualify for the year-end WTA Championships. She’s one of the fastest players on tour, has a ferocious forehand, a pretty good backhand and a more than respectable first serve. Plus, as Serena Williams found out when Stephens upset her in Australia, she likes big matches. At this point, she’s the cream of the crop and may be the first of this group to win a Grand Slam.
EUGENIE BOUCHARD: While the Canadian’s fast rise has not been as noticeable as some others, she’s come along way since winning the Wimbledon Girl’s title in 2012 as she’s now the highest ranked teenager in the top 40 at No. 38. She moves very well, strikes the ball cleanly and hard off both wings and has been improving her serve. Like her idol Maria Sharapova, Bouchard appears to have ice in her veins, on court and off. She and Stephens just split two long three setters during the past two weeks. Their rivalry, which dates back to the juniors, could become one of the tour’s most hotly contested. As Stephens once said of her relationship with Monica Puig, ‘It’s not like they are besties.”
MADISON KEYS: The 18-year-old American has received a ton of accolades due to her sheer power: she can consistently hit over 120 MPH with her first serve and can gun it off the ground. She can be erratic and lose focus in matches, but she has already cracked the top 40 and once she grows into her body and improves her movement, she’s going to be dangerous to every player out there. In great health she has top-5 potential, but she has had trouble staying healthy so that will perhaps be her greatest challenge.
LAURA ROBSON: The highly touted Briton already has pocketed three large scalps in Grand Slam winners Kim Clijsters, Li Na and Petra Kvitova, but her play has been up and down. The lefthander can dictate with her huge forehand, has a pretty good backhand down the line too and a decent slice serve, but even though she has become a bit quicker, she can be had on the run. But what you have to love about Robson is her go getter’s attitude. The current world No. 41 is smart, full of self confidence and bravado which will serve her well as she climbs toward the top echelons of the game. Don’t be surprised to see her end 2014 in the top 20 and crack the top 10 the year after that. But will her lack of speed keep her from winning majors? Very possibly.
ELENA SVITOLINA: The 18-year-old Ukrainian won the French Open Girl’s title at the age of 15 and has done a fine job of climbing up the WTA ladder, winning the title in Baku and upsetting No. 21 Dominika Cibulkova at the US Open. She can bang the ball, but still doesn’t manage some of her matches properly. However, that will come with experience and given that the current world No. 42 has climbed about 90 places in the rankings since the start of the year, she should naturally progress toward the top 20 once she refines her game and grows in confidence against the elite players.
MONICA PUIG: Puerto Rico’s finest player defines feisty. The 20-year-old is an excellent counter puncher who reached the fourth round of Wimbledon. A very accomplished junior who isn’t very tall, she has found ways to wear the taller power players down. But she has to find a way to develop a few more weapons if she’s going to make a serious top 20 push.
KRISTINA MLADENOVIC: France’s most promising player is of Serbian heritage with a mother who played pro volleyball and a father who played pro handball. She’s tall, has a giant serve, big return and pretty good volley. But the 20 year-old can come part at the seams in singles and does not move that well laterally. She has to become more consistent or the faster players will counterpunch her into the ground.
GARBINE MUGURUZA: Spain’s most promising player is missing the second half of the season due to an injury but she is no typical grinder: at 6 feet tall, she can dictate play. She has a whale of forehand, a pretty sizeable two-handed backhand and isn’t afraid to move forward. She does have some rough edges to her game, but with little more seasoning could be visiting the top 30 by mind-2015.
CAROLINE GARCIA: Another 20-year-old Frenchwoman, Garcia is shotmaker who is having trouble putting together wins on the WTA level outside of qualifying. She’ll shows flashes of brilliance, but then begin to find the fences with wild shots. At this point, it’s hard to project the current world No. 73 as any better than top 40 player.
DONNA VEKIC: The 17-year-old Croat is a terrific ball striker and appears to be a good athlete. Compared by some to Maria Sharapova because of her height and well, blondeness, she’s extremely self confident and seems to believe that she will reach the top spot some day. Currently ranked No. 77, her game isn’t quite up to elite stands yet, but she did reach the final of Birmingham on grass with a win over No. 24 Sorana Cirstea. Given how ambitious she is, it would not be surprising to see her crack the top 20 by 2015.