WTA Teen Prodigies: Players who made their marks on the tour at an incredibly young age

leyeaduloju in Features 16 Mar 2020
Martina Hingis (PA Sport)

The impressive Coco Gauff turned 16 on Friday following a year during which she claimed her first WTA title, reached the second week of a Slam on two occasions, and broke into the top-50, but where does she rank on the list of WTA teenage prodigies?

We look through the history of the women’s tour and pick out four players who made their marks on the sport at an incredibly young age.

Tracy Austin

A 14-year-old Tracy Austin shook women’s tennis in the late 1970’s and early 80’s, challenging the established order to charge into the top echelon of the sport. The teen prodigy became the youngest player to win a WTA title when she was champion in Portland in January 1977, just under a month after her 14th birthday. That record still stands till today. The American went on to make her Grand Slam main draw debut later that year at Wimbledon, reaching the third round, while she made the quarter finals at the US Open, becoming the youngest player to get that far at in New York.

Two years later, at only 16 years and nine months old, she became the youngest ever US Open champion, defeating Martina Navratilova in the semi-finals and Chris Evert, who had been gunning for a fifth straight title, in the final. Austin reached No. 1 in the world in 1980, and added a second US Open crown in 1981, this time, beating Evert in the title match- all of these before her 20th birthday.

Unfortunately, Austin’s time at the top echelon of the women’s game was hampered by chronic injuries, and a serious car accident in 1989. By the end 1983, before she turned 21, she was effectively done. Austin won the last of her 30 WTA titles in San Diego in July 1982, and didn’t play a Grand Slam singles match between 1984 and 1993.

After a couple of attempted comebacks, the American retired in 1994. Austin was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1992, becoming the youngest player, at 29 years old, to join that elite group.

Martina Hingis

Martina Hingis burst onto the WTA scene in the late 90’s and smashed a host of “youngest ever” records. The Swiss became the youngest Grand Slam champion in history when she partnered Helena Sukova to Wimbledon doubles glory in 1996, but it was her singles performances in the following year that will live long in the memory.

Hingis won three of the year’s four majors in 1997, and was a beaten finalist in the other one (Roland Garros). She also became the youngest ever world No. 1 in the history of the sport, all before her 17th birthday. She successfully defended her Australian Open title in the next two seasons, taking her major tally to five, but she didn’t add anymore Grand Slam singles titles to her collection, a big surprise given the explosive start she had made. Hingis did reach seven more singles finals before her first retirement in 2003.

Bothered by injuries, she quit the sport in 2003 at the tender age of 22. By then, the great Swiss had amassed an astonishing 40 WTA singles titles and 36 doubles titles, and had held the No. 1 ranking for a staggering 209 weeks.

Hingis returned to the tour in 2006 but was suspended in 2007 after testing positive to a cocaine metabolite. After a series of exhibition and invitational appearances, she made a third comeback in 2014, and enjoyed a fine doubles career. She took her WTA doubles tally to 64 titles, nine of which were majors. She also won 7 mixed doubles titles. Hingis was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2013, and retired in 2017.

Monica Seles

Monica Seles racked up the majors in her teenage years, winning eight Grand Slam titles before her 20th birthday.

Seles won her maiden Grand Slam title at Roland Garros in 1990, becoming the youngest player to win the clay-court major, and she would go on to absolutely dominate the tour in 1991 and 1992. She won the Australian Open, Roland Garros and US Open in both seasons, while she was a beaten finalist at Wimbledon in 1992 (she missed Wimbledon in 1991).

She is the only woman in history to simultaneously hold three consecutive Australian and French Open titles.

Seles ended 1991 and 1992 as the No. 1 player in the world, and her stranglehold on the women’s game seemed set to continue for a very long time when she defeated Steffi Graf in the 1993 Australian Open final. However, her dominance was cut short by an unfortunate incident in Hamburg in April 1993, when she was stabbed by spectator during her quarter final against Magdalena Meleeva.

Seles returned to the tour in August 2005, and was quickly back to her old tricks, reaching the US Open final just a month later, and adding a fourth Australian Open title to her collection in 1996. While she did not win any other major after that, she maintained a steady presence in and around the top bracket in the sport. Seles played her last match in 2003, and officially retired in 2008. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2009.

Jennifer Capriati

Unlike the other prodigies on this list, Jennifer Capriati neither won a major or became world No. 1 as a teenager, but she amassed a series of “youngest ever” records at an unbelievably young age.

The powerful American reached the final in her first professional tournament in 1990, at just 13 years and 11 months old, becoming the youngest player to make a tour-level final. That same year, she became the youngest player to reach a Grand Slam semi-final when she made the last four at Roland Garros, at just 14 years and two months old. At No. 12, Capriati was the youngest ever seed at Wimbledon. She also entered the top ten in 1990, won her first WTA title and qualified for the season-ending Finals, all before she turned 15.

At that point, a first Grand Slam title seemed around the corner. Capriati threatened that maiden major in the next couple of seasons, but she fell just short. She did claim an Olympic Gold medal in 1992, beating Steffi Graff in the final.

The American took a break from the tour in 1993 as she dealt with burn out and personal problems, and while she returned in 1996, it wasn’t until the 2000s that she finally claimed her first major that her talents craved. She won the Australian Open and Roland Garros in 2001, and became No. 1 for the first time later that season.

Capriati successfully defended the Australian Open in 2002, but that proved to be her last Grand Slam title. She stuck around in the top-ten for a couple more seasons before retiring in 2004. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2012.