Tennis was once, like chess and gymnastics, the province of the child genius. The money that flooded into the sport when it went professional in the 1970s inspired a wave of teen prodigies -- and, eventually, their parents -- to devote their lives and bodies to the game. Although the women's side became notorious for its cautionary tales of burnout and injury -- think Jennifer Capriati, Andrea Jaeger, Tracy Austin, even Monique Viele -- the men's game was also regularly shaken up by the brutality of youth. Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Rafael Nadal all reached the upper echelon and, in most cases, won Grand Slams before their 20th birthdays. Even the relatively late-blooming Roger Federer was knocking off top-10 players when he was 18.
Nadal was the last man, in 2005, to win a major as a teenager; Maria Sharapova was the last woman to do it, at Wimbledon, the previous year. Now the breakthroughs are coming at the tail ends of careers rather than at the beginnings. This season Li Na and Samantha Stosur won their first majors just before hitting 30, while the younger Petra Kvitova followed up her Wimbledon breakthrough by losing virtually every match she played. Inconsistency and parity rule on the women's side, and the era of iron-willed children like Steffi Graf, Monica Seles and the Williamses has given way to the fragility of Kvitova and 2008 French Open champ turned sporadic basket case Ana Ivanovic. The biggest hitters win the biggest tournaments, but their accuracy comes and goes; the consistent players like Caroline Wozniacki do well in the rankings but get hit off the court at the majors. To find the next Graf, you would have to put Wozniacki together with Kvitova. That's a precarious balance, and it seems to be too much to ask of a young player today. Perhaps the demands of power can no longer be reconciled with the demands of consistency on the women's side.
Young male prodigies face a different problem: A logjam at the top. Rather than racing from out of nowhere straight to the Wimbledon title, a la Becker, today's kids take it a baby step at a time. In 2011, perhaps the most talented of them, Grigor Dimitrov, struggled just to leave behind the minor leagues and gain entry into ATP main draws for the first time. Becker would have scoffed at that promotion, but by today's standards, it counts as a definite step forward. In 2012, Dimitrov might even be able to get out of the first round of a few those main draws.
The sport is maturing. Is that a good thing? There's still an obvious yearning among fans for prodigies, for new faces, for a sense that tennis is still dynamic and evolving. The top four men are great, but their dominance is bound to feel stagnant at some point. A lot of excitement was generated at the Australian Open at the start of the year by the seeming emergence of a new ATP generation: Dimitrov, Alexandr Dolgopolov, Milos Raonic, Ryan Harrison and Bernard Tomic. Each of them, like today's top women, would go on to have wildly up and down seasons -- inconsistency may be their defining trait as well.
If the prodigy is dead, tennis fans should mourn. The game is at its most exciting when a new player rides in and upends everything, the way Nadal did in 2005, when he went from No. 50 all the way to No. 2, and stayed there. Can you imagine that happening today? Something important, a sense of renewal and promise and unpredictability, would be lost if tennis is no longer the province of youthful genius.
But hope springs eternal. This week, the most powerful of the 2011 crop, Raonic, finally returns from a hip injury. He won his first round in Tokyo and plays Nadal next. You can feel it: Tennis, even in its fall doldrums, just got a little more exciting.