When the Liverpool International first opened its doors to excited tennis fans in the summer of 2002, Natalia Vikhlyantseva was just five-years-old.
Fast forward 15-years and the talented young Russian is at the vanguard of a sparkling Class of 97, all hoping to graduate with honours on the tennis circuit in the very near future.
Natalia makes her first appearance in Liverpool this week already ranked in the world’s top 100.
And many distinguished experts believe she has the potential to climb much, much higher.
At the Prague Open last month Natalia, who already has two ITF titles to her name, took barely an hour to dismiss the challenge of Viktorija Golubic 6-1, 6-1.
Then afterwards she spoke about the class of 97 who encourage and inspire each other on the WTA circuit.
“I try to stay friends with everybody who is my age and who I see,
“Players like Daria Kasatkina, Belinda Bencic and Jelena Ostapenko.
We played a lot of junior tournaments together – well, not me because I started to play a little bit later, so they were already No.1 or top 10 junior players when I’d just started to play ITF juniors.
But now we’re the same age and in the same tournaments, and I think it’s nice because we have a lot of years together in the same tournaments, the same hotels.
So I think we’re gonna be friends, it’s gonna be fine. Of course in tennis it’s hard, because if we’re playing a match it’s hard to be friends, but it’s okay. We can continue to be nice with everybody. It’s gonna be good, I think – for tennis also.
Bencic in particular could give Natalia plenty of tips about what to expect in Liverpool this week.
In 2012, at the tender age of 15, the Swiss miss secured her first senior title at the Liverpool International.
She already boasted Federation Cup experience by that time and defeated Sachia Vickery of the United States in a third set tie-break to win the title.
Jelena Ostapenko, another of that talented class of 97 namechecked by Natalia, agrees with her Russian friend’s assessment.
“I think our year, 1997, is probably one of the strongest years,
“I think something like six of us are in the Top 50 and more in Top 100. I know a lot of the girls since we were 10 or 12.
Natalia made her WTA main draw debut at the 2015 Shenzhen Open and made a winning start, defeating Anna-Lena Friedsam in three sets.
After winning two ITF titles in 2016, she reached the semi-finals of the Open GDF SUEZ de Limoges where she took No.1 seed and top 30 player Caroline Garcia to three sets.
This year she upset number eight seed and fellow 1997 starlet Daria Kasatkina in straight sets at the St Petersburg Ladies Trophy then received a walkover from No.1 seed Simona Halep who withdrew due to injury.
Natalia eventually lost in the semi-finals to eventual champion Kristina Mladenovic, but despite her defeat ensured a Top 100 debut with her campaign.
She is sure to rise much, much higher in the months and years to come.