As Wimblebon moves inexorably towards conclusion at the weekend, the 64 boys and 64 girls competing in the junior ranks have been whittled down to just 2 in each singles draw.
Japan’s 8th seed Shintaro Mochizuki, who took out Britain’s last hope, Anton Matusevich, in the quarter-finals on Thursday, moved into the final after surviving a stunning 3-setter to triumph 6-1 0-6 10-8 over the big-serving American Martin Damm.
After trading 2 lopsided sets, the 16 year-old Japanese moved to 5-2 in the 3rd set, but failed to convert 2 match points, and then squandered a 5-3, 40-15 lead with an easy forehand error and a double fault.
Damm served for the match himself at 8-7, but missed a short backhand on match point at 40-30, prompting Mochizuki to break back.
The Japanese youngster then recovered from 0-30 down in his own service game at 8-8, moving ahead by confidently breaking to seal the victory.
“I thought too much,” admitted Mochizuki of his missed opportunities. “Thinking that if I win the point, I win the game, I win the match.
“Like, it was a semi-final. If I won, then the final… I got tight and hit double faults and forehand unforced errors.”
Mochizuki becomes the first Japanese player to reach a boys’ singles junior Grand Slam final, but it is a distinction he is trying not to think about.
“It’s weird,” he said. “I’m a person, I don’t really care if I’m Japanese or whatever. I just play tennis and I want to win the finals.”
Mochizuki‘s style is to sweep into the net and volley, so the grass suits him well.
Small in stature, he is fast and uses his speed and great groundstrokes to stalk the baseline, seeking a chance to move forward, qualities he will use against Spain’s Gimeno Valero on Sunday.
“I love it,” he said. “I love playing like that. I believe my volleys are good and my approach shots are great.
“On grass, it’s so good. I think many people hate playing me.”
Playing on Show Court 18, Mochizuki took on Damm, a friend from the IMG Academy at Bradenton in Florida in the highly anticipated semi-final between training partners.
Damm, the No 4 seed, made 19 unforced errors in the opening set, and struck just 2 winners, while making only 1 of every 3 first serves.
Mochizuki was way more consistent, but he lost his equilibrium in the second set, in which Damm cut down his unforced error count to just 5 in a remarkable reversal of fortunes.
The first two sets took only 40 minutes to complete, and set the stage for the decider, when Mochizuki jumped off to a 3-0 lead and looked as if he had the match under control.
The American showed his willingness to battle in the 6th game, when he saved 5 break points in 9 deuces and, even when Mochizuki held easily to go up 5-2, the result appeared in doubt.
“I had some chances, up 5-2 in the third set, but I was so nervous,” the Japanese admitted.
Those nerves were especially evident in his next service game, when he went up 40-15, but hit a wild forehand and a double fault.
Two points later, Damm was back on serve and he held at 40-30 to bring it back to 5-all.
The 15-year-old from Florida was not pleased with how he played the next game, with the Japanese holding to love to take a 6-5 lead.
“I think at 5-all I played a really loose game, a couple of missed returns and I think that cost me a lot,” Damm said. “I had the momentum with me and I missed 4 balls.”
At 7-all, Mochizuki missed a backhand at 30-all, and another on break point, giving Damm a chance to serve out the match.
The American went up 30-0, but double faulted, then missed a volley to make it 30-all.
A 131-mph ace gave Damm a match point, but he sent a backhand crosscourt wide from a winning position at the net, and Mochizuki breathed new hope.
“I hit a bomb serve and he got it back, and he got it like a foot beyond the net,” Damm said. “I don’t know if I was nervous, or my legs were just heavy, but I got up to the ball too late and missed the ball wide.
“Obviously there a lot of things I could have done better, hit a drop shot, maybe went line, maybe if I went up there faster I would have hit a winner.”
Mochizuki admitted that he was lucky to win the point, but also gave himself some credit for returning the serve.
“I thought I was lucky,” said Mochizuki, “because he was near to the net and I was like, oh my god. But first of all I was happy to make the return, that’s the important thing.
After going down 0-30 serving at 8-8, Mochizuki came up with 2 winners, and Damm chipped in with 2 unforced errors and, when it came to holding serve to stay in the match, the American couldn’t get the momentum back, with the Japanese breaking at 15-40, securing the victory on his 5th match point.
A French Open semi-finalist, Mochizuki is playing in his first Wimbledon.
He won the Grade 1 in Nottingham 2 weeks ago, his first tournament on grass, but his opponent in Sunday’s final, unseeded Carlos Gimeno Valero of Spain, has had even less experience on the surface and in big matches.
The 18-year-old, who warmed up with Roberto Bautista Agut prior to his men’s semi-final with Novak Djokovic, is playing not only his first grass court event, but his first junior major.
In his 7-6(5) 6-4 win over No 17 seed Harold Mayot of France, the Spaniard didn’t get a look at a break point until he was down 4-1 in the second set, but once he broke through, he went on to win the final 5 games of the match.
“I played very aggressive with my forehand and I served really well in the first set,” said Gimeno Valero, just the third Spanish boy to reach the Wimbledon singles final.
“I played good on the break points and that gave me the confidence to win the match on my serve.”
Gimeno Valero is still processing the fact that he’s reached the Wimbledon boys final.
“It’s incredible, to share the moment with Federer, Novak, Rafa,” Gimeno Valero said. “To be in the final is unbelievable.”
“I never played on grass and it’s my first tournament so it’s a really good experience,” he said. “I feel good because my coach tells me that I can put the volleys [away].
“It wasn’t so difficult. From the first moment, I felt good and it has improved with the passing days.”
Gimeno Valero is 18 years old, ranked 49th and only began playing Grade 1 events in 2019, winning the very first main draw he played in Lambare, Paraguay, while Roland Garros marked the first Grand Slam of his career.
For the Spaniard, playing in front of passionate crowds is even more of a surprise than his run of victories.
“The people are supporting me in Spain and here in my match,” he said, shrugging. “It’s the thing that surprised me the most.”
The Boys’ Singles Final will be played at Wimbledon on Sunday.