Melbourne | Juniors under way down under
The junior players on show during the second week of the Australian Open are the future stars of the tomorrow, and well worth keeping an eye on.
Take Stefanos Tsitsipas for example, conqueror of the mighty Roger Federer on Sunday, who as a junior was ranked No 1 in the world and became the third Greek player (and first Greek male in the Open Era), to win a junior Grand Slam title title with victory in the 2016 Wimbledon boys’ doubles event.
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who upset Sloane Stephens, to reach the quarter-finals in the main draw was a two-time winner of the junior singles title here in Melbourne in 2006 and 2007, and also won the US Open title in 2006 to become the top-ranked girl of the year.
Some juniors, of course, don’t make the big time, but many do.
Other notable past singles winners of the AO Junior Championships include the following:
Boys – Andy Roddick (2000); Marcos Baghdatis (2003); Gaël Monfils (2004); Bernard Tomic (2008); Jiri Vesely (2011); Nick Kyrgios (2013) and Alexander Zverev (2014).
The 2018 winner was Sebastian Korda from the USA.
Girls – Jelena Jankovic (2001); Viktoria Azarenka (2005); Karolina Pliskova (2010) and Ana Konjuh (2013).
The 2018 winner was En Shuo Liang from Chinese Taipei.
Having made the perfect start to 2019, Jiri Lehecka came to Melbourne fresh from a hard-earned G1 title at Traralgon, the traditional warm-up event for the year’s first major.
“I want to win a Grand Slam,” declared the Czech 17-year-old on his arrival. “I had good preparation for this season, so I think I can make it there.
“In 2018 I played Roland-Garros juniors and would have played Wimbledon, but I got injured two days before and had to pull out. But my confidence is on a very high level right now.
Both Lehecka and Denmark’s Clara Tauson, winner of the girls’ title at Traralgon and the top seed at the Australian Open, were among the first-round winners on a balmy Sunday at Melbourne Park.
For Lehecka, there’s the chance to follow in the footsteps of his coach Michal Navratil, an Australian Open junior finalist in 1999, where he finished runner-up for the doubles title after struggling with an injury in the final.
“It’s great to have a coach with a lot of experience,” said Lehecka, who also trains with Czech Davis Cup captain Jaroslav Navratil, Michal’s father, when at home in Prostejov.
Lehecka opened his Australian Open campaign with a 6-3 6-4 win over Christian Lerby of the Netherlands, setting up a second-round clash with Briton Harry Wendelken, who ousted Belgian No 10 seed Gauthier Onclin, 7-5 6-7(5) 7-6(9).
Wendelken is one of four British boys in the singles draw, the others being James Fearnley, James Story, and Connor Thomson.
Story and Thomson both came through two rounds of qualifying, the former defeating Alex Bulte (AUS) [WC] 5-7 6-4 6-4, Egor Agafonov (RUS)  6-4 6-7(4) 6-4 on his way; and the latter taking out Filippo Moroni (ITA)  7-6(4) 7-6(4) and Javier Cueto Ramos (ESP) 7-6(4) 6-3 in his campaign.
In the main draw, Connor acquitted himself well by dispatching Australian wild card, Chen Dong, 6-3 6-4, while Story had no real answers for Eliot Spizziri, the American 16th seed, to whom he lost 6-2 6-2.
Direct entry Fearnley fared rather better against another American, the 12th seed, Tristan Boyer, 3-6 7-6(4) 6-3, and so providing the other upset of the day.
Top seed Lorenzo Musetti from Italy made an impressive start to his campaign, seeing off wildcard Tai Sach 6-4 6-0
There was better news for Sach’s fellow Aussie Ken Cavrak, who romped to a 6-1 6-3 victory over Turkey’s Bora Sengul in 44 minutes, and faces Fearnley in the second round.
The No 3 seed Otto Virtanen won the first 10-point third-set match tiebreak in Australian Open junior tennis history, the Finn beating Australian wildcard Stefan Storch 6-1 6-7(6) 7-6(6).
Ukraine’s Eric Vanshelboim, who became the first player to win an ITF World Tour title after entering with a junior reserved place in Anning earlier this month, found the transition from clay in China to the hard courts of Melbourne tough against French No 11 seed Valentin Royer, and lost 6-2 6-1 to the 11th seed.
“Everybody knows me as a clay court player, and on hard courts it’s a lot less about how good you are physically,” Vanshelboim conceded, adding that one of his goals in 2019 was to gain more hard-court experience.
“You have to have quick feet, and you have to stay low all the time and hit the ball clean. The hard courts here in Melbourne, they are pretty fast. That’s not my strong side. On clay I have better results – my win in Anning was on clay as well.
“When you’re a top-100 junior, there’s five spots at every tournament to get you in – it’s another way to say wildcard, I guess. Anning was my first tournament entry that way.
“Winning was quite overwhelming. I didn’t expect at all to win – I would have been happy to win one round. But to go on and win the whole thing was incredible for me.
“Now with the new ITF World Tour you have to have a ranking to play. I think that has made the standard a little higher, and a little better.”
In the girls, Traralgon champion Clara Tauson was made to work hard in her opening match at Melbourne Park.
The World No 4, who is the top seed for the AO junior singles title, was far from happy with her first-round performance after taking three sets to beat local wild card Anastasia Berezov, 1-6 6-3 6-1.
“This match was horrible, but I came through it, so I was happy with that,” said the 16-year-old.
“Nothing was working for me, and she was playing good, maybe a little bit lucky at some points. I wasn’t really there in any of the sets with my game.”
Top players seem to find a way, and the Dane will look for a better performance against China’s Sijia Wei in the second round as she looks to show why she has the No 1 next to her name in the draw.
“It’s funny – it’s the first time I’ve been top seed in a big tournament like this,” said Tauson, who is coached by father Soeren Tauson and is the niece of former Olympian and ATP World No 101 Michael Tauson.
“I’m glad that I’ve made those achievements last year to be in this position, but I don’t feel like there’s any pressure. I’m just going to go out and play and have fun.”
British interest rests on the shoulders of direct entries Destinee Martins and Victoria Allen after Emma Raducanu, seeded 16, tumbled out of the draw to Himari Sato from Japan, 6-2 7-5.
Martins upset Asian seed, Hong Yi Cody Wong from Hong Kong, seeded 10th, 6-4 6-3, while Allen took out the 14th-seeded Sada Nahimana from Burundi, 4-6 6-4 6-1.
Yet another seed fell on the second day of first-round action in the girls’ draw, Russia’s Mariia Tkacheva, the No13 seed, ousted by Valentina Ryser of Switzerland 6-4 6-4.
Wildcard Olivia Gadecki became the third Australian to reach the second round, joining Amber Marshall and Annerly Poulos after downing Japan’s Funa Kozaki, 6-4 6-7(4) 6-1.
Back in January 2018, Poulos was ranked outside the world’s top 1000, turning heads by winning a round as a wildcard in her first taste of the Grand Slam scene.
On the opening day of the 2019 tournament, the World No 64 saw off Malta’s Francesca Curmi 6-1 0-6 6-2.
The 16-year-old Canberra native collected three Grade 3 titles in 2018, winning the Australian Winter International title in August before capturing back-to-back crowns in the Netherlands and Italy during a European tour prior to Australia’s run to the Junior Fed Cup quarter-finals in Budapest.
“I didn’t want to waste the opportunity of going all the way across the world to play tennis – I just said, ‘I’d better do my best!’” said Poulos, who faces Britain’s Allen in the second round.
“I stuck to my game, trusted my game, and got the wins. That gave me so many more opportunities after that.
“Not many kids have that opportunity, so I’m just so grateful to even get that. Travelling with a great team just makes it even better, and playing different players, not just being here in Australia with the same players.”
Poulos played with a controlled power that carries echoes of Serena Williams and Milos Raonic, both players she admires, while she talks with a measured maturity about her game.
Part of that process has been the decision to move to Melbourne in 2019, splitting her time between the Tennis Australia HQ and Brisbane, where her family has now settled.
It is a testament to both her commitment and potential, which earned her a doubles wildcard to her first WTA event in Hobart earlier this month.
“I took [the wildcard] because I wanted to play against the top girls,” said Poulos.
“Although it was a loss, I learnt so much from that one match. I’m looking forward to more of that and playing myself up to that position.”
Qinwen Zheng, the No 2 seed, was forced to fight back from a set down to see off Chloe Beck 6-7(5) 6-3 6-4, while Korean No 8 seed Sohyun Park was pushed all the way by qualifier Carol Young Suh Lee, the first player to represent the Northern Mariana Islands in a singles event at a Grand Slam, who was eventually beaten 6-1 5-7 6-4.
“Both my parents were born in Korea before they moved to Saipan [the alternative name for NMI], where I was born,” said Lee, beaming with pride to have made tennis history for the 55,000-strong nation. “It’s a small island, an American territory in the Pacific Ocean near Guam.”
Lee, who is currently on a full scholarship at the ITF/Oceania Tennis Federation training centre in Fiji, relished her first Grand Slam experience, having qualified for the main draw in Traralgon last week.
Australian No 5 seed Rinky Hijikata beat French qualifier Lilian Marmousez 6-3 6-4 to set up a showdown with American Zane Khan, who prevailed in the longest match of the day against Japan’s Shunsuke Mitsui, claiming a 7-6(8) 6-7(1) 6-2 victory in two hours, 35 minutes.