Ten years ago, Ashleigh Barty was crowned Wimbledon junior champion. At the weekend, she was crowned Wimbledon champion.
If ever we needed a reminder about the importance of Grand Slam junior events as pointers to emerging talent, then Barty is surely an example for today.
She isn’t the only one, of course, to have won a junior Grand Slam title and then progress on to win a major. The list is seemingly endless and goes back many years to when the idea of junior Grand Slam events was first pioneered at the Australian Open. That was in 1922. In 1947 the French Open and Wimbledon followed suit with junior events of their own. It took the Americans another 26 years before they introduced a Grand Slam junior event to run alongside the US Open.
Today, the Grand Slam junior circuit is an established pointer to the stars of tomorrow. We only have to cite Grand Slam champions Simona Halep, Iga Swiatek, Andy Murray, Maran Cilic, Roger Federer and Andy Roddick in recent memory, as players who cut their Grand Slam teeth at junior level before becoming Grand Slam champions in the professional game a few years later.
So what does the future hold for this year’s Wimbledon junior champions, American Samir Banerjee and Spain’s Ane Mintegi Del Olmo, I wonder?
Both coming into the tournament as outsiders, they won their respective singles titles, the unseeded Banerjee defeating fellow American Victor Lilov, also unseeded, in straight sets, while Ane Mintegi Del Olmo became the first ever Spanish female to win a junior Grand Slam title at Wimbledon.
The coming together of Banerjee and Lilov represented the first time two Americans had contested a Grand Slam junior final since 2015, when Taylor Fritz defeated Tommy Paul at the US Open.
It was an unlikely victory for 17-yea- old Banerjee, a Wimbledon debutant who came into the tournament ranked 19 in the ITF junior rankings. Indeed, he acknowledged as much when he said after his 7-5 6-3 win, “If somebody had told me last week that we would be playing each other in the final, I wouldn’t have believed them, I would probably have just laughed. I feel like whenever I come in with lower expectations I do better, so I’ll probably set the bar low and see what happens”.
Banerjee claimed his place in the final at the expense of another unseeded player, a qualifier no less, the Frenchman Sascha Gueymard Wayenburg, 7-6 4-6 6-2.
The decision now for Banerjee, whose parents are Indian, is whether to head to Columbia University to play college tennis or join the professional tour.
“I didn’t really expect this (success)” he said, “but I am really happy with my commitment to Columbia. The coaches there, I am really buying into their vision and it’s a really good stepping-stone. My parents definitely wanted me to go to college and not just go right to pros. Also, I think it would be a good character-building thing as I am not sure I am fully ready to go pro yet. As of right now, I am probably still going straight to college.”
His opponent in the final, Canadian born but North Carolina based Lilov, has a similar dilemma. Like Banerjee, he was making his debut at Wimbledon, entering the tournament ranked a lowly 31 in the ITF junior world rankings. That didn’t deter him from defeating three seeds, all ranked in the top 7, on his way to the final, including the No 1 seed, China’s Juncheng Shang for the loss of just four games. He also took out highly fancied Frenchman Arthur Fils, a finalist at Roland Garros earlier this year, in a three set second round tussle, and Britain’s Jack Pinnington-Jones in the semi-final. Like Banerjee, however, he too demonstrates a wise head on young shoulders, not letting his unexpected achievement go to his head.
“I don’t think this tournament is going to determine my career path,” he said. “It can help boost it, but it’s up to me now to improve and we’ll see in the years ahead who develops their game the most.”
In the girls’ event, as in the boys, it was success for another unseeded player, Spanish 17-year-old Ane Mintegi Del Olmo, who came from behind in her final, defeating Germany’s Nastasja Mariana Schunk, ranked 71 in the ITF junior rankings coming into the tournament, 2-6 6-4 6-1.
She had paved the way for her unlikely success with defeat of two seeds, Russia’s Polina Kudermentova, seeded 5, in the second round and then the 6th seeded Belarussian, Kristina Dmitruk.
Mintegi Del Olmo, a former quarter finalist at the Australian Open junior event and a product of the TEC-Carles Ferrer Salat academy in Barcelona, was naturally delighted with her performance.
“It is so special to be the first player from Spain to win a girls’ title at Wimbledon. I am so proud, it’s amazing. Nastasja played very well – she was incredible in the first set but I got better and played very well in the third. I needed to have a good mentality today and that was the biggest thing I had on court today. I stayed on the court, focused on every point and didn’t let my concentration drop.”
In the final, Mintegi Del Olmo was supported by her friend, 2020 Australian Open junior champion and world No 1 junior, 15-year-old Victoria Jimenez Kasintseva, who, after ending British interest in the event by defeating wild card entrants Eva Shaw and Alicia Dudeney, was then edged out in her semi-final by Schunk, 6-4 4-6 6-4.
“Vicky is my friend and last year we played the Australian Open and a lot of other tournaments together,” said Mintegi Del Olmo. “For me, it is so special to have her supporting me. Vicky told me that I needed to focus just on the match and to think about nothing outside of the court. She said that I must stay all the time playing with concentration.”
Despite her loss in the final, 17-year-old Schunk, a debutant at Wimbledon and unseeded, was proud of her achievements.
“Even though it is tough right now, later this evening or tomorrow I know I will be really happy and proud of myself,” she said. “I have fought so many good matches this week.”
As well as her win over top seed Kusitsneva, Schunk defeated the higher ranked Valencia Xu of the United States and the Czech Republic’s Linda Fruhvirtova, seeded 8 on her way to the final.
Next up for all of these young players is the US Open junior event in September.
Competitive action at the highest junior level beckons these young players, all looking to establish their junior credentials as a bedrock for a successful future in the game. Tennis fans would do well to take note of their progress now.