After such a troubled year for professional tennis, you might be forgiven for thinking that the game – its players and tournaments – was simply on hold while the nations of the world dealt with the pandemic. But you would be wrong.
My goals (in 2020) were to win a junior Grand Slam and to finish the year No. 1 in the world and I am very happy I made it after winning the Australian Open and securing the end of year No. 1 spot. I will keep great memories of my junior years. I had some great experiences especially playing in the four Grand Slams and I’m sure this will help me a lot when I will go back there to play in the pros. Harold Mayot
While it is true that the ATP and WTA Tours, the Davis Cup (postponed to next November in Spain) and Fed Cup (postponed to next April in Budapest), not to mention the ITF junior tour, have all been decimated in one way or another, what remained was eagerly consumed by tennis fans and the media alike. And the players didn’t let us down. And that includes the international junior players.
Three Grand Slams were played in 2020, two of them – the Australian and French – which saw the top junior players participate alongside the main tournaments. Winners of these prestigious events are always a sound pointer in identifying who might be about to impact the professional game.
This year, however, what really gave the game’s observers a glimpse of who from the junior game might make their mark in 2021 and beyond came earlier this month in Florida in December, where the Orange Bowl, the annual end of season bash for the world’s top juniors, went ahead after originally being postponed.
The confusion over whether it would be played or not meant that most of the top 20 ranked boys, and a significant number of the girls, declined to travel to Plantation in Florida, the home of the Orange Bowl. This inevitability led to a weakened field and gave rise to opportunities for others to highlight their competitive prowess.
Even then, few could have predicted the boys outcome, a scintillating victory for French 16 year old, Arthur Fils, who came into the tournament unseeded and ranked a lowly 166th in the junior world rankings! He owes his acceptance into a draw which, ranking wise, seemed out of his reach, when he progressed to the third round at the French Open juniors event in September, this after receiving a wild card into his home Championships.
“At Roland Garros, I took a lot of confidence,” said Fils after his Orange Bowl triumph. “I knew I was playing good, but I didn’t have any results yet.”
Now he does. And he did it in style, defeating three seeds en route to his final, which resulted in a 6-1 4-6 6-2 victory over top seeded Hungarian, Peter Fajta, a player two years his senior and already with an ATP world ranking of 972!
Fils, who is based just outside Paris at the Saint Michel Club, began his unlikely, four month journey from obscurity to Orange Bowl champion in the autumn when he won the ITFs Grade 4 junior event in Eindhoven, which secured him a wild card into his home event, the French Open juniors, where he won two rounds before losing to compatriot Sean Cuenin.
His route to the Orange Bowl final was full of scalps. In his first round, Fils saved a match point against Michael Zheng of New Jersey before edging the American wildcard in three sets. He followed that win with a crushing 6-1 6-0 victory over Austrian no. 3 seed Lukas Neumayer.
After defeating another American, Samir Banjernee in three sets, Fils went on to defeat the tournament’s 8th seed, left-hander Alex Bernard, also from the States, 6-1 7-5 in the quarter-finals.
By now, people were beginning to take notice, and when the French youngster then went on to down another seed, Chinese player Jerry Shang, seeded 12, in the semis, in three sets, the prospect of a potential upset was looming.
And it happened, Fils finishing his final strongly to overcome the tournaments overwhelming favourite, Peter Fajta.
If the Orange Bowl is any sort of pointer to future success (in the past its 18 and under winners have included the likes of John McEnroe, Jim Courier, Roger Federer, Andy Roddick and Dominic Thiem) then Fils has a very bright future. Yes, he’s only 16, but already very much a name to watch out for.
Overnight, Fils joined an already impressive contingent of young French players destined to impact the game in years to come as they make the leap from junior to senior. For Fils, that may not come for another year or two, but if he needs any inspiration, he can look to his compatriot, Metz born Harold Mayot, for inspiration.
Before the outbreak of Covid, Mayot won the Australian Open junior singles, defeating another hot French prospect, Arthur Cazeaux, a trophy which lifted him to the No 1 world junior ranking, a position – partly due to the depletion of the tour – he never relinquished.
“My goals (in 2020) were to win a junior Grand Slam and to finish the year No. 1 in the world,” said Mayot, “and I am very happy I made it after winning the Australian Open and securing the end of year No. 1 spot. I will keep great memories of my junior years. I had some great experiences especially playing in the four Grand Slams and I’m sure this will help me a lot when I will go back there to play in the pros.”
Mayot, who spent much of his 2020 preparing for life on the professional circuit, will be looking to make some early ranking inroads on the ATP Tour in 2021. Whilst he did participate in the French Open Junior event in October, most of his year was spent competing (when he was allowed) in Challenger events. He reached the quarter-finals in Bendigo in January and Pau in late February, losing to top 100 players Steve Johnson and Jiri Vesely respectively. In September, he reached the semis at the Swiss event in Caslano. A couple of weeks later, he was offered a wild card to the French Open singles main draw, but lost in the first round to Spain’s Alejandro Davidovich Fokina. What he will learn from those defeats will no doubt stand him in good stead as he takes a step up next year.
It is hard to underestimate the French surge, which may well see its players become a dominant force on the ATP Tour in coming years, as Arthur Fils acknowledges.
“It’s super positive. We see one player (like Mayot) who plays well and we tell ourselves that we are capable of doing the same thing. Especially this year, we all played pretty well. We always train together and that pushed us all to the top.”
On the women’s side, in the aftermath of the Orange Bowl, there was an equally impressive performance from American Ashlyn Krueger, whose name can now be added to the list of previous champions, including Chris Evert, Gabriela Sabatini, Elena Dementieva, Caroline Wozniacki, Sofia Kenin and most recently, the celebrated Coco Gauff. Like Fils, Krueger’s win was unexpected but lifts her to an end of year career high ranking of 73 in the ITF junior world rankings.
Krueger, a 6’1” Texas born 16 year old, defeated Belarus’ Jana Kolodynska 6-4, 6-4 in her final, this just a year after winning the 16 and under event. In winning both Orange Bowl age group events in consecutive years, she matched the achievement of 2019 US Open winner, Bianca Andreescu, who won both the 16s and 18s titles in 2014/15. The irony of Krueger’s spectacular victory is that, unlike many of those players she defeated, she has yet to play in a junior Grand Slam event, something she hopes to change next year.
“I would love to play a junior Slam, that’s been a goal of mine for a really long time – any event, I’m not picky – and I just want to play more, play more tournaments,” said Krueger, who is the fourth consecutive American to win the prestigious, end of season event. “I’ve improved a lot, especially in fighting and mentality, staying more positive, because last year I did get way more upset than I did this year. For me, it is about staying positive, because when I get negative, I don’t play well.”
Krueger, who only lost one set on her way to the Orange Bowl title, also dealt a hammer blow to Victoria Jimenez Kasintseva, the world No 1 junior going into the tournament, when she defeated the Andorran in the third round. That loss secured Lyon born Elsa Jacquemot’s end of year position as the world’s No 1 junior, a ranking she first achieved by winning the French Open junior title in October.
It is the third season in succession that France has produced the top ranking female junior, following the exploits of Clara Burel and Diane Parry in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Although Jacquemont lost in the semis to Belarus’ Jana Kolodynska, she was already established as the world No 1, courtesy of Krueger’s success over the Andorran.
Despite that loss, it is worth noting Kasintseva as one to keep an eye on, not least as she is still just 15 years of age. She began 2020 by winning – at 14 years of age – the Australian Open junior championships, coming from a set down in four of her matches to achieve her victory, a victory which elevated her to the No 1 world ranking for most of the year.
Kasintseva will arrive in due course, but for now, and the year ahead, the stage is well and truly set for a French revival.