The pros are not the only tennis players vying for a US Open title this fortnight.
On Sunday, 3 September, the US Open Junior Championships began, with the most elite 18-and-under players hitting the courts at the Billie Jean King USTA National Tennis Center in the hopes of hoisting a trophy to gain the privilege of being crowned a US Open junior champion.
The competition, which is often viewed as a major stepping stone on the way to the professional circuit, is comprised of a 64-player-draw, attracting the best young players from around the world.
Past US Open juniors champions include the likes of Jack Sock, Pat Cash, Genie Bouchard and Lindsay Davenport – just to name a few.
I love this place. I really enjoy this. Katie Volynets
This year’s play got off to a slow start as rain in New York pushed back the start of first round matches by three hours.
Three Brits are in the boys main singles draw but were not scheduled to play on Sunday – George Loffhagen and Jack Draper, who both qualified, and direct entry, Aidan McHugh.
In the girls, Emily Appleton was seeded 13 and the only British contender, but she met her match and was upset by America’s Katie Volynets, 6-4 6-4.
Volynets, who was wild carded into the event, was playing her first junior Grand Slam, which meant the additional innovations of serve clock and coaching were hardly the only adjustments she was required to make.
“At first, it was a little bit unusual for me to have that clock there,” said the 15-year-old from Northern California.
“I felt a little bit rushed, but I got used to it really quickly and it just became a part of the game to me. The 25 seconds seems a lot longer when I’m there than it sounds.”
As for the coaching, Volynets was able to use that option, with Richard Tompkins, one of her coaches, on the sidelines giving advice.
“I thought it was nice,” said Volynets. “It’s nice to be able to walk up and ask for help when you need it.
“I like walking up rather than having signals. It’s definitely a new thing and I kind of like it.”
The hustle and bustle of the grounds during the holiday weekend can be overwhelming for those more accustomed to the usual low-key junior events, but Volynets adapted immediately.
“I love this place,” Volynets said. “I really enjoy this.”
Volynets will face a fellow wild card next, Natasha Subhash, who defeated Thaisa Pedretti of Brazil 3-6 6-4 6-3.
In addition to Appleton, two other girls seeds lost, both Americans.
No. 11 seed Ann Li won nine straight games against Lulu Sun of Switzerland to go from 3-1 down in the first set to 4-0 up in the second, but she couldn’t close it out, and Sun claimed a 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 victory.
Maria Carle defeated No 7 seed Taylor Johnson 6-3 7-5, after Johnson had come back from 5-1 down in the second set, only to be broken when serving to get into a tiebreaker.
No 4 seed Amanda Anisimova was the other US girl to advance to the second round, beating Maria Portillo Ramirez of Mexico 6-3 6-3.
In the boys, one of the most impressive performances was turned in by unseeded America’s Sam Riffice, who defeated the 4th seed from Japan, Yuta Shimizu, 6-3 6-2.
Riffice, who did not play in either of the two ITF Junior Circuit warmup events, worked on his serve in the weeks since Kalamazoo and it paid off for him against Shimizu, with seven aces, no double faults, and no break points faced.
“It felt really good, I don’t think he had a break point on my serve the whole match,” said Riffice, who is using an abbreviated serve motion now.
“I was dictating, had a high first serve percentage. I’ve been working it a lot since Kalamazoo.”
Riffice was playing so well that nothing was likely to bother him, but he did admit that playing on Court 6, with the occasional roar of the crowd from Venus Williams’ match on Ashe as background noise, took some getting used to.
“The first couple of games it was hard to focus,” said the 18-year-old University of Florida recruit.
“But after that I kind of got into it. A couple of times, Ashe got really loud, that was kind of hard to tune out– the good points, I could hear them–but aside from that I was able to focus after the first two or three games.”
Riffice, who is playing in his fourth US Open Junior Championships, played with the 25-second serve clock last year when it was first introduced, and he is fan.
“I like it a lot,” Riffice said. “I feel like if I go up to the line and there’s 20 or 15 seconds, it feels good to know I have some time to take a break before the next point.”
This year another innovation is being introduced, with coaching allowed from the stands, which Riffice took advantage of it when possible, but didn’t use it extensively for logistical reasons.
“After the first set, he took a bathroom break, and I went over there, and actually at 4-3 in the first set I went over there,” Riffice said of his brief conversations with USTA coaches Sylvain Guichard, Dean Goldfine and his mother, Lori Riffice.
“But it’s really hard to hear them unless you’re standing right next to them. If you’re standing at the typical return spot, you can’t hear what they’re saying. But I thought it was good; they didn’t over-coach me or anything and I just asked about my return position, or they gave me tips throughout the match. We didn’t go too in-depth, just kept it simple.”
Alexander Rotsaert defeated Mohammed Bellalouna of Tunisia 6-2 6-3 and DJ Thomas needed only 48 minutes to get by Siddhant Banthia of India.
Alafia Ayeni also advanced to the second round, defeating Constantin Bittoun Kouzmine of France 3-6 6-3 6-4.
Other seeded boys to fall Sunday were No 9 Michael Vrebensky of the Czech Republic, who was beaten by Naoki Tajima of Japan 5-7 6-4 6-2 and No 16 seed Juan Pablo Grassi Mazzuchi of Argentina, who fell to French wild card Jaimee Floyd Angele 4-6 6-2 6-2.
The little-known 17-year-old Frenchman posted the first upset to win his first junior match at a major.
This US Open is only Angele’s second Grand Slam junior tournament – he fell in the first round to Roland Garros top seed Miomir Kecmanovic of Serbia in June.
“I feel really happy,” Angele said. “First of all, it’s really hard to play here. I enjoy it, but the courts are really fast. But I’m happy to be back on court because I was injured for two months with my back because I’m too tall.”
A first look at Angele and it’s hard not to wonder why the 6’10” (2.08) teen isn’t looking to star on a basketball court, but tennis is the family business.
“My father is a tennis coach in Paris so he taught me how to play,” Angele said.
“My mom is the manager at the club. I started playing when I was three-years-old.”
Angele might be from France but he favours hard courts to clay, saying he is working to become more the type of player to move into the net.
In addition to 19 Americans in action in singles on Labor Day, doubles will also begin, with all 16 boys first round matches and 9 girls first round matches.
The top seeded boys team is Yibing Wu of China and Yu Hsiou Hsu of Taiwan.
The No 1 seeds in the girls draw are Olga Danilovic of Serbia and Marta Kostyuk of Ukraine.
USOpen.org recently sat down with past champions Sam Crawford, Grace Min and CoCo Vandewedghe to revisit their title runs.
Sam Crawford, 2012: “I kind of went into the tournament not expecting anything, and that year I qualified for the women’s. After qualifying, I took that momentum and went forward with that. I felt I was playing well the whole time I was here, and it was a lot of fun that year.”
Grace Min, 2011: “It feels like it was yesterday, but I think what is it now – six years? I just remember – it’s still my favourite tennis memory. I remember when I won it, it was almost like I didn’t feel like I won because I was ready for the next match. The whole time I was so, focused. So when finally the tournament was over, it didn’t feel like it was over till that evening or the next day. It’s one of those things that whenever I look back on, I still get chills.”
CoCo Vandeweghe, 2008: “The trophy still sits in my room. I still know what court I won the match on, and I know which player I beat, and I pretty much know the whole draw. I remember how whirlwind crazy it was. It’s a part of my career. Each tournament you go to, you see past junior champions – pictures, their names on a board. To have put my name to that list is a pretty cool accomplishment.”