After India last month, "Rendez-vous à Roland-Garros in partnership with Longines" has now headed over to Japan for the first time, with none other than six-time French Open champion Stefanie Graf as its ambassador.
"Rendez-vous à Roland-Garros": Graf oversees Japan inauguration
With six titles at the Porte d’Auteuil to her name, was Stefanie Graf able to pick out future Roland-Garros stars from among the 16 japanese teenagers (eight boys and eight girls) who were battling it out for a spot in the final phase of "Rendez-vous à Roland-Garros" – the event sponsored by Longines which puts a wild card for the junior singles at the French Open up for grabs? This was the first time that Japan has been involved in a tournament which is designed to promote clay-court tennis throughout the world, and as such it took place on some of the rare red-dirt courts to be found in the country, at the Tokyo Olympic Committee headquarters.
And with Graf present as ambassador for this stage of the event, it was Naoki Tajima and Ayano Shimizu who won through to the final phase of the competition, which will be held in Paris just before the French Open. There they will come up against the winners of the events in India, China, Brazil and South Korea as they slug it out for the wild card.
Despite being a year younger than his opponent in the final, Tajima overcame Yuta Shimizu 7-5, 4-6, 7-6(3) in a real thriller, and continued to build on the reputation that he has been establishing in the junior ranks. At the age of 12, he won an under-14 tournament in Serbia, while at 13, he made the final of one of the biggest events for his age-group, the BNP Paribas Cup in Paris, on clay. That tournament saw him play at Roland-Garros for the first time, since the finals were played there that year to mark the 25th anniversary of the event! Then last year, at the age of 14, he made it through to his first under-18 finals, bringing him within touching distance of the junior top 100 at the tender age of 15. Early progress does not a champion make, but Tajima is certainly making people sit up and take notice.
Shimizu, first taste of clay-court tennis
Ayano Shimizu meanwhile is less ahead of her peers, but the 17-year-old has been cutting her teeth on the Japanese circuit for some years and now seems to be hitting her straps. At the end of 2015, she went over to Europe for the first time and had her first taste of clay-court tennis, making it to the quarter-finals of the singles and winning the doubles in Barcelona (ITF Grade 4) on the courts of the former Sanchez-Casal Academy.
During the same stretch of events, she won her first pro matches in Madrid, Benicarlo and Castellon at the $10,000 tournaments, where she also made the doubles semi-finals. Then in January 2016, she celebrated her Grand Slam debut by coming through qualifying at the Australian Open juniors and winning her first-round match in the main draw. Her 6-3, 6-2 win in the Japanese "Rendez-vous à Roland-Garros" final over Himaro Sato means that she will be taking part in her second successive Slam in a few months’ time.
"Rendez-vous à Roland-Garros in partnership with Longines" in five stages
India: 5 – 12 February in Delhi
Japan: 8 – 11 March in Tokyo
China: 15 – 18 March in Shanghai
Brazil: 7 – 10 April in Sao Paulo
South Korea: du 21 – 24 April in Seoul