The Rendez-vous à Roland-Garros is "magical"
The heat was on at the Porte d'Auteuil on Saturday. Not only due to the sizzling sunshine, but also because four fledgling tennis aces took to the court in the finals of the 'Rendez-vous à Roland-Garros in partnership with Longines' programme, with a precious prize on the line: wildcards for the main draws of the junior tournaments. Japan's Anri Nagata and India's Abhimanyu Vannemreddy ultimately prevailed, though they were made to sweat along the way.
Amid a buzzing atmosphere on the traditional Kids' Day, the girls got the ball rolling on Court No.6 from 1 pm. Despite being up against the much-vaunted American Cori 'Coco' Gauff, whom many observers across the Atlantic have dubbed 'the next Serena Williams', Anri Nagata was not daunted. The 17-year-old had to keep her wits about her and draw on all her extra experience to counter the heavy hitting of her opponent, who possesses a considerably more imposing frame despite being four years younger.
Though she often found herself on the run, Nagata never panicked, continually putting the ball back in play and benefiting from a string of errors off Gauff's racquet, such as the four double faults that handed the Japanese the first set (6-4 in 46 minutes).
It was an all-court display from Nagata, who took time away from her adversary with several successful forays to the net and kept her guessing by alternating between looping groundstrokes, sudden injections of pace and silky drop shots. This served to unsettle Gauff, who was often guilty of pulling the trigger too early and was far too erratic – especially on serve, as illustrated by her 11 double faults. For all the American's depth, she proved powerless to reverse the tide and eventually succumbed 6-4, 6-4 in one hour and 43 minutes.
Having kept her emotions in check right through to the end of the encounter, Nagata did not hide her delight during the post-match interview: "I'm really thrilled. I was a little tense, I played it a bit safe for the most part, but I was able to really go for my shots towards the end. My aim was to stretch out the points, because I knew that I'd have a chance in long rallies. It's magical to get to play here, in front of such a big crowd. I feel like I'm living a dream and I'll never forget this moment." The Japanese, who is No.79 in the ITF world junior rankings, is determined to keep her dream run going by continuing to hone her game: "I've got to improve both on serve and on return, because I know that it's going to be even tougher in the main draw."
"My first Grand Slam to go with my first trip to Europe"
Abhimanyu Vannemreddy (junior world No.350) has also been in dreamland for the last week or so. Having been beaten in the final of the Indian leg of Rendez-vous à Roland Garros, the 16-year-old – who turns 17 just days after this year's French Open ends – only found out that he would be coming to Paris on 19 May. "I was in Delhi, where I train, when I got a call from the All India Tennis Association [AITA] to tell me that I'd be replacing Siddhant Banthia [who pulled out through injury]. I didn't have a visa and the French Embassy in Delhi was closed when I got the news, but I applied for one first thing on Monday morning. I got it on Wednesday morning and that same evening I was on a plane," gushed the youngster, who goes by the nickname 'Abhi'.
After arriving in the French capital on Thursday morning, he only had a few hours to acclimatise before contesting his first group matches in Montrouge on Friday. "I didn't have time to think about being tired. Now I've got a few days to recover ahead of the junior tournament, though." The Indian has certainly earned some respite, having battled for two hours and 17 minutes to claim a 6-1, 4-6, 6-1 win over another Japanese hotshot, the 259th-ranked Hikaru Shiraishi.
'Abhi' came flying out of the traps and stormed into a commanding set-and-a-break lead, but his intensity dipped and he started to stray too far behind the baseline, opening the door for Shiraishi to begin dictating points and level the contest. The pendulum swung once more in the third set, with Vannemreddy reacting decisively to regain the upper hand. "I don't have any regrets about losing the second set," he said. "I didn't do much wrong. I was a break up, but he fought back and started playing really well, so he deserved to win the set. The changeover between the second and third sets did me good. I calmed myself down, refocused and managed to close out the match."
Having been chaperoned by an AITA coach in recent days, 'Abhi' hopes that his parents will be able to fly in to support him during the tournament proper. "My parents and younger sister live in Kenya, where my dad works. I hope they'll be able to come, but we'll have to talk about it." Still, even without his family by his side, he has been relishing the experience: "I'm gutted for Siddhant, who had to give up his place, but injuries unfortunately come with the territory in our sport, and I'm both delighted and proud to have seized this opportunity. This is a massive deal for me. It's my first Grand Slam and my first time in Europe – it's incredible. I wish I could stay here for the rest of my life. I really love it here." With several compatriots also in contention in Paris, the Indian plans to enlist their help in practice to prepare for the main draw as well as possible.