Juniors stage the perfect showcase for stars of tomorrow

 - Eleanor Preston

Cornet, Gauff, Rublev and Rune among former girls' and boys' champions to break through

Alize Cornet, Roland Garros 2007, girls' singles trophy© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

When this year’s Roland-Garros main draw singles matches got under way, 20 players shared a unique distinction which meant that, whatever their results on the Parisian red clay, this tournament will always hold special memories for them.

Those memories were made when each of those 20 players – everyone from Alize Cornet to Coco Gauff, Andrey Rublev and Holger Rune – won a junior Roland Garros singles title on these very same courts.

It is a time in a player’s career when hope courses through every forehand and potential is seemingly limitless; a time when travelling the world is still an adventure rather than a grind and when every trophy won seems to add extra lustre to an already bright future.

Junior success at Grand Slams is not an entirely reliable predictor of an outstanding professional tennis career but there are some who achieve the rare feat of winning both the junior singles title and its grown-up counterpart.

Stan Wawrinka, for example, won Roland Garros in 2003 as a boy and again in 2015 as a man, emulating Mats Wilander and Ivan Lendl as he did so. Justine Henin, Hana Mandlikova and Francois Durr also achieved this double.

Cori Gauff Finale Junior Roland-Garros 2018©Amélie Laurin / FFT

This year’s junior Roland Garros gets underway on Sunday and, as has happened every year since the first junior version of the event was held in 1947, a new crop of fresh-faced young hopefuls has come to Paris in the hopes of following in the footsteps of 2005 junior champion Marin Cilic or 2011 junior winner Ons Jabeur.

For the first six years of its existence the junior tournament was boys only – they let girls play in 1953 – and then, as now, it was open to players aged 18 and under. Players are often much younger though. For example Mathilde Ngijol Carre, the youngest player in either junior draw at Roland Garros this year, is only 14.

Holger Rune©Cédric Lecocq / FFT

In many respects junior Grand Slams are a facsimile of the professional versions and deliberately so, for the entire junior tennis circuit is designed to mirror the professional version in every possible way. The ITF world junior tour has different grades levels of tournaments, which run throughout the year, built around the four all-important Grand Slams with a junior Davis Cup and a junior Billie Jean King Cup that allows players to feel the pressures of team competition.

Teenage players travel the world – there are 650 junior events in 140 different countries - and compete for ranking points at tournaments, building match-play, resilience, friendships, rivalries and, most importantly, experience. There are wildcards to ask for and practice desks to speak to and hotel rooms to organise, all laid on with the goal of building a professional skill-set that reaches far beyond forehands and backhands.

Stan Wawrinka vainqueur junior Roland-Garros 2003 boy's junior champ.© FFT

Leylah Fernandez was one of 11 players in the 2022 Roland Garros women’s singles draw who have lifted the girls’ trophy in Paris, alongside Simona Halep, Paula Badosa, Belinda Bencic and others. At 19, Fernandez’s 2019 girls' title in Paris is still relatively recent and has clearly been one of the factors in helping her to play well here as a professional.

"You know, I think it helped the first few years when I came here to kind of get used to it and find my footing in the WTA Tour,” Fernandez said. "So I think it’s good playing the junior Grand Slams that you get to see the professionals, see how they play, how they warm up.”

Proximity to the top players is something that takes some getting some used to and, when speaking to junior players, the topic comes up time and time again. Many will tell excited stories of standing next to Rafael Nadal in the sandwich queue but others will tell you that seeing superstars up close helps take away some of the mystique and therefore makes them feel less intimidated around heroes and heroines who might one day be opponents.

Leylah Fernandez Roland Garros 2019©Cedric Lecocq / FFT

There is also the underestimated impact of experiencing the distinct atmosphere of the second week of a Grand Slam (all junior Grand Slams run from the middle weekend to the end of the tournament), when player areas are quieter and the air feels a little more rarified than in the bustle of week one.

There are even occasional opportunities to share a court with legends of the sport and trade strokes - if not as equals, then at least as hitting partners. Novak Djokovic, in particular, makes a point of regularly seeking out promising junior players to hit with during the second week of Grand Slams. It is both a nod to the high standard on the junior circuit and the reality that there are fewer players around to practice with in the second week of a Slam who are not potential opponents in the draw.

Rune, who impressed in week one of the men’s draw this year, certainly cherishes his days at junior Roland Garros. "I still look back at it and think it's an unbelievable moment now for my career,” he told rolandgarros.com. “To do it here is special.”