Fils, Van Assche carry French hopes in Paris

Fast-rising teens are set to make a splash in their Roland-Garros debut

Arthur Fils, Luca van Assche, Roland-Garros 2021, boys' singles final© Cédric Lecocq/FFT
 - Chris Oddo

In 2021, for the first time since the FFT began keeping junior records in 1951, four French players reached the boys’ singles semi-finals at Roland-Garros.

Two years later, two of the fab four – Luca Van Assche and Arthur Fils – are making massive strides on the ATP Tour as they prepare for their main draw debut in Paris. 

Are we seeing the next wave of French tennis crystallise before our very eyes?

“We have so many good players in France, but I think that when they are coming together it’s very good for French tennis,” says Yannick Quere, who has coached Van Assche since he was 10. “We have not just one player, but so many, it’s really a good thing and I think it’s a chance for these players.” 

In 2023 it has been more than a chance. 

Van Assche, 19, and Fils, 18, are the two highest-ranked teenagers on the ATP Tour at the moment. Each has rocketed up the rankings in recent months, further bolstering their already rising stock. 

“Since I was little I wanted to be a part of the big names of tennis,” Fils, who lost in the 2021 boys' final to Van Assche, says. 

Giovanni Mpetshi-Perricard, Sean Cuenin, Arthur Fils et Luca Van Assche©Clément Mahoudeau/FFT

Raised a stone’s throw southwest of Paris, Fils has cut his teeth to great effect on the ATP Tour in 2023. Earlier this season he reached back-to-back semi-finals at Montpellier and Marseille, and more recently Fils earned his first Masters 1000 victory on clay in Rome, before losing to Holger Rune in the second round. 

Rune, a top-10 talent who recently left the teenage ranks, came away impressed by Fils authoritative tennis. 

“Arthur, he’s a big-time player, he has big shots and a big serve,” Rune said on court after his 6-3 6-3 victory. “When he got time on the forehand he was putting me under pressure, he made it tough on me. For sure he’s (heading) in the right direction.”

Maiden ATP title

This weekend, Fils continued his progress, turning a wildcard into his first ATP title (defeated Francisco Cerundolo 6-3, 7-5 in the final on Saturday) in Lyon, which guarantees a top-100 debut next week. He claimed some big wins along the way including an upset of world No.10 Felix Auger-Aliassime.

Van Assche’s star is pointed north as well. Up from 380 in the world this time last year, the 19-year-old will play at a career-high ranking of 79 this upcoming fortnight in Paris.

The Belgian-born standout made his top-100 debut in April after logging back-to-back challenger titles on the red clay at Pau, France and San Remo, Italy. Next he toppled Stan Wawrinka in Banja Luka, before giving 22-time Grand Slam Novak Djokovic a run for his money in the round of 16. 

Luca Van Assche, Roland-Garros 2021, Simple Garcons finale© Julien Crosnier/FFT

Meteoric rise

It has been a whirlwind season for Van Assche. 

“A lot happened. It’s true that we are only in May but I have the impression that it’s been two years,” he said. “Last year, I was like 400. I was not expecting this maybe a year or two ago, but of course I was dreaming about it - I’m very proud and I just want to be even better now.”

Van Assche and Fils are great friends and practise together often, but in many ways they are opposites, both on and off the court. 

“He’s not the same personality as Luca. Luca is more, I would say, reserved,” Quere says, when asked to compare the two. “Arthur is so different, he likes to express what he feels. But it’s good. If you have two guys who are identical, I don’t think that is good. They are very good friends, together.” 

Luca van Assche, Roland-Garros 2023, practice© Andre Ferreira/FFT

As he attempts to follow in the footsteps of teen prodigies like Carlos Alcaraz and Rune, who have both recently turned 20, Fils isn’t concerned about comparisons. 

“I try to detach myself from it,” says Fils. “When I see Alcaraz, Rune, all these guys, winning Grand Slams, making finals, I say to myself that top 150 is good but it’s not the biggest thing at the moment,” the current world No.112 said. “I'm top 100. They are top 10. I don't put any pressure on my back.”

For Fils and Van Assche, it’s all about soaking up the experience. Both are eager to beat back the pressure as they live the emotions of their Roland-Garros debut. 

A natural on clay

Van Assche, who didn’t travel to America for Indian Wells and Miami in order to play more matches on clay this spring, has a game that is built for the terre battue. 

“When you play Luca you know that you have to hit so many balls, and that is a difficult challenge for his opponents,” Quere says. 

The 19-year-old will be in his wheelhouse for his first-round match against Italy’s Marco Cecchinato, playing in front of his fans on familiar red clay in Paris. Same for Fils, who will try to tackle the challenge of 29th-seeded Alejandro Davidovich Fokina in his first round match.

Should they win their respective openers on Monday, they could clash in the Roland-Garros second round.

As the future unfolds, the hope is that Van Assche and Fils can channel their talents into memorable moments as they help usher in a new era for the French men.

“It’s my dream to win Roland-Garros,” Van Assche says. “I lived great memories with the juniors two years ago. I can’t wait for it to start and I will try to go as far as possible.”