ROLAND GARROS – The thing about junior tennis is that even when you’re watching it attentively, you don’t always know what you’re seeing.
With rare exceptions, only hindsight can tell you that.
Players who impress at a young age often don’t pan out in the pros. Players who don’t do a whole lot in the juniors grow up, fill out and do great things.
So you watch. Do they have the makings of a pro game? Or do they have a game that’s been successful in the juniors and left alone, to their long-term detriment, precisely because of that success.
Often – especially on the boys’ side, the game doesn’t transition. And by the time the players, coaches and federations figure that out, it’s often too late to make the big changes required.
Ostapenko, out in the first round
Which brings us to the French Open, three years ago, and a match between a pair of 1997s (i.e., 17 years old, or about to be) in the first round of the junior event.
Françoise Abanda had been a hotshot junior. At 15, two years before, she’d been a couple of games away from making the junior Wimbledon final an all-Canadian affair with the three-years-older Genie Bouchard.
She ended up beaten by Elina Svitolina, who was 2 1/2 years older and had already won the junior French Open at age 15.
Fast forward to 2014, and Abanda was basically playing pro events and also had been dealing with a nagging shoulder injury. She had played just one junior tournament in the previous year and a half.
Abanda was entered in the French Open in the hope that maybe she could snag a junior Slam title before she was done. And as the draw worked out, she faced a tough opponent in Ostapenko in the first round.
The Canadian was seeded No. 10. Ostapenko was unseeded.
They had played once before, in Montreal, when both were 15. Abanda had pulled through that one 1-6, 6-1, 6-1.
Ostapenko was a few weeks away from winning the Roehampton-Wimbledon junior double. She was still playing a lot of junior tournaments then. But the Latvian also had just spent five weeks playing a series of $10,000 ITF pro events in Santa Margherita Di Pula, Italy.
She won three of them, and went 20-2 during that stretch.
She might have been a bit weary.
Abanda won the match 7-6 (5), 6-4. At the time, there didn’t seem to be anything unduly remarkable about Ostapenko.
I remember thinking I was not a big fan of the outfit, which a lot of the Nike juniors were wearing that year. And her eyesight wasn’t that great in terms of some of the ball marks she picked out for the umpire to look at (that hasn’t changed).
But that was about it.
At the end of 2014, the top 1997s in the WTA Tour rankings were as follows:
Belinda Bencic (No. 32)
Ana Konjuh (No. 93)
Françoise Abanda (No. 202)
Naomi Osaka (No. 260)
Jelena Ostapenko (No. 271)
All but Abanda, who qualified for the French Open main draw this year in her first tournament on the pro side, have made it to the top 50.
Bencic has had the highest ranking of them all, peaking at No. 7 in February, 2016. But she’s out indefinitely after a series of injuries.
And yet, it was Ostapenko who snuck up on everyone and won the 2017 French Open.
The moral of the story might be this: don’t give into the hype. But don’t overlook anyone.
Because you never know.