After 25 years, an American girls’ champion at Wimbledon

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WIMBLEDON – On the grownups’ side, female American champions have not been lacking at Wimbledon in recent years.

Either Serena or Venus Williams have won the ladies’ singles title seven of the last 10 years. And Venus could extend that streak this year.

But on the girls’ side, it has been 25 years.

Chanda Rubin was the last American Wimbledon girls’ champion, back in 1992.

This year, there will be another. And it could be a teenager who wasn’t anywhere close to the top of the list when the girls’ event began.

No. 3 seed Claire Liu, who reached the French Open girls’ singles final last month, will play unseeded Ann Li for the girls’ crown.

Li who turned 17 on June 26 and is currently at No. 44 in the combined ITF junior rankings, isn’t as well known (but her ITF biography says she plays the ukelele, so there’s that).

Liu was beaten by a younger American in the French Open junior final. But she’s on a roll on the grass. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

It will be the first all-American girls’ final since Mary-Lou Piatek defeated Alycia Moulton 6-1, 6-3 in 1979.

Li lost to Serbia’s Olga Danilovic – a highly-touted prospect – 61 63 in the first round of the Orange Bowl last December. She defeated her (Danilovic was the No. 11 seed) 6-2, 6-4 here. And Li needed a wild card to get into the US Open juniors last September.

This is her first junior Grand Slam. And the last few months have been the first time she has even been to Europe to play tournaments. She has only played three main-draw pro matches, and lost two of them. And she will play college tennis at LSU. She is, in other words, a junior in the true sense of the world.

But she has progressed rapidly.

Hailey Baptiste and her amazing, flowing mane lost in the second round. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Contrast that with her opponent in the final, Liu, currently the No. 2-ranked junior girl in the world. 

Liu is 22-1 in the juniors this year; her only loss came to countrywoman Whitney Osuigwe, two years her junior, in the French Open junior girls’ final. She already is ranked inside the top 300 on the WTA Tour, and she won the last two pro tournaments she played (at the ITF $25,000 level,)this spring. She also won the junior tuneup grass event in Roehampton last week.

Of the 64 girls in the singles draw, 12 were Americans. And five of them were seeded, including No. 1 Kayla Day and No. 2 Osuigwe.

Day, already ranked No. 126 on the WTA Tour and the 2016 US Open girls’ champion, hadn’t played juniors all season. She lost in the first round of qualifying for the ladies’ singles at Wimbledon to 17-year-old Canadian Bianca Andreescu. 

If she was a surprise entrant, she left without any hardware. Li defeated her 4-6, 6-2, 6-1 in the quarter-finals.

Osuigwe, her knee taped, was beaten by unseeded Sofya Lansere of Russia in the quarterfinals.

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16-year-old Taylor Johnson, the No. 7 seed, has a serve-volley game that would seem Taylor-made for grass. But that’s in the future; she went out in the first round. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

The last American to make the Wimbledon junior girls’ final was Taylor Townsend in 2011; Townsend lost to Belinda Bencic of Switzerland.

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Kypson is the only American in the boys’ singles semi-finals. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Other than Piatek, there have been surprisingly few American girls’ champions here.

Since 1970, only six in all.

Ann Kiyomura won it in 1973, defeating some scrub whose career never went anywhere. A girl named Martina Navratilova.

Lea Antonoplis won it in 1977. Tracy Austin won it in 1978, and Zina Garrison in 1981. And then the last, Rubin.

Venus and Serena, of course, never played it.

On the American boys’ side, 10 boys were entered – two of them seeded. Unseeded Patrick Kypson has reached the semifinals.

Wimbledon flashback: Bouchard, Townsend win junior dubs

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WIMBLEDON – Have five years really already passed? 

The day after Canadian Genie Bouchard won the 2012 junior girls’ singles title with a routine victory over Elina Svitolina, she took to the court again.

This time, she teamed up with American Taylor Townsend to play the junior girls’ doubles final.

You look at the roster of their opponents and you can see that getting to a Slam doubles final is no guarantee of anything.

None of those players have really broken through yet.

One who is here this week is Bouchard’s countrywoman, Françoise Abanda, who qualified for the singles for the very first time.

Abanda was just 15 back in 2012, three years younger than Bouchard. And she also reached the singles semi-final, losing to Svitolina in three sets.

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But those opponents in the girls’ doubles final? They were just babies, but it was clear they were going places.

Bouchard

Belinda Bencic was 15; Ana Konjuh was still just 14.

Teenage excitement

Bouchard and Townsend, a few years older, defeated them fairly routinely. And they were pretty excited about it.

The best part of this victory was afterwards. The two giggly teenagers (yes, life was once not so serious, and none of those career setbacks had happened yet) discussed the whole motivation behind the doubles win.

Bouchard had already been to the Wimbledon Champions Ball the previous year; she won the girls’ doubles with Townsend’s countrywoman Grace Min.

So this title was all about getting Townsend there, too. The idea that there was a big room where the dresses and shoes were all lined up to choose from, and hair and makeup specialists awaited, was an exceptional notion.

Here’s a long-lost little audio clip of the two young ladies talking after the victory. Just came across it today.

 

Jam-packed summer for rising star Félix Auger-Aliassime

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Young Canadian Félix Auger-Aliassime had exactly one day to appreciate and contemplate his historic victory Sunday at the Lyon Challenger.

Tuesday afternoon, he will play his first-round match against French wild card Gianni Mina at a similar event in Blois, France.

Notwithstanding the time he spent on a conference call with Canadian media Monday, there don’t seem to be any flights between these two cities. And they are some 300 miles apart. So the options were a five-hour drive, or a five-hour train ride.

The 2017 summer is beginning with a bang for the 16-year-old from Montreal. And a jam-packed schedule over the next 2 1/2 months will make him – or maybe break him.

Here’s a look at the last 2 1/2 years of Auger-Aliassime’s very busy tennis life.

Intra-Canada motivation

He watched his good friend and fellow Canadian Denis Shapovalov, 16 months older, win the $100,000 Challenger in Drummondville (about an hour outside Montreal) last March after beating him in the semifinals. Auger-Aliassime had already beaten No. 3 Canadian Peter Polansky in straight sets in the second round. Seeing that he had the level, it really pushed him to fully commit himself. 

“Things are moving up really quickly. I started the year on the ITF pro circuit, playing Futures, building my ranking up. I guess things moved up a little bit faster than I thought they would,” Auger-Aliassime said during the call. 

Big rankings jump

Auger-Aliassime’s ATP Tour ranking rose 105 spots with his win in Lyon, which made him the seventh-youngest player ever to win a tournament at the Challenger level. On the youth list, he’s right behind Rafael Nadal – and right ahead of Novak Djokovic.

With his ranking at No. 231 after the victory in Lyon, he can certainly aspire to playing the qualifying at the US Open at the end of August.

His first dip into the top 250 also puts him in pretty great company.

Aliassime

It will have been just a year since he won the junior boys’ title, at 16.

It’s all happening a little more quickly than he imagined.

“I haven’t talked to my coach yet, haven’t set any new objectives. Winning a Challenger was one of the main goals when we started the season in January, and that has been reached,” Auger-Aliassime said. “After this week, the tournament in Blois, we’re going to set ourselves new ones. But overall, I don’t set any limits. Just trying to win as many matches as I can, and If I win them all, that would be great.”

Feeling right at home in Lyon

Auger-Aliassime, who is a Quebec francophone, said his first title will stay with him forever.

“It was pretty incredible. A week – two weeks – I’ll never forget. I got there the Wednesday before the start of the tournament. And I had a chance to spend lots of time in that magnificent city,” he said. “I’ll remember how they welcomed me. The crowd was supporting me; even when I played a French player in the final, they were split.

“That’s really something incredible. It’s a first; you can’t replace it,” he added.

Building blocks fall into place

The key to Auger-Aliassime’s success in June is two-fold.

First was all the hard work put in during the last off-season with coach Guillaume Marx and Tennis Canada physical trainer Nicolas Perrotte. The effort was both mental and physical. Auger-Aliassime’s increased calm and maturity was in evidence in Lyon – especially during the semifinal, which was played in a gale-force wind that might have cause him to lose his cool even a year ago.

Because it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. The Australia trip in Jan. 2016 didn’t go well at all. The kid never got his bearings and his frustration on the court – as agents crawled all over him and his father and anyone who knew him – was evident. He told Tennis.Life upon returning home, a few weeks later, that he might have been burning out a little. But it didn’t last long.

Challenges in 2016

As well, the attitude when Auger-Aliassime lost was something that needed tending to. Because as he jumps up each level of the pro game, there are going to be a more losses than wins as he adjusts.

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The Canadian was pretty unconsolable after losing the boys’ final in Paris last year – so much that French Fed Cup captain Yannick Noah, on his way to congratulate winner Geoffrey Blancaneaux, made a pit stop to offer what comfort he could. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

After losing both the French Open junior singles and final and the US Open doubles final last year … well, let’s just say the winners will look back on those photos years from now and remember how the kid they beat wasn’t quite as gracious as he could have been, needed to be, when it was all over.

A gruelling five-week tour of Asia over April and May was a bit of a game changer. It was a trip that took him from Qingdao and Anning, China (on red clay reportedly imported straight from Roland Garros), to Gimcheon, Seoul and Busan, South Korea on hard courts.

Auger-Aliassime played 16 matches – 11 of them in qualifying.

Tag-team coaching

It was such a long trip that his coaches even passed the baton halfway through. Longtime coach Guillaume Marx handed it off to Frédéric Fontang, who coached Auger-Aliassime’s countryman Vasek Pospisil for four years and now works on assignment for Tennis Canada. Fontang also is assistant coach for the Davis Cup team.

“It’s kind of an adjustment. You’re not used to paying at a high level constantly with those guys. But after my five-week tour in Asia, playing the qualifying and main draws of ATP Challengers, I kind of got more used to the level of these guys. And this week, it kind of paid off,” Auger-Aliassime said. “I was pushing myself to the limit in almost every match. But at the end of the week I found the little edge to get over these guys.”

Busy Canadian summer circuit

Auger-Aliassime has a total of six ATP Tour points to defend until the first week in November when, in 2016, he won his first Futures-level event on the Har-Tru in Birmingham, Alabama.

After the Challenger in Blois this week, comes a flurry of hard-court events back home in Canada.

The Granby event nearly two years ago was a breakout for Auger-Aliassime at the Challenger level. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

First up will be the $75,000 Winnipeg Challenger the week of July 11, followed by a similar Challenger in Gatineau, Que. And then, a $100,000 Challenger in Granby, Que.

That’s where Auger-Aliassime won his first Challenger-level match two summers ago, and caught the attention of many by reaching the quarter-finals out of the qualifying before running of gas. He was still a couple of weeks away from turning 15.

Auger-Aliassime lopped some 500 ranking spots off his ranking that week; he had been at 1,237 going in. 

He didn’t get a wild card into the Rogers Cup qualifying in Toronto, as he hit the junior circuit again.

A lot of tennis, not a lot of time

Now 16, he played a big US Open juniors warmup event in Repentigny, Que. – and then went to New York and not only won the boys’ singles title, but reached the final of the doubles as well with Shapovalov.

Auger-Aliassime, Shapovalov and Ben Sigouin were pretty much an all-star team in winning the 2015 Junior Davis Cup. A year later, with two new teammates, Auger-Aliassime wasn’t able to lead the team to a title defense.

Despite having played 11 matches in a week in New York, Auger-Aliassime was only home a few days before he had to head right back out again, and switch surfaces in a hurry.

He played a Futures event in Hungary on the red clay before playing another 10 matches the following week, as he was called into service to represent Canada in the Junior Davis Cup finals.

Despite his Herculean efforts. Canada fell to Russia in the final.

It was far too much tennis for a growing kid although in the end, Auger-Aliassime doesn’t appear to be the worse for it.

First Rogers Cup appearance a cinch

After Granby this summer comes the Rogers Cup, which is in his hometown and for which he quite likely will receive a wild card into the qualifying.

There are a few factors at play. Vasek Pospisil will in all probability need a main draw wild card. Shapovalov is still ahead of Auger-Aliassime on the depth chart. And then, there are veterans Frank Dancevic and Peter Polansky (both of whom have long represented Canada in Davis Cup) to consider.

On the plus side, the Montreal men’s event doesn’t need to sell tickets, with the stellar field it boasts every year. So Tennis Canada doesn’t need to use the kid as a marketing tool. (If they did, they’d have given him a wild card into the qualies in 2015).

They can make the decision based on the other factors, as well as the step-by-step plan they have followed for the kid so far.

But that’s still nearly two months away. A lot can change.

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Auger-Aliassime was a practice partner at the Rogers Cup in Montreal in 2015. Here he’s laughing at the practice-court antics of Jack Sock and Nick Kyrgios. This year, he’ll play. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

After that, Auger-Aliassime plans to play a $100,000 Challenger all the way across country in Vancouver.

Grand Slams await

But … if Auger-Aliassime makes the cutoff for US Open qualifying – it seems impossible he won’t, at this point – you’d have to think the Vancouver plan would be altered. To cross the continent just for one tournament after four straight weeks on the hard courts, then come right back to the East Coast for your first appearance in a Grand Slam? That makes little sense.

You can certainly hope that the powers-that-be at Wimbledon – with Canadian Michael down the head of the British Tennis Association, and returning to Canada to take up his old job there July 1 – might see fit to give him a wild-card into the qualifying at Roehampton. He was, after all, a singles semi-finalist and a doubles finalist in the junior event a year ago.

With his current ranking, Auger-Aliassime would have made it on his own merit.

But where would he fit it in?

However it shakes out, Auger-Aliassime could be setting the stage for a breakthrough summer. And even compared to his first baby steps at 14, when so many were calling him “the next big thing”, even more eyes will be upon him.

Birthday battle?

On Monday (perhaps in response to a Tweet from Auger-Aliassime himself) the ATP finally updated the mugshot on his ATP Tour biography page.

It had looked like this:

ALiassime

Now, he looks ready to take on the big boys.

Aliassime

Maybe a little too much so. It’s like from one day to the next, he went from a boy to a man. Can’t even imagine how his mother Marie feels about it.

Auger-Aliassime turns 17 on Aug. 8 during the Rogers Cup. As it happens, that also will be Roger Federer’s 36th birthday.

We’re trying to envision a scenario in which Auger-Aliassime is in the main draw, and draws Federer in the second round on the Tuesday night, on their mutual birthday.

That would be off the charts.

(For lots of stories about Félix Auger-Aliassime over the last few years, check out opencourt.ca. And for videos and slideshows, click here).

Junior Wimbledon champs throw down at Queen’s Club

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After the Queen’s Club issued Canadian Denis Shapovalov a wild card into the qualifying of its ATP Tour 500 event this week, the rest couldn’t have worked out any better.

Shapovalov, the 2016 Wimbledon junior champion, drew 2015 Wimbledon junior champion Reilly Opelka in the first round.

And Shapovalov, younger by nearly two years, prevailed 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (6) after converting on his first match point in the third-set tiebreaker.

The two are very different players, in large part due to the huge disparity in height. Shapovalov, a lefty with a one-handed backhand, is about six feet tall and much more of a natural grass-courter with all-court skills.

Opelka is 6-foot-11, with your standard-issue two-handed backhand but blessed – no surprise – with a monster serve.

But Shapovalov stayed with Opelka on nearly every level. He had 11 aces to Opelka’s 13. He was within one percentage point on both first- and second-serve effectiveness. But his first-serve percentage was much higher – 68 per cent to Opelka’s 50 percent. And that likely made the difference.

Different paths for the rising stars

Let’s compare their paths. Opelka was almost 18 when he won the junior title; Shapovalov had just turned 17. That year is fairly significant at that age.

Shapovalov

Leading into last year’s junior Wimbledon title, Shapovalov won the Roehampton leadup; Opelka reached the semis in 2015.

At Wimbledon, both reached the final of the doubles as well.

Opelka didn’t drop a set against his last two opponents at the All-England Club – Taylor Fritz in the semi-finals, and Elias Ymer in the final.

Shapovalov had to come back from a set down against both Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semis, then Aussie Alex de Minaur in the finals.

Both basically ended their junior careers after winning the big one although Opelka, an American, did play the US Open juniors. He lost in the third round.

Progress comparison

At this time in 2016, a year after winning the juniors, Opelka’s ATP Tour ranking still stood at just No. 868. He struggled with some injuries and was a little slow to get going.

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Shapovalov rose the hard way, by grinding it out on the American Futures circuit on the Har-Tru. He reached No. 172 in the rankings in early April. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Meanwhile, the American’s last two opponents in the Wimbledon juniors had meteoric rises, then struggled.

Fritz’s ranking (currently at No. 135) was at No. 63 a year ago. Ymer’s ranking stood at No. 145; he has dropped more than a hundred spots since them.

Opelka has passed both of them; his ranking right now is at a career-best No. 130.

Shapovalov’s rise was much quicker than Opelka’s. But it still has been more of a steady climb. Barely 18, he currently stands just inside the top 200 at No. 195 and played in his first Grand Slam qualifying in the pro ranks at the French Open a few weeks ago. His last two Wimbledon juniors opponents also have risen steadily, if less spectacularly than Fritz and Ymer: Tsitsipas is at No. 192, de Minaur at No. 243

The Canadian hit a career best ranking of No. 172 in early April. But after reaching the final of a Challenger in Guadalajara, Mexico at the end of Match, he failed to win a main-draw match in six tournaments.

But he did win three in qualifying on grass in Surbiton last week. And he won this one against Opelka, who was the No. 7 seed while Shapovalov needed a wild card to get in.

This was Shapovalov’s first official match with a new racquet sponsor, having made the official switch from Wilson to Yonex this week.

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This week marks Shapovalov’s debut with his new racquet sponsor Yonex; previously, he had been with Wilson his entire career.

Saturday was not a great day overall for the American young guns at Queen’s Club.

Top qualifying seed Frances Tiafoe was defeated by British wild card Liam Broady in the first round. And No. 2 seed Jared Donaldson lost in straight sets to German veteran Tobias Kamke. Stefan Kozlov did squeak through against big French lefty Kenny de Schepper.

Next for Shapovalov

Next up for Shapovalov is Broady. The winner of that matches makes the main draw and will face either Steve Johnson, Brits James Ward or Kyle Edmund, or another qualifier.

You never know; if Shapovalov (who currently is entered in the Wimbledon qualifying) can get on a roll, he might get consideration for a wild card into the main draw at the All-England Club as the reigning junior champion.

Shapovalov

The tournament used to do that more regularly, but it hasn’t happened since 2009 (Grigor Dimitrov) and 2010 (Andrey Kuznetsov). Most often, the previous year’s junior champion doesn’t have any kind of a ranking that would justify it – just look at Opelka a year ago. But Shapovalov may have an ace in the hole.

The wild-card announcements will be made June 20. As it happens, the chief of the British Lawn Tennis Association, one Michael Downey, will still be the boss there at that time.

By the time the tournament begins July 3, Downey will have left the LTA and returned to his old gig as head of … Tennis Canada. As a final act, he might be able to persuade the powers-that-be to help him do a solid for his fellow Canadian.

Flashback – Ostapenko, 2014 French Open

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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.

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Françoise Abanda hadn’t played the juniors for awhile when she showed up at the 2014 French. She dispatched Jelena Ostapenko in straight sets. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

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.

Ostapenko

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.