The transition from top junior to professional is laced with danger. For some, it’s seamless; for others, it’s too much to handle.
But for those lucky few who manage to win the French Open junior title, it seems that their progress into the senior ranks is more certain than most.
In total, 20 junior Roland Garros champions made it into the main draw of this year’s men’s and women’s singles events, including American Coco Gauff and Leylah Fernandez, the Canadian who reached the US Open final last September.
“I think for sure like just having, I guess, the memory of finishing a tournament here and playing seven matches here definitely helps,” 18-year-old Gauff said on Friday, after booking her place in the fourth round of this year’s event.
Eleven of the 20 former junior winners were in the women’s event, including Simona Halep, Paula Badosa, Belinda Bencic and Ons Jabeur, while nine boys’ champions made it to the main draw, including Stan Wawrinka, Marin Cilic, Andrey Rublev and Danish teenager Holger Rune. Of the 20, eight remain heading into Sunday; Gauff, Fernandez, Paula Badosa, Alize Cornet, Rublev, Rune, Cilic and Christian Garin.
Fernandez said the knowledge that she had been good enough to win at Roland Garros as a junior was beneficial as she began to make her way as a senior.
“I think this year I totally forgot that I won the juniors a few years back,” the 19-year-old said. “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 tour, in the WTA Tour.
“So I think that’s good playing the junior Grand Slams, that you get to see the professionals, see how they play, how they warm up.
“When I did get into the Roland Garros a few years back in the professional side, I was able to just kind of copy what they were doing and just try to find my own rhythm, my own way of training, my own way of doing things, my own routine. I think this year everything is just coming in together.”
Fernandez beat Olympic champion Belinda Bencic in the third round in Paris on Friday and will now play another rising star, Amanda Anisimova, herself a former junior Grand Slam champion, at the US Open in 2017.
For Gauff, who reached the fourth round with a confident win over Estonian Kaia Kanepi on Friday, knowing what it feels like to be around at the weekend of a big event helps mentally when it comes to making the step up to the professional ranks.
“I think in general, any junior Slam champion, I think, you know you have what’s in you,” she said. “Obviously it’s completely different playing in the pros, but I think you know what it’s like to play seven matches on a big stage. “I think that’s what really helped me a lot, playing juniors, finishing those tournaments and knowing what it’s like to play long tournaments in both singles and doubles.”
Tennis history is littered with promising juniors who never made it in the seniors. Nothing is guaranteed.
“Everybody has a different path,” Fernandez said. “I can’t say that winning a junior Grand Slam will help a player to become a professional. But what I can say is that every single one of those players are working hard and they are fighting for their dream.
“Sometimes it just comes with luck. I think I was very lucky with the opportunities that I got, and I was able to take advantage of those opportunities. And then I think for me, I think the juniors definitely helped me and my tennis game to see where my level is at.”
And for some, like Danish teenager Rune, winning a junior title is a life-changing moment. “I still look back at it and think it’s an unbelievable moment now for my career, even though it’s juniors,” Rune told Roland-Garros.com.
“This title kind of means more inside to me than any other title ahead. Of course, Munich [where last month he won his first title on the ATP Tour] was as big, I feel like, but still, you know, to be able to win a junior Slam is all juniors’ goal.
“It was a huge relief and to do it here is very special and you know, this is one of my favourite tournaments and I’m happy.”