In 2016, Chris Fowler dragged his ESPN broadcast partner Brad Gilbert into the semi-finals of the boys’ junior championships at Wimbledon. They got a preview of two future stars: Stefanos Tsitsipas and Denis Shapovalovwho won the tournament.
“I couldn’t believe the level of the game,” Gilbert recalled.
This event looked like a snapshot of what was to come. Defeated Shapovalov Alex de Minaur in the final; de Minaur beat Felix Auger-Aliassime in the quarters. All three have since entered the ATP Top 20, while Tsitsipas has made the Top 5.
But Gilbert wasn’t thrilled at first because it could easily have been a repeat of the 2014 Wimbledon junior final, when Noah Rubin defeated Stefan Kozlov before they both disappeared into the lower echelons of the ATP Tour.
The ITF World Tennis Tour Juniors is important to the development of many players under the age of 18. In 2019 there were over 600 ITF World Tennis Tour Juniors tournaments with approximately 8,000 boys and 7,000 girls participating in at least one tournament. Its Grand Slam events take place alongside the professional tournaments.
At Wimbledon this year 64 boys and 64 girls will compete in the main draw. Victoria Jimenez Kasintseva, who won the girls ‘singles title at the Australian Open 2020, is still at the start as a junior and will compete at Wimbledon, as does the youngest boys’ French Open winner, Luca van Assche.
Winning a junior slam is of course a momentous triumph, but that doesn’t mean it’s a barometer of future success. Roger Federer and Andy Murray won junior slams, but Rafael Nadal showed that you can go from boy to man while hardly playing in the ITF Juniors. Venus and Serena Williams, together with the youngest masters Angelique Kerber and Naomi Osaka, also refrained from playing in the junior circle.
“A good junior career is a good start, but not a guarantee,” wrote Stan Wawrinka, winner of the 2003 Junior French Open, in an email interview. “I never dreamed of winning a Grand Slam until I finally made it at the 2014 Australian Open,” his first of three.
Jeff McFarland, the creator of the Hidden Game of Tennis website, said Wawrinka is smart about keeping his dreams humble. Winning a junior slam is less predictable than being a top pick in college football or basketball.
“Tennis has such an unstructured system of development so it’s hard to say what those victories might mean,” said McFarland, adding that the physicality of the modern game makes it difficult to know how players will develop when their bodies are is not yet fully developed. “They may be the crème de la crème for the Juniors, but everyone at the next level is so good.”
The Junior Slams have produced more top women than men in the last 15 years: the Grand Slam winners Victoria Azarenka, Simona Halep, Ashleigh Barty, Jelena Ostapenko and Iga Swiatek; No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki and Karolina Pliskova; and a long list of the top 10 players.
The boys’ team peaked from 1998 to 2005 with Federer, Murray, Wawrinka, Andy Roddick, Marin Cilic and the top 10 players Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils. For the next eight years, Dominic Thiem produced Who won at the United States Open last year, but otherwise it was a meager harvest. But since 2014 a new generation has emerged: Alexander Zverev, Andrey Rublev, Taylor Fritz and those stars of the Wimbledon tournament in 2016.
McFarland said that a successful professional career doesn’t have to include a grand slam – especially for the men, where Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Federer, Murray and Wawrinka have all but four titles since 2004 – or even the top 10 cracked by Leander Paes and Jack Sock failed on the ATP Tour but won several Grand Slams in doubles, while Richard Gasquet, “whom the average American fan has never heard of, has nearly $ 20 million in prize money,” said McFarland. “Nobody would call these careers a failure.”
Still, McFarland said that since 1990 only half of male junior grand slam winners even made it to the top 50, while only a third of junior slam finalists reached that high. Girls do better, with two-thirds of junior slam winners and half of runners-up making it into the top 50. (McFarland said winning several junior slams like Azarenka and Roddick actually predicted higher professional earnings.)
“To be honest, winning a junior slam doesn’t help you as much as you think,” said Elina Svitolina, the 2010 Junior French Open winner who finished 3rd on the WTA Tour. “This is just the beginning – you have to work so many hours on and off the pitch to no longer have the junior mentality, because when you start playing on the women’s track, it’s completely different.”
Wawrinka said he saw more positive things.
“The Pro-Tour is a completely different level,” says Wawrinka, “but traveling on the Junior Tour helps you get used to the everyday travel routine at a young age – the jet lag that different food and being away from home are not always easy for juniors. “
Sofia Kenin, a junior US Open finalist, said she “soaked up the vibe and atmosphere” of the Grand Slams as a junior, which helped her mentally prepare for victory last years Australian Open and reached the final of the French Open.
One problem that McFarland and Gilbert raise as a predictor of Juniors is that many top young players choose low-level pro tournaments instead, either because they want the challenge or for economic reasons.
“It’s more of an obligation to build your junior ranking – the international trip can cost as much or more than the pro tour,” said Gilbert. Winning the Australian Junior Open, he said, was less prescient than the other three majors, perhaps because it requires more travel for American and European players.
The result, McFarland said, is that the winners “may not face the best talent.” In fact, Svitolina’s six opponents broke into the WTA top 150 en route to their Junior Slam victory just two later.
Gilbert said that ideally, next year’s junior slam winners should be granted a wild card for that Grand Slam’s main draw.
“That would give young players the incentive to play in the junior slams and bring back more talent,” he said.