Article by l’Equipe Magazine, translation by Tennis Buzz:
August 1991. No one suspects that a small page in the history of tennis is being written on the clay court at the Grüssenhölzli club in Pratteln, on the outskirts of Basel. This is the first round of the youth tournament of this small club. Not many people pay attention to the match between Reto Schmidli, a hope of TC Arlesheim, the neighboring village, and little Roger Federer, a kid from the TC Old Boys Basel. The match has little interest as it goes one way; Reto dismantles the kid 6-0, 6-0, double bagel.
Two things are then unknown. The first is that Roger will become one of the greatest players of his era; The second is that never again in his career he will suffer a defeat on this humiliating score. “Honestly I never thought about it,” says Reto Schmidli, 38, sitting on the terrace of a family bistro in Arlesheim. And then a friend told me that Roger had given an interview in a student magazine in the United States, where he was asked if he had already lost 6-0, 6-0. He replied that this had happened to him only once, during this tournament in Pratteln, facing me.”
But Reto Schmidli, now a police officer in Basel, never brags about it. However, the story became known in the small world of Basel tennis. “Sometimes, in tournaments, they ask me: Are you the one who beat Roger 6-0, 6-0?”
Reto does not add. “It did not mean much. Roger played his first tournaments, he was 10 years old and I was 13.” Soon, their roads diverged. “Roger joined the national center, I continued my progress but not at the same pace. Later, I joined Roger’s club, the Old Boys, and then I left to Australia, to the club of Patrick Rafter. I was in foster care, I played every day. The goal was to progress as much as to learn English. I came back to Basel, I had a good serve and a good backhand but I do not think I had the talent to become a great player. For that, it is necessary to want it ardently and it was not my case. I just enjoy playing tennis. My best ranking was Swiss number 40 … I started a sports college and then, as I was a fan of the Columbo series, I passed the exam to enter the police … I still play in my club of Arlesheim, in particular the team matches for over 35 year old.”
Reto is of course Federer’s number one fan. “I saw him once, I was at an indoor tournament where he was.” Inevitably, time covered this original match of the summer of 1991. “He had come with his mother. Of course, I did not know that I had just beat an absolute tennis genius. What I remember is that all his strokes came out. As if he already had the idea of tennis that he wanted to play but did not yet have the means to realize it. His balls came out of the court and that’s why I won easily, but let’s say his game philosophy was already there.”
Reto had reached the final of the tournament. Today, the court on which they had played disappeared, replaced by a furniture store. Only remains a nice souvenir for the Basel police officer.
Photo credit: L’Equipe Magazine
From 25 years of the Tennis Europe Junior Tour:
I never played against Rafa (in juniors) except in doubles. We played the deciding match of the Winter Cups ties on an indoor court. I was playing with Jamie Baker and he was playing with Marcel Granollers, and we lost. I beat Granollers in the singles, Nadal beat Matt Brown in the second singles and then we lost the deciding doubles. But I never played him in singles until we met as pros.
Does that defeat still hurt?
[laughs] Not so much, no. I’ve lost a couple of matches to him since then that have hurt more, but at the time it was definitely a pity.
With the Petits As in Tarbes, the Tim Essonne is one of the most prestigious tournaments in the world for the under 14s. Former winners include Rafael Nadal (1999), Richard Gasquet (1998), Tommy Robredo (1995), Martina Hingis (1991) and Elena Dementieva (1994).
Qinwen Zheng took out the girls’ title, beating local Diane Parry in the final. Zheng becames the first ever Chinese player to win the event.
Home crowd favourite Lilian Marmousez beat Alexander Georg Mandma from Estonia to capture the boys’ title.
Le Tim Essonne est, avec Les Petits As à Tarbes, l’un des plus prestigieux tournois pour les moins de 14 ans. Rafael Nadal (1999), Richard Gasquet (1998), Tommy Robredo (1995), Martina Hingis (1991) and Elena Dementieva (1994) ont emporté le tournoi par le passé.
Qinwen Zheng a remporté le titre chez les filles, en battant la locale Diane Parry en finale. Zheng devient ainsi la première chinoise à gagner ce tournoi.
Chez les garçons, c’est le Français Lilian Marmousez qui s’est imposé en battant l’Estonien Alexander Georg Mandma en finale.
Qinwen Zheng defeats Diane Parry 6-0-6-2
Extract from 25 Years of the Tennis Europe Junior Tour:
Amidst the frenetic bustle of the ‘village’ set up every year in the foyer of Tarbes’ Parc des Expositions to accompany Les Petits As, a big screen showing the second week of the Australian Open looms over the central eating area. The two tournaments on opposite sides of the globe thus progress concurrently to their respective climaxes: the superstars battling through Melbourne nights before 15,000 spectators for $40m and one of the four greatest prizes in the sport, the juniors fighting their hearts out in a cold indoor hall in the Pyrénées in front of 2,000 diehard fans and no money, but arguably the most prestigious 14 & Under trophy in the world.
It’s about as neat an encapsulation of the extremes of a tennis career as you could find – but it feels fitting to have it here. The iconic competitors whose every forehand and fist pump is magnified and replayed over us may seem larger than life, but many of them once passed through this hall in a small French town: 2015 Australian Open finalists Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray first played each other here in 2000. Fifteen years on, they serve as inspiration to the awestruck kids who dream of following in their footsteps.
“Everyone who wins here is a star!”
marvels top girls’ seed Anastasia Potapova, of Russia – the eventual champion this year.
Tarbes, a community of 50,000 in the foothills of the Pyrenees, has a proud sporting tradition – indeed, it was voted the third sportiest town in France by L’Équipe in 2010 based on the quantity and variety of sports it offered, and the financial support for them. It made sense, then, that Jean-Claude and Claudine Knaebel – a local couple with a passion for tennis – found it an accommodating site for their brainchild back in 1983.
“We knew that the 12-14 year olds were good players already – but amateurs, while the category above them had already started playing on the professional circuit,” says Claudine. “We wanted to give the youngsters experience in their own tournament.”
The local authorities immediately suggested the cavernous Parc des Expositions as a suitable venue, and – with coaches used as offices, a physio set up in a caravan and Yannick Noah, who went on to win Roland Garros that year, gracing posters – the first edition of Les Petits As welcomed competitors from four countries. By this year, that number had grown exponentially, with 32 countries represented across the singles main draws: traditional European hubs of the sport (France, Spain); recent emergent forces (Russia, Croatia), and overseas contingents travelling from as far as Asia and North America. The globalisation of tennis has been one of its most important narratives over the past two decades, and the quarter-final stage at Les Petits As proved a strong reminder of this. Over the day’s play, the diminutive fleet-footed Maltese Helene Pellicano took on the powerful Polish second seed Iga Swiatek in an absorbing match of stylistic contrasts; the ultra-aggressive strokes of Japan’s poker-faced Himari Sato, at 12 the youngest player left in either draw, thrilled spectators for a set as she pushed Russian 14th seed Kamilla Rakhimova to the brink of exit – but proved her undoing as they began to misfire throughout the deciding set. Meanwhile, though, another member of the Asian competitors, Taiwan’s Chun-Hsin Tseng, the boys’ fifth seed, was ruthlessly ending the surprise run of home favourite Adrien Gobat – and would ultimately go on to win the trophy.
Tseng is the latest example of the tournament’s pro-active approach to global expansion that has been so key to maintaining its prestige. Though he had never played in Europe before, tournament referee Michel Renaux had been impressed by the youngster’s game in an American junior event – and by his father’s devotion to his son’s nascent career, working nights so that he could coach his son during the day. Renaux extended a wild card invitation to Tseng – and it paid off, as Tseng swept to the title without the loss of a set, and indeed without the loss of any more than four games in any set, beating Europe’s top player Timofey Skatov (RUS) in the final.
There were echoes of the first time this policy paid off for the Tarbes organisers, back in its 1986 fourth edition.
“We wanted to enlarge the tournament,” recalls Claudine Knaebel. “We went to America and saw Michael Chang, spoke to his family and invited him to play. He came with his mother – it was his first time in Europe.”
The prodigious Chang also won the title – and, of course, just three years later was to become Roland Garros champion, a result that put Les Petits As on the tennis world’s radar in a huge way.
But if effective scouting is one side of the Tarbes story, the tournament’s success can also be attributed to what greets the players during their Pyrenean sojourn. Elite-level junior tennis can have something of a tough reputation: stories of temperamental, pushy or unsporting players, parents and coaches abound, and were famously the reason cited by Richard Williams for withdrawing his daughters, Venus and Serena, from junior competition. Yet at Les Petits As there is no ill behaviour on display, bar a few minor on-court grizzles.
This is a source of some pride to the organisers, who have gone to great lengths to create a ‘village’ atmosphere at the tournament. Food, clothing and equipment stalls line walkways near the courts; before and after their matches, players and coaches can be seen relaxing and socialising with each other. Indeed, Renaux states that the greatest challenge of his job – after maintaining the uniformity of the regulations – is to maintain this atmosphere.
“The aim for the players, because they are so young, is to find some conviviality in the village,” he says. “After the match, if they unfortunately lose, they are still with other players. At other tournaments, it is often just the coach and the hotel.”
This extends to supporting the children in times of real need, as well: the Knaebels recall 1995 as one of their most emotional years, when a talented 13-year-old Belgian competed the week after her mother had died. It was Justine Henin, a future legend of the game – and despite her personal trauma, she managed to make it all the way to the final that year, losing only to Croatia’s Mirjana Lucic.
It’s no wonder, then, that Tarbes holds long-lasting treasured memories for players who go on to professional careers. Renaux beams with pride as he describes Roger Federer and Kim Clijsters sending good luck text messages from Australia to the Petits As players, and 1994 champion Juan Carlos Ferrero later calling his time here his best memory as a junior. This year, one family is making a particularly special return. Way back in 1985, Canada’s Philippe Le Blanc became the first North American competitor at the tournament – again, scouted by the organisers. Two years later, his brother Sébastien followed. Both boys were coached by their father, Guy. This year, Sébastien and Guy are both back – but this time, from a different perspective, as Sébastien’s own son Alexandre is playing. Sébastien, an Olympic and Davis Cup player for Canada during his professional career, reminisces:
“This was such a boost for me, it was probably the start of everything. It hasn’t changed much – all the people, tournament directors and volunteers, are the same. They want the kids to have a good time, and the families also. The Tennis Europe Junior Tour taught me about hard work: make sure you play hard every time. We got lots of matches, met a lot of kids from all over the world. If you stay in Canada, you always play against the same kids and you never know how good you are.”
It’s to this end that Alexandre, who reaches the final of the consolation event, is now based in Barcelona.
“And in Europe you play on the red clay, which is a lot better than North American hard courts to learn the basics of the game,” notes Guy.
In fact, so impressed were the Leblancs by Les Petits As that it even inspired them to try their hand at setting up their own tournament, a 12 & Under team competition in Canada, which already counts much-touted talents such as Taylor Townsend and Françoise Abanda amongst its former players.
“We remembered how this was for us, and we tried to do the same thing,” says Sébastien.
Evidently, a successful tournament doesn’t just create the stars of tomorrow – but is key to the growth of the sport worldwide.
From 25 years of the Tennis Europe Junior Tour:
Though she laments that parental pressure took some of the enjoyment out of her junior days, Timea Bacsinszky has some great memories of her first international tournaments. In recent years, she has reconnected with her love for the game; a passion that has seen her break into the WTA Top 10 this year after reaching her first ever Grand Slam semi-final at the French Open.
Only two players have ever won Les Petits As twice: You and Martina Hingis. Can you still remember playing there?
Yeah, I do remember it well. It was quite amazing at that age to have 4,000 people watching us playing the final. The highlights were shown on Eurosport, so it was really exciting. It’s a junior event, but everything is done so professionally and they make you feel so special, almost like you’re playing a Grand Slam.
The first year I couldn’t believe I won it. I lost so many times to Alyssa Kleybanova. It’s a funny story actually – I really remember losing to her in Auray in a 12 & Under event. We played the final against each other and I was leading 5-2 when her mother started coaching and told her to play loopers [moonballs]. So she did that and I couldn’t cope and eventually I lost 7-5 6-0 or something like that. I didn’t win another game, because I was thinking “this is not tennis” [laughs]. Anyway, I played her again at Tarbes but I managed to win and she was 5-2 up this time but I managed to turn it around, and then the second set was 7-5 again or something…
What about your second year?
Many players fly through the 14 & Under tournaments and don’t get a chance to go back… In 2003 I remember I was so freaked out; it was the first time that I had this pressure – a pressure that you have to learn on the Tour. That’s why the Junior Tour is really good because when you are the defending champion you can replay the tournament and it’s a new kind of pressure. It doesn’t happen that often because you tend to rise an age category, but I think it’s beneficial to try to defend. I learned a little bit how to play with pressure because of that. Great memories; it was an amazing time.
You played in a few team events too. How was that experience?
Oh, I played in Moscow once, at the Winter Cups. I had some purple soup and I didn’t understand what it was – but it turned out to be beetroot soup! I remember playing Michaela Krajicek there, and Ekaterina Makarova, who I also played in Tarbes. I faced so many of today’s top players for the first time on the Tennis Europe Junior Tour.
You didn’t play that much on our Tour when you were younger, but when you did you really made your presence felt…
It’s not something I’d recommend to others. I wasn’t deciding for myself when I was younger. Fortunately and unfortunately. But I think it’s good to play a little bit more than I did. There is plenty of time to be a pro later.
If you had to give some advice to the players that are on the Tennis Europe Junior Tour right now, what would you tell them?
The advice is really to ask yourself, “Do I really love this?” You have to love it. You need to know that you don’t need to win everything. You are going to lose many, many matches. But if you know that you are going to step on court and enjoy it no matter what, that’s the most important thing. Your career is going to be long and you will have plenty of wins, and some losses as well, but you have to be able to accept things. If you can take it that way, your life will be much more enjoyable as a tennis player.
Article by Franck Ramella for l’Equipe Magazine, translation by Tennis Buzz:
Since 1983, Les Petits As tournament welcome players aged from 12 to 14 who sometimes write the beginning of a long story. Like Richard Gasquet, winner in 1999 after a victory of Nadal in the quarterfinals.
Q: Before we speak about the young ones, let’s talk about a soon-to-be 30 who has a bad back. Are you feeling better since December?
There’s no more pain. I hit again only since last week. I mostly did bodybuilding and an infiltration. I always went to Spain to consult an osteopath.
Q: Les Petits As, it reminds you memories?
Q: Do you remember your opponents?
The first year, in 1998, I lost to Robin Soderling in the quarterfinals. The next year, I was the favorite. And I was happy to have won the tournament. A beautiful victory. In the final, I beat American Brian Baker 7-5 6-1 (7-5 6-3 in fact). I was born in 1986 but played aginst players born in 1985. I remember I beat Frenchman Antoine Tassart 6-0 6-0. And then I beat Rafael Nadal in the quarters (6-7 6-3 6-4).
Q: Was it already a special match?
You get to know that only later. This match has been much commented afterwards. And it remained in the minds of the people. If you have told me he would win 9 Roland Garros titles, I would have said no. But he was difficult to play. He made no unforced errors. He ran everywhere. He was so full of energy! (Nadal won Les Petits As the year after).
Q: Some say you used to whimper on court throwing you racquet
I don’t know if I used to cry, but throw my racquet, yes, for sure. Losing is difficult. I did not lose often back then. I also remember that with my father, we used to leave the hotel early, even though the matches were later in the day. We were going around the stadium, I was discovering, but I was losing my influx. I was exhausted.
Q: What advice would you give to the young generation?
Les Petits As, you’ve got to be there. The whole experience made a strong impression on me. But beware, it’s not an end. It’s just a step.
Q: Do you follow the results?
Yes, I like to see how the guys evolve. I know Rayane Roumane won two years ago. Now, I sometimes train with him. He plays really well, He is the number-one French hope.
Q: You would like to return to Les Petits As?
I went back for an exhibition in 2006 with Gael (Monfils). But yes, I’d like to see how it goes now.