Jiri Vesely, Monte Carlo 2016

Seriously, who saw that coming? Jiri Vesely notches the biggest win of his career, ousting defending champ Novak Djokovic 6-4 2-6 6-4 in Monte Carlo.

Other upsets today: Damir Dzumhur defeats Tomas Berdych and Lucas Pouille beats Richard Gasquet.

Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic

Jiri Vesely

Photo credit: Marianne Bevis

Novak Djokovic, Miami 2016

Unstoppable. After his 6-2 6-0 win over Milos Raonic in the Indian Wells last week, Novak Djokovic dispatched Kei Nishikori 6-3 6-3 to win his third consecutive Miami Open title, his 28th Masters 100 tournament overall.

Novak will now head back to Europe for the clay court season. Do you think he will win Roland Garros, the only Slam missing to his trophy collection?

Miami Open 2016

Novak Djokovic
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Novak Djokovic, Miami Open 2016

Novak Djokovic qualified for the Miami Open final by beating David Goffin 7-6 6-4. Here are a few pictures of Djokovic practicing earlier this week.

Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic
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Novak Djokovic, Indian Wells 2016

World number one Novak Djokovic struggles a bit but defeats Philipp Kohlschreiber in two sets 7-5 7-5, in the third round of the BNP Paribas Open. His next opponent: Feliciano Lopez.

Indian Wells 2016

Philipp Kohlschreiber
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Les Petits As, Les Petits As, juniors tournament

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:

You play now with a lot of people you first faced in those days. What do you remember of your current rivals from back then? Famously, you and Djokovic were born in the same week…

Yeah, Novak and I first played at Tarbes and I won 6-0 6-1, so unfortunately times have changed a little since then! We would have been 11 years old, and I can clearly remember the court that we played on and everything. It’s strange because I don’t really remember any of the other matches I played that week, apart from the final, where I remember losing to Alex Krasnoroutskiy of Russia. He’s still around, he’s working now with Svetlana Kuznetsova. But yeah, the match with Djokovic sticks out quite a lot and it’s strange because at the time, when he was eleven years old, he wasn’t yet that good. Once he got to 13, 14 he became really really good.