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.

Andy Murray

Taylor Townsend, Monday post-match press conference:

Taylor Townsend

Venus Williams, press conference after her loss to Lucie Safarova, Tuesday:

Venus Williams

Andy Murray answering questions about the court conditions in Toronto, strategy for playing on quick surface, texting with Amelie (“Her spelling is not that good so on messages I correct her quite a bit”), how well Jo played in Toronto (recited various serving speeds), crowd noise, and how Mason is different than other Masters cities (staying in downtown Cincinnati; goes to Whole Foods a lot; went out for steak).

press conference

Novak Djokovic joking with media members about not inviting them to his wedding and how he should have brought chocolate.

press conference

Madison Keys, Monday post-match press conference:

Madison Keys

Sloane Stephens:

Sloane Stephens

Sloane Stephens

Roger Federer, Tuesday, 5:30 pm (after his 2nd practice, the day before his opening match):

Roger Federer press conference

Roger Federer press conference

Roger Federer press conference

Roger Federer press conference

Photo credit: Peg

Check out all our Cincinnati 2014 coverage.

Taylor Townsend

Sara Errani:

Sara Errani

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova:

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova

Lucie Safarova:

Lucie Safarova

Jurgen Melzer:

Jurgen Melzer

Kimiko Date:

Kimiko Date-Krumm

Taylor Townsend:

Taylor Townsend

Taylor Townsend

Flavia Pennetta:

Flavia Pennetta

Flavia Pennetta

Gael Monfils:

Gael Monfils

Gael Monfils

Gael Monfils

Elina Svitolina:

Elina Svitolina

Elina Svitolina

Martina Hingis:

Martina Hingis

Martina Hingis

Photo credit: Peg

More reports from Cincinnati:
On the way to the Western & Southern Open
The Western & Southern Open main draw party
Friday evening at Lindner Family Tennis Center
Seeking relief from the heat
Proximity
Interviews and Press Conferences
The Mixed Zone
Stars and Flowers
Players at practice

Taylor Townsend

Peg is covering the Western & Southern Open for Tennis Buzz. Enjoy her behind the scenes of the tournament (more to come!):

At the Western and Southern Open, interviews are conducted in a variety of settings, including on the ESPN stage, which was set up Sunday morning:

broadcasting stage

By mid-week, swarms of spectators crowded around the broadcasting tent whenever a post-match interview was in progress, craning their necks to see Serena and other stars:

crowd craning to see Serena

There are also on-court interviews, interviews in the mixed zone (which I’ll report on in a separate entry), and the WTA All Access Hour (a time — in this case, Monday at noon — when the top eight seeds were all present for interviews, prior to their opening matches), as well as “one on ones” (interviews between an individual journalist and an individual player) and other configurations.

Jelena Jankovic

The scheduling and location of press conferences is dictated in part by the requests submitted to the ATP and WTA before the start of the day. To quote from the instructions reiterated within in each morning’s e-mail from the media center manager (Pete Holtermann), “Each request should clearly state if the interview is for match coverage or for a feature interview, and if the request is win-only or win/lose.” The WTA interview form also specifically asks the requestor to indicate the need-by time, the duration of the interview, and the subject of the interview. The ATP fields requests primarily via e-mail.

Near the end of the first Saturday (i.e., the first day of quals), the Sunday schedule of pre-main-draw press conferences was released, with Isner scheduled for 2 p.m., Murray for 2:30 p.m., Djokovic at 2:45 p.m., and Azarenka at 4 p.m. When these conferences took place, there were also second-round qualifying matches taking place on six courts, as well as practice sessions on eight other courts. On Monday and beyond, the day session featured main draw matches on eight courts and practices on all the courts. In other words, there were times when I wanted to be in fifteen or sixteen places all at once. Since that wasn’t feasible, I sketched out Plans A, B, and C in my notebook and revised them on the fly throughout the day. On the first Sunday, this meant I caught part of Tomic vs. Ebden (second-round qualifying), part of Goerges vs. Wickmayer, and most of Hewitt vs. Melzer (the first main draw match) but missing other matches in order to attend the Murray and Djokovic pressers:

Andy Murray

Novak Djokovic

The Sunday pressers were not transcribed, but on Monday, the ASAP team was in place:

ASAP transcriptionists

The media center volunteers distributed some transcripts as soon as the hard copies were made (“Anyone for Isner? Anyone for Ivanovic?”), particularly during stretches of heavy production (i.e., when the media center was populated with many writers, videographers, and editors hunched over their laptops, racing against deadlines) . Other transcripts were obtainable via the handout wall, where OOPs, press releases, scorecards, and other documentation could be found.

Madison Keys

Sloane Stephens

In the course of attending multiple conferences, I was able to pick up on some trends in questioning (and thus what those writers or producers had in mind for their features). A USTA writer asked several players about language skills. (Madison Keys: Christina McHale speaks Spanish fluently and she also knows some Chinese.  So I strive to be like Christina, but it probably won’t happen. . . . I want to learn like Chinese so Christina and I can start speaking Chinese in front of another person and just totally confuse them.”) A Cincinnati journalist asked every player about bad tosses when on serve. Ben Rothenberg asked several players about crowd noise (and when Ben wasn’t present, I did). Being a strategy nerd, my go-to questions were about court speed and conditions.

A preliminary schedule of interviews was distributed each morning, with additional interviews announced via closed-circuit TV (and sometime via intercom or walkie-talkie or volunteer walk-throughs) during the course of the day. Because the timing of 95% of the interviews depended on when a match ended (and sometimes on the result of said match), there were periods where I felt compelled to remain at my carrel in the media center instead of going out to the courts, the better to race down to the mixed zone or the main interview room upon the conclusion of certain matches. I also took to annotating my order of play in order to reconcile who might be available (and in what format) vs. practices and matches I hoped to cover:

game plan

My assignments were the top priority in my planning, of course. One of my tasks was to photograph Stefan Edberg. Having seen the Timberland deck packed to the gills on Sunday for a Stan-Novak practice — as well as fans lined up not only along the top rail of Grandstand, but along the edge of the Svensk Vodka lounge as well — and, having chatted with Cincy regulars who reminisced about a four-hour wait for a Nadal practice, I knew that I had to stake out my spot at least an hour in advance. (Not having access to the Center Court photo blind, I had concluded that a Federer practice would provide me with the best opportunity for good pictures.) The stands of Court 15 were already packed when I planted myself on the back row of Grandstand, seventy-five minutes early; by the time Federer, Mahut, and their people arrived, there were at least two more rows of people standing behind me, and I didn’t dare cede my spot, even though I could hear oohs and aahs of appreciation for the show Wawrinka and Becker were putting on for the folks actually watching their match. Part of me desperately wanted to see the actual match in progress, but another part of me was engrossed in capturing the interactions among Federer, Edberg et al., including the post-match pleasantries, which (among other things) featured Federer taking a photo of Edberg and a kid-minder on Mahut’s team:

1922

Federer’s pre-competition interview was scheduled for 5:30 p.m. On my way back to the media center, I parked myself in the mixed zone, since I knew that Stan would arrive shortly:

Stan Wawrinka

I didn’t stick around for the English questions posed to Stan, but I was still a hair late to Roger’s presser — he was already answering a question about his new racquet by the time I reached the third floor:

Roger Federer

The French broadcasters approached the dais after the conclusion of the English questions. As I left the room, I could hear Roger saying to the moderator, “Yes, we go back a long way…”

Roger Federer press conference

More reports from Cincinnati:
On the way to the Western & Southern Open
The Western & Southern Open main draw party
Friday evening at Lindner Family Tennis Center
Seeking relief from the heat
Proximity