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.

Rafael Nadal, Australian Open 2015

The Happy Slam is already around the corner! On the men’s side, Novak Djokovic will be once again the huge favorite, but the women’s draw is open than ever: all four of the top-ranked have withdrawn from tournaments they entered this week due to injury.

Enjoy our Australian Open coverage on Tennis Buzz, and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

A trip down memory lane:

Australian Open trivia
The tragedy of Daphne Akhurst
The Norman Brookes Challenge Cup
1960 Australian Open: Neale Feaser, a costly volley
1960: first Grand Slam title for Rod Laver
1960-63 Australian Open: Jan Lehane four time runner-up
1974 Australian Open: Jimmy Connors first Grand Slam title
1975: John Newcombe defeats Jimmy Connors
1981: First Australian Open title for Martina Navratilova
1983: Mats Wilander defeats Ivan Lendl
1984: Mats Wilander defeats Kevin Curren
1985: Edberg wins in Australia and Sweden changes look
1987-1988 Swedes spoil the party
1987: Stefan Edberg defeats Pat Cash
January 11, 1988: first day of play at Flinders Park
1988: Mats Wilander defeats Pat Cash
1990: John McEnroe disqualified!
1990: Ivan Lendl’s last Grand Slam title
1991: Monica Seles first Australian Open title
1994: First Australian Open title for Pete Sampras
1995: Mary Pierce defeats Arantxa Sanchez Vicario
1995 QF: Pete Sampras emotional comeback win over Jim Courier
1995: Andre Agassi defeats Pete Sampras, wins first Australian Open title
1996 Australian Open: Mark Philippoussis defeats Pete Sampras in the 3rd round
Impressions from the 1996 Australian Open: Monica Seles and Boris Becker last Grand Slam titles, Stefan Edberg last appearance in Australia
1997 Australian Open: Pete Sampras defeats Carlos Moya
2001 Australian Open: Pat’s last chance
2001 Australian Open final: Andre Agassi defeats Arnaud Clément
2002: Capriati scripts a stunning sequel in Australia
2003 Australian Open: last Grand Slam title for Agassi
2009 Australian Open: Rafael Nadal defeats Roger Federer

Recap:
Fashion and gear:
Polls:

Who will be the 2016 Australian Open champion?

  • Novak Djokovic (45%, 66 Votes)
  • Roger Federer (22%, 32 Votes)
  • Andy Murray (9%, 13 Votes)
  • Rafael Nadal (9%, 13 Votes)
  • Stan Wawrinka (7%, 10 Votes)
  • Other (3%, 5 Votes)
  • Kei Nishikori (3%, 4 Votes)
  • Tomas Berdych (2%, 3 Votes)
  • Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (1%, 1 Votes)
  • David Ferrer (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Richard Gasquet (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 147

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Who will be the 2016 Australian Open champion?

  • Serena Williams (38%, 41 Votes)
  • Maria Sharapova (22%, 24 Votes)
  • Other (14%, 15 Votes)
  • Garbine Muguruza (9%, 10 Votes)
  • Agnieszka Radwanska (7%, 8 Votes)
  • Angelique Kerber (5%, 5 Votes)
  • Simona Halep (2%, 2 Votes)
  • Petra Kvitova (1%, 1 Votes)
  • Karolina Pliskova (1%, 1 Votes)
  • Venus Williams (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Timea Bacsinszky (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 107

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14-year-old Serena Williams makes her professional debut, losing in the first round of the Quebec City tournament’s qualifyings to Anne Miller 6-1 6-1.

Robin Finn of the New York Times wrote: “Instead of a stadium showcase, she competed on a regulation practice court at a tennis club in suburban Vanier, side by side with another qualifying match. There were no spotlights, no introductions, not even any fans. Her court was set a level below a smoky lounge bar that held a bar, a big-screen television, an ice cream cart and 50 or so onlookers with varying stages of interest in her fate.”

Serena: “I felt bad out there because I lost. I didn’t play like I meant to play. I played kind of like an amateur.”

Anne Miller: “I guess I played a celebrity… She has as much power as anybody around, but maybe she needs to play some junior events the way Anna Kournikova has to learn how to become match-tough. There really is no substitute for the real thing. I felt like a complete veteran compared to her.”

A year before, Serena’s older sister Venus had defeated the world’s 58th-ranked player, Shaun Stafford, in straight sets in her pro debut in Oakland, then led No. 2 Arantxa Sanchez 6-2, 3-1 before losing in three sets.

Serena did not play another pro event for another 17 months, when, in her fifth tournament back, she dispatched Monica Seles along with Mary Pierce in Chicago. She captured her first WTA title in 1999 in Paris, defeating Amelie Mauresmo in the final.

Anne Miller left the tour to return to college 3 years after her victory over Serena. She is now a stay-at-home mom in Portland and on the board of directors for a local nonprofit.

Sources: On this day in tennis history by Randy Walker, ESPNW

Davis Cup trophy

26 November:

Leon Smith picked 3 singles players in his team, which means that Andy will play doubles with his brother Jamie Murray on Saturday. Kyle Edmund will make his Davis Cup debut against David Goffin tomorrow.
Johan van Herck decided to preserve Steve Darcis for the doubles, so Ruben Bemelmans will face Murray on Friday.

Should it come to a decisive fifth rubber, Darcis would probably face James Ward on Sunday.

Belgium or Great Britain, which team will win the Davis Cup 2015?

  • Great Britain (96%, 43 Votes)
  • Belgium (4%, 2 Votes)

Total Voters: 45

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23 November:

Updates for people travelling to Ghent:

– Additional security measures will be in place at all entrances to the venue and will apply to all ticket holders, staff members and visitors.

– Entry into the event will take longer than usual. Please keep this in mind when planning your arrival to the Flanders Expo. The gates will open two hours in advance of each day’s start time.

– Bags and backpacks will not be permitted into the Flanders Expo, those who arrive with them will be asked to check them into available off-site storage facilities.

– No food or drink will be allowed into the arena. A full selection of refreshments will be available in venue.

More infos.

22 November:

16 November:

No surprise with the teams nominations announced today: Goffin, Darcis, Bemelmans and Coppejans for Belgium, Andy and Jamie Murray, James Ward, Kyle Edmund and Dominic Inglot for Great Britain:

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1985 Davis Cup final

From Pete Sampras’ autobiography, A champion’s mind:

After the [semifinals] tie, the US team room was awash with the usual assortment of friends, family, USTA types, ITF types, and garden-variety hangers-on. At one point, I glanced across the room and made contact with Tim [Gullikson]. His face by that time was starting to hollow out and his eyes – an intense blue to begin with – were practically burning. For a second, we looked at each other, and each of us knew what the other was thinking: this should be our moment. All these other people are extraneous. This is about the two of us, and nothing can take away what we’ve accomplished, or the trust we have. I’ve never forgotten that moment or that look. It’s with me to this day as my enduring memory of Tim.

So it was on to Moscow for the November final, and I knew how much Tim wanted to see me lead the squad to a triumph. It was a tough ask, because the Russians, predictably, held the tie on very slow red clay, indoors. For them, it was th right move, even though Jim Courier and Andre Agassi could be as tough on clay as anyone. There was only one hitch – Andre was still nursing his chest injury. We hoped until the eleventh hour that Andre would be good to go, meaning that my job would be a manageable one: making sure we won the doubles, while Andre and Jim could do the heavy lifting in singles. I had confidence that we would win the doubles – I liked playing Davis Cup doubles with Todd Martin and, as ambivalent as I was about clay, I played doubles on it happily, with confidence.

We arrived in Moscow on a Saturday, six days before the Friday start. Andre had sent word that even though he couldn’t play, he would attend the tie as a show of team spirit and solidarity. That sealed the deal. Tom declared that I was going to play singles unless, of course, I felt like I was the wrong man for the job, and made enough of a fuss about the decision. How’s that for an awkard spot? What was I going to do, say, “Nah, Tom I’m not up for it. Let Todd or Richey go out there?” I could see all the makings of Lyon revisited – a full-on disaster.
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