Juniors on display at Orange Bowl
Agents sniffing out future clients, coaches checking stylistic
trends, and an interesting bunch of South Florida tennis fanatics
are to be found roaming the grounds of Crandon Park on Key Biscayne
during the Dunlop Orange Bowl -- long acknowledged as the
world’s premier junior event.
It was no different this December and, by the time it was all over, some new names had been added to those considered to be on the brink of a bright and lucrative pro career.
Obviously the winners of the Under 18 Boys and Girls singles figured on the list -- Frenchman Gianni Mina who beat Arthur de Greef of Belgium and Gabriela Dabrowski of Canada who upset the world No. 1 junior from France, Kristina Mladenovic, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 in the Girls’ Final.
But there were others, including two who have been raised these past few years under the discerning eye of John Evert up the road at Boca Raton. Both ultimately lost to Mladenovic but by then 16-year-old Ajla Tomljanovic and 14-year-old Madison Keys had done enough to convince onlookers that they have what it takes to compete on the WTA Tour.
Keys is, naturally, a little way off that yet but she had the powerful Mladenovic on the backfoot for periods of the second set and just needed to show a touch more aggression on a couple of important points that could have changed the match. In the end she got outhit 6-7, 7-5, 6-1 and was annoyed with herself.
“Madison thinks she should win every match she plays in the juniors and gets upset when she doesn’t,” said Evert. “Confidence is a great asset and her game is developing fast.”
Tomljanovic, whose father, Radko, was an Olympic handball player for Croatia, came to the Evert Academy at the age of 13 and has grown into an imposing athlete who is heading straight for the pros.
Already ranked around 300 in the world on the WTA computer, the world’s No. 6 junior is just starting to show signs of doing better at the higher level.
“Ajla plays to about 8 percent of her true potential in pro matches, based on what she is capable of in practice, but only about 4 percent in junior matches,” says Evert. “She has an unbelievable work ethic and is something of a late bloomer.”
Although capable at the net -- an aspect of her game Evert is keen for her to work on -- Ajla’s strength lies in a backhand that is hit flat and hard, frequently clearing the net by less than an inch.
“It’s her big weapon and we don’t want to tamper with it too much,” says Evert, “but we are trying to get just a little spin into the shot to create a margin of safety.”
Tomljanovic had her big moment when she soundly defeated the U.S. junior champion, Heather Watson, 6-2, 6-3 in the quarterfinals. Watson, a fleet-footed English girl with a little of the Evonne Goolagong about her, did not have a good serving day and was simply overpowered by the Croat.
Dabrowski, a 17-year-old from Ottawa who said she had no expectations at the start of the week because she had been suffering from a knee injury, and Mina -- who has Rafael Nadal as his idol despite a distinct resemblance to countryman Gael Monfils -- created something of a co-incidence by winning the title in the same year. The only other time a Canadian girl and a French boy won the Orange Bowl also happened in the same year -- 1982.
Then it was Carling Bassett-Seguso and Guy Forget, now the French Davis Cup captain, who were the winners. Dabrowski and Mina would do well to take them both as role models.
Richard Evans, who commentated at Wimbledon on BBC Radio for 20 years, has been covering tennis since the 1960s and has reported on more than 150 Grand Slams. He is the author of 15 books, including the official history of the Davis Cup and the unofficial history of the modern game in "Open Tennis." He lives in Florida but is still on the tour 20 weeks in the year.