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.