The tennis teens attempting to tame the beasts of the pro tour
As Michael Chang walks the grounds at Roland Garros, accompanied by student Kei Nishikori, we’re reminded of his breakthrough French Open triumph as a 17-year-old back in 1989.
Twenty-five years later and there are only two teenagers in the men’s draw in Paris – one qualifier and one wildcard.
The women’s draw fares slightly better, with nine teenagers in action under the guise of three wildcards, one qualifier and the rest encouragingly having gained direct entry by virtue of their WTA ranking.
In 128-player draws, the younger players are definitely an anomaly and with most of them making the transition from juniors to the men’s and women’s circuits, their young bodies and minds are put under extreme pressure as they adapt to their new surroundings.
“I think it’s just the ability to be able to back up week after week,” Australian Nick Kyrgios told Sport360 after his loss to Milos Raonic in the first round.
“Tennis is a tough sport, there’s only one winner every week so you’ve got to become a really good loser. I think physically and mentally, that’s the two biggest things.
“They’re not just good tennis players (on the men’s tour), they’re physical beasts. But mentally as well when you take a loss, you’ve got to be able to bounce back and just enjoy yourself out there as well.”
The Canberra-native, who was the world No1 junior and Australian Open junior title winner last year, says there are also many distractions that are tough to deal with at the start.
“I think it’s just small things, even when I was playing out on Suzanne Lenglen – just the screens. I’m sort of looking around a bit, when I look at Milos (Raonic), his head is down,” added the French Open wildcard.
“I think that will just come with experience. I’m looking around a fair bit. There’s a lot of distractions when you’re playing a Grand Slam. You can get carried away.”
Kyrgios says he’s already learnt the hard way earlier in the year.
“I think the second round of the Australian Open, being two sets to love up and a break I just thought I could handle my emotions a bit better and the way I went about it. I like getting the crowd involved and that’s never going to change, I just think I’ve got to stay a bit level-headed while I’m out there and not get too excited.”
He went on to lose the next three sets and was dumped out of his home Slam by Benoit Paire.
The men’s locker room has been an “inviting” place for Kyrgios and while he spends most of his time with fellow Australian Thanasi Kokkinakis, he’s managed to make friends with older players like Gael Monfils, Dustin Brown and even Radek Stepanek.
On the women’s circuit it’s quite different.
World No33 Elina Svitolina, 19, who won Roland Garros juniors in 2010, Australian Ashleigh Barty, 18, who is ranked No15 in doubles, and American ex-junior world No1 Taylor Townsend all agree that the transition was huge from juniors to the women’s circuit and that the players typically keep to themselves, with everyone sticking to their own teams.
They say the physical aspect has been the main challenge, with Svitolina saying she is having to work three or four times as hard just to keep up.
“It was different in the juniors and of course you have different thinking when you go on the court. Now it’s more serious, you have all your team with you all the time, doing things before your match and everything is more consistent in your game,” explains the young Ukrainian.
“I think the most important is that you work harder than before. Because you were the best junior, you think that it’s enough to become a top-100 WTA player but I don’t think it’s true because you need to work like three or four times harder to raise your level and keep the level.
“Because juniors they’re more good, bad results and all the time in matches you can see the focus is going away. But on the women’s tennis you don’t see that often.
“So it’s important you work on these things. Also of course physically it’s important to work on that because the players are stronger on the women’s circuit.”
Townsend, 18, won her first ever Grand Slam main draw match this week in Paris.
“It’s totally different. The transition is a whole different mentality,” said Townsend, a former Australian Open junior champion.
“When I was here I used to go where the stringer is and play on the trampoline and stuff, and I still did well.
“It’s a different intensity and this is now my livelihood. This is my income. You want to make money and you want to take advantage of all the opportunities that you can.
“A lot of things are different and the transition is not easy.”
She says she keeps to herself in the locker room, adding: “It’s not intimidating, I just get in and get out. I try not to spend much time in the locker room. It can be intimidating if you sit in there and see all these people coming in and out and no one talks to you. But I have my team around me and my people to support me.”
Svitolina says she also doesn’t socialise much with other players, barring some Ukrainians and Russians.
“I just try to be friendly with everyone, I don’t have any enemies on the tour. I’m more of a focused person than speaking with anyone, so I like to stay with my team and focus before my match, it’s more important for me.”
On the court, the competition amongst the WTA teenagers is fierce.
Svitolina is already in the top-40, Donna Vekic became the youngest player to win a WTA title in eight years by winning in Kuala Lumpur last month.
Youngsters such as Eugenie Bouchard and Monica Puig have also won titles and are rapidly rising up the ranks.
Barty, who won Wimbledon juniors in 2011, says she would prefer to take a slower route to the top of the women’s singles and that she's gainging valuable experience through her surprise doubles success with Casey Dellacqua.
“I think I’m in a slightly different situation because I’ve been playing doubles with Casey,” said Barty, ranked 172 in the world.
“I’ve been in the locker room late in Slams, it’s just a bit of a different feeling. I think I’m taking a different route to a lot of the other teenagers. I’m really taking my time (in singles). It’s obviously mentally very different to the juniors, but I’m enjoying every moment of it.
“I think everyone’s personality is different. A lot of girls who are similar to my age like Donna Vekic or Genie Bouchard or Monica Puig, they’ve risen very quickly. For me I’m not worried about rankings at all. This is a journey that we get to enjoy as professional tennis players. You get to travel the world and play on beautiful courts and visit amazing places, so I’m soaking it all in.
“I don’t focus too much on what the other girls are doing. Everyone’s in a unique situation. I don’t think any of the other girls are ranked in the top-15 in doubles so we’re in different situations and going at it in different ways.”
Still one thing is evident. The young girls are doing better than the young guys at the moment. Andy Murray was asked if he had any thoughts as to why that is the case. The two-time major champion said: "In terms of like the slams and stuff, obviously with it being best of five, that's a young age, endurance‑wise it's tough.
"I think the men's game, the last few years have become extremely physical. I think there's some guys like ‑ for me Kyrgios and Kokkinakis, they are both very, very good players, good teenagers, and I think there is a good chance of those two could break into top 100 fairly soon.
"But, yeah, I think to get into the top 100 as a teenager, you need to be exceptional. It's not an easy thing to do."