Monday, June 6, 2011

Juniors: Roland Garros’ shocking winner and its effect on the future of American tennis


The 2011 edition of the junior French Open came to an end this Sunday with a shocking name hoisting up the trophy: American Bjorn Fratangelo. The ’93 born Pittsburgh native, who had only played four matches in clay all year prior to RG, defeated the more heralded and clay-court specialist Dominic Thiem (’93) of Austria by a score of 36 63 86 in the final. Fratangelo, named after tennis legend Bjorn Borg, overcame his rival’s higher ranking (ITF No.13), familiarity with the surface and overall big-tournament experience to become the “King of Clay”

Fratangelo was relatively successful at the beginning of the season, playing several tournaments in hard courts that allowed him to be ITF No.21 entering the French Open. His only preparatory tournament was the prestigious Trofeo Bonfiglio, held two weeks before Paris. There, he surprised more than a few people by reaching the QFs without dropping a set, before losing to Slovakian Filip Horansky, the eventual champion. However, going into the French, it was enough to look at his passport to dismiss his chances of making any type of a serious run, especially with all of the brightest prospects of the world in attendance.

He had a shaky first round, in which it took him 3 sets to dismiss Moldavian Maxim Dubarenko, one of the weakest players in the field. He backed up the win with a straight sets rout of Filip Peliwo, a ’94-born Canadian to set up a clash with Belgian Joris De Loore, the 11th seed and a finalist at the prestigious Astrid Bowl the previous week. He won two tough tie-breakers to put away the Belgian and set up another meeting with much-heralded Brit Oliver Golding, whom he had crushed 62 60 in Italy two weeks prior.

His match against Golding was much like the previous one, as Fratangelo only lost a game in each set before closing out the Brit 61 61. He now had to face French WC Tristan Lamasine, who had upset No.2 seed Hugo Dellien of Bolivia in R1. It is worth mentioning that the bottom half of the draw became very week with the early eliminations of favorites Tiago Fernandez and Thiago Moura Monteiro (both from Brazil), as well as Dellien and Andres Artunedo-Martinavarr (Spain). The Frenchman gave Fratangelo a run for his money, but the American prevailed, closing out the third set by a score of 63.

The rest is history as Fratangelo came back from a set down in the final to take the title, and earn enough points to sit at No.2 in the new ITF ranking.  


It was a very disappointing tournament for many of the early favorites to win the French Open. The quartet of Brazilian prospects made up of Thiago Moura Monteiro, Joao Pedro Sorgi, Tiago Fernandez and Bruno Sant’Anna prove leading to Paris that they were among the best if the conversation was about playing in clay. However, Sorgi made it to the R16, and he was the one who advanced the farthest. Their performance in the South American COSAT tour and their forays into pro tournaments led many to believe that they would make some noise, but once again, the Brazilians were a major disappointment.

If one takes into account ATP ranking and experience, the odds-on favorite to take the title was Spaniard Roberto Carballes-Baena, who is ranking inside of the top 450 and has already won 3 futures titles, playing against some very tough competition in his homeland. However, Carballes-Baena was surprisingly upset by Croatian Mate Delic in the R16. The Spaniard had the consolation prize of taking the doubles crown along with countryman Andres Artunedo-Martinavarr, but one can’t help but think that he could’ve gone much farther in the singles draw. Another fellow Spaniard, Oriol Roca-Batalla reached the QFs, and if his pro results are taking into account, one might say that he could have advanced a little deeper.

Another shocking disappointment was seeing ITF No.1 and Australian Open champion Jiri Vesely bow out in R1. He lost to Yaraslau Shyla from Belarus, who is far from being an expert on clay, and who’s ranking is a product of playing many more tournaments that the norm. Vesely came into the French Open shortly after winning his first futures crown, at home and on clay, which made his early defeat much more painful to see.

The last interesting wrinkle was the lack of results coming from the Latin American players. Their performance was very ineffective, especially if one takes into account the fact the 3 out of 4 semi-finalists last year were South American (Collarini, Velotti and Beretta). Hugo Dellien, the No.2 seed was upset in R1 by a local WC. Ecuadorian Diego Hidalgo, Chilean Matias Sborowitz and Mexican Marco Aurei Nunez were also taken out in R1. Argentina, a juniors powerhouse in recent years failed to get a single player in the main draw (Dante Gennaro, Argentina’s only player in the top 100, was eliminated in R1 of the qualy). It is an alarming trend, since clay is their surface of preference and the French Open is every Latin American’s dream.


Fratangelo’s amazing feat comes at a time when American tennis is in decline in both the men’s and women’s sides. Andy Roddick isn’t getting any younger, and the next batch of players (namely Mardy Fish, John Isner and Sam Querrey) have already hit their ceiling, and are not likely to be contending for a spot in the top 10 or for the title at any of the big tournaments. As the sport is changing, more players are showing an ability to play on all surfaces. This explains why several of the world’s most heralded juniors are sent to train in the Spanish red clay, where they develop the habit of strategizing points and the ability to outlast their opponents, as opposed to out-serve them or out-hit them. While it’s true that the average player in the top 100 is becoming taller and with a stronger serve, it is becoming more essential than ever to be able to perform on all surfaces and to be solid on all aspects of the game.

The USTA has taken criticism for having its players focusing for too long on playing in hard courts, and ignoring the developmental benefits of playing in a slower surface clay. The criticism was apparently heard, as they sent Fratangelo, along with Alexios Halebian, Mitchell Krueger, Marcos Giron and Shane Vinsant to Europe for a mini-tour that included the Trofeo Bonfiglio and the French Open. The initiative paid off, as Fratangelo took the singles title and the doubles team of Krueger and Vinsant were the runners up, losing to the more experienced Carballes-Baena/Artunedo-Martinavarr tandem.

It will be interesting to see if the USTA switches more of its futures tournaments to clay, as well as supporting its brightest prospects with trips to Europe to compete against their counterparts from across the Atlantic. It’s not too late to send Denis Kudla, Andrea Collarini and Jack Sock, among others, around the world where they can face different opponents and styles of play.

It will greatly benefit the future of American tennis because the problem is not one of shortage of talent. For instance, American Thai-Son Kwiatkowski (’95), a kid who is ITF No.200 and who already has 1 ATP point, just won one of the most prestigious under-16 tournaments in Europe. Kwiatkowski won the Torneo Citta di Montecatini, defeating fellow American Spencer Papa, who advanced to the final coming from the qualifiers round. Both of them also took part in the doubles tournament, where they lost in the final.

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