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The French Open has been run and won. Two mostly predictable winners, in Nadal and Swiatek. But while the men’s and women’s title holders rightly receive all the accolades, 128 underage athletes from all over the world descended on Paris, all hoping to fulfil a lifelong (albeit, shorter life so far) dream of holding up a major title – the Junior French Open.
But should we take much notice of the winners? Is there a parallel between junior slam winners, and success at the senior level? Does a junior slam guarantee a big career on the ATP or WTA tour, or do the junior tour and senior tour have no real correlation?
For the purpose of ascertaining more about this, I have delved into data from 1980 through to 2019. I have looked at all the junior winners, and then taken the highest ranking of their senior career.
Firstly, what constitutes a successful career? For some, it might be as simple as earning a living playing tennis, while for others, anything less than a major title, may be reflected upon as some sort of failure. However, for this exercise, I have considered anyone reaching a highest ranking in the top 100, as a success. I have furthermore increased this to top 50, and top 10.
What does the data show? Let’s take a look into the men’s side.
Over the last 40 years, there have been 159 majors decided (The Australian Open wasn’t contested in 1986 due to the change in timing from a December date, to a January date).
Of those 159 titles up for grabs, there have been 133 individual winners, with two players capturing four majors, Australia’s own Mark Kratzmann, and Stefan Edberg. Edberg is the sole player to win all four, and, more impressively, was able to complete this in a calendar year, achieving the ‘Junior Grand Slam’. Gael Monfils amassed three titles, and a number of others won two.
Eight players were able to convert a junior major into a senior major, and six junior slam winners were able to reach number 1 in the world.
On the women’s side, again, we have had 159 tournaments, with 130 individual title holders. Thirteen of these winners have gone on to hold a major trophy at a senior level, compared to eight in the men’s (we all know how hard it has been to break through on the men’s side in the last couple of decades).
Twelve women touched the pinnacle of the rankings table, which is double the amount of men who reached number 1.
Only Natasha Zvereva was able to win four titles in this timeframe, yet she wasn’t able to win the career slam, missing out on the Australian Open. Magdalena Maleeva and Martina Hingis were able to capture three junior majors, with a few others claiming a pair.
Let’s dig a little deeper into some statistics.
The table below shows the percentage of junior slam winners to reach the top 100, 50, and top 10.
Quite extraordinary to think that almost nine out of ten girls major winners, will go on to reach the top hundred in the world on the WTA Tour, and seven out of ten will jump into the top 50. The only correlation here with the men, is the top 10 percentage figure.
But I felt it was important to narrow the focus down to individual slam events. Some thought-provoking comparisons can be made.
Here we have the average highest senior ranking after winning the junior title (in other words, of the 38 individual winners of the boys Australian Open, the average highest ranking of those players at the senior level is 126, and so on for the other tournaments).
Interestingly enough, the Australian Open has by far, the lowest average ranking for all junior winners. I would suggest this is down to historically being the hardest and most expensive to travel to, meaning often (especially in previous decades), the field was undoubtedly far weaker than the other tournaments.
Conversely, the French Open has the highest success rate when transitioning from junior to senior tours. Could this be because Paris is the most easily accessible tournament for the top juniors in the world? Could it be that clay court tennis is the best grounding for a successful career? Perhaps both those questions could be answered in the affirmative.
The pattern of the men and women are very similar, but the numbers are extraordinarily different. By taking this data at face value, we can extrapolate that this year's girl’s French Open winner, will one day, be knocking on the door of the top 20!
Of course, these figures can get skewed a little, especially when there are players with a high ranking of 600 for example.
So maybe the average ranking is still not digging deep enough. Let’s check the percentage of players who made it to the top 100/50/10 for each slam.
As we also saw previously, the Australian Open is the most unreliable indicator of future success. Again, this could be because of weaker fields, but perhaps it has to do with the oppressive conditions Melbourne can dish up in January. If it’s a struggle for seasoned athletes, it’s not unreasonable to suggest a junior player may have difficulty coping.
Therefore, it becomes more of a physical event, or even luck of the weather gods, rather than pure tennis talent.
The statistics once more tell us that the French Open junior tournament breeds senior success. So much so, that over eight out of ten winners on the boy's side, and nearly all the girl's winners, will make it to the top 100. This certainly gives reason to keep a close eye on the victors from this year.
When you also add that, in this year's draw, there were 11 previous Girl’s French Open winners, and nine previous Boy’s winners, it becomes clear that success at Roland Garros as a junior, might be the most accurate indicator of all, when it comes to WTA/ATP success.
Two things jump out at me here though...
The first is, if a girl wins any slam other than the Australian Open, you can almost guarantee she will make not only the top 100, but likely the top 50.
Secondly, almost half of the girls who win the French Open, will break into the top 10. This is quite remarkable.
We can easily get bogged down in statistics these days, but what these stats do show, is that junior slam success is a legitimately good indicator of sustained success on the ATP Tour, and an extremely worthy gauge on the WTA tour.
The second week of a major can seem like a rather quiet affair on the outside courts.
However, if you make the effort to get out and watch some of the world’s best underage players, you might just find yourself with a front row seat to the future of tennis.
Oh, and who were the junior winners at this year’s French Open? The girl's title was won by 17-year-old Czech, Lucie Havlickova, and the boys was taken out by 16-year-old Frenchman, Gabriel Debru.
Jot those names down. Chances are, you’ll be seeing a lot more of them in the future.