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By Sandra Harwitt
It can’t be some would say. After all, who would’ve thought that two American boys would still be standing tall at the French Open?
Let’s be honest, Americans normally think of the red clay as a dirty little sandbox that they have little preference to play in. But is it possible that that’s looking to be yesterday’s attitude and not today’s prevailing opinion?
In either a surprising American nod to the red clay – a stroke of luck – or a sign that
the moon is not aligning with Venus properly – three of the four boys in the French Open semifinal on Friday carry American passports. There they were, second seed Taylor Fritz, sixth seed Michael Mmoh and 13th seed Tommy Paul joining fourth seed Corentin Denolly of France in the final four.
Those odds meant that there would be at least one American going off in Saturday’s final. It was Paul and Mmoh in one semifinal that guaranteed an American in Paris in the boys’ final. The winner was Paul with a 6-4, 6-3 victory.
Denolly, a southpaw who styles his game after Mr. Clay a.k.a. Rafael Nadal, seemed a perfect fit to be in the semis. So it was thought that Fritz might encounter some problems. But not the case. The hard serving, big strokes Fritz, who has been playing out-of-his-mind tennis here all week, sent the Frenchman packing 6-1, 6-2 in just 46-minutes.
The outcome: For the first time at the French Open since 1947 the boys’ final will be an All-American affair.
Why are the Americans faring so well on the dirt? They call it practice, practice, practice. Eventually it might make for perfection, but at the very least is proving to make for viable American champions.
“We’ve all been practicing on clay more and we’re all getting better on it,” said Paul, after his win over Mmoh. “It’s a good thing.”
In fact, Fritz, who is blossoming since he switched to online schooling in order to concentrate more on tennis earlier in the year, kind of likes this red clay stuff. Obviously, his passion for the surface is increasing daily.
“It’s not the best suited for my game, but I found out how to make it work best for me,” Fritz said. “I’ve played a lot of matches at a Futures in Spain and the Trofeo Bonfiglio (junior event) in Italy, and did a lot of training in-between. I’ve gotten experience.”
That said, Fritz, accompanied by his mom, former Top 10 player Kathy May, couldn’t not admit his being in the French Open final was hardly a safe bet for a betting person to wager on.
“If you told me that I was going to be in a Slam final I wouldn’t say it would be at the French Open,” Fritz said. “I’d say it would’ve been Wimbledon or the U.S. Open or something like that. But I’m really excited to be here.”
At one time, the American contingent would trudge over to Paris, painfully, because it was expected if you were a top junior you should show at a Grand Slam. But no one had much expectations and most left close to the time they arrived. Since 1995, the only American boy to win the French Open was Bjorn Fratangelo, who hoisted the trophy in 2011. Two Yanks before him in that period of time had the opportunity to try and become French Open victors – Brian Baker in 2003 and Alex Kuznetsov in 2004 – but both left the grounds as finalists, which was viewed as a monumental effort at the time.
Lately, it is known that the USTA powers-that-be are promoting their players spend more time on the clay. Back home at the USTA training center in Florida many of the players favor the Har-Tru to the hard courts. The concept that it’s easier on the body has finally seemed to take a foothold. And then there’s been a concerted effort to bring the star youngsters to Europe to train. Prior to the French Open, they spent some time in Spain training, as well as played the junior Grade A Trofeo Bonfiglio in Milan, Italy as well as a few Future tournaments.
It’s all a good thing – variety is the spice of life.
Who will become the Roland Garros boys’ champion on Saturday is anybody’s guess, but for once we know it will be a guy playing for the red, white and blue. He will become the sixth American junior boy to win here through the years – Ham Richardson won in 1950, Butch Buchholz in 1958, Cliff Richey in 1964, John McEnroe in 1977, and Fratangelo.
Paul just captured a semifinal meeting between the two at a Spain Futures stop that he went on to win – one of two Future tournaments he won last month on clay in Europe. But playing at Roland Garros is for a much grander prize – a Grand Slam trophy – always an honor even in the juniors.
This is a match that is very close to call, but Fritz seems to be a bit more settled heading into the final.