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The Longines-sponsored event was a Floridian French Open, with two Paris-bound champions, Michael Heller and Cori Gauff. (Photo by Ed McGrogan)

Fourth Rendez-Vous à Roland-Garros Brings Red Clay to Top U.S. Juniors

Last week, the Boca West Country Club in Boca Raton, Fla. hosted the Rendez-vous à Roland-Garros, in partnership with Longines. This week, we'll take a closer look at what happened in South Florida, including profiles of the Paris-bound champions who will compete for a wild card into the junior Grand Slam, an examination of this worldwide event's rapid evolution and interviews with the players, professionals and personalities who help make this unique red-clay tournament happen.

BOCA RATON, Fla.—Four years ago, the French Tennis Federation hosted its first Rendez-vous à Roland-Garros, a tournament that awards a wild card into the junior French Open to its boys’ and girls’ champions. The concept was and remains novel: it offers a greater pool of players the opportunity to compete in a junior Grand Slam, and it also brings red clay to new parts of the world, like China, site of the original Rendez-vous.

The girls’ champion of that inaugural event was Wushuang Zheng—who went on to beat highly-touted French junior Oceane Dodin at Roland Garros. At that moment, you could excuse the FFT if it started to question its decision to find talented, terre battue-tested juniors from around the globe. But the idea of expanding red-clay play beyond its traditional enclaves is one of the FFT’s major goals. Another one might surprise you.

“We want to see more and more American players playing well on red clay,” says Lucas Dubourg, Head of International Development for the FFT. “The main objective is to see, one day, an American player lift the French Open trophy.”

As Dubourg finished his sentence, he pointed to the actual Coupe des Mosquetaires and Coupe Suzanne Lenglen, which made the trip to Boca West Country Club along with 32 of the top U.S. juniors, 16 boys and 16 girls. This is the first United States edition of the Rendez-vous à Roland-Garros, in partnership with Longines, and the sixth overall, joining Japan, Brazil, China, India and South Korea. The winners from each location will be entered into a round-robin tournament on Friday, May 26 in Paris, and the two boys and two girls who win their respective round-robin stages will square off for the wild card at Stade Roland Garros the following day.

In the short history of Rendez-vous à Roland-Garros wild-card winners, Zheng’s achievement has been something of an anomaly. But considering the factors the regional winners face in Paris, that might not be a surprise.

“When [the regional winners] come to Roland Garros, they are a bit stressed because of the pressure to win the wild card,” says Dobourg, who also points to jet lag as a hurdle for inexperienced players. “So even if you see a good player here today, they may play in a different way in Paris.”

Those words are worth keeping in mind, especially since 13-year-old Cori Gauff, the girls’ champion, looked like a future star, and Boca Raton native Michael Heller cruised though the boys’ final. But the major-league atmosphere at the Boca West Country Club will help Gauff and Heller prepare for what’s to come. The court teemed with onlookers from start to finish to produce one of the biggest crowds at this year’s Rendez-vous à Roland-Garros, in partnership with Longines.

The four permanent red-clay courts installe­d at Boca West are an unmistakable signal that 32 of the country’s best juniors will once again rendezvous in south Florida next year.

“Roland Garros saw what kind of facility and what king of people we have here,” says Rob Norton, head pro at Boca West Country Club. “They offered to have the tournament here for the first time, and I think it was a hit.”

Despite the surface scarcity in the States, this won’t be the last time Heller slides on red clay before doing so in France. He says he’ll return to Boca West to practice, and believes that this tournament’s field will only improve in the coming years, once it becomes more of a fixture in junior tennis calendar.

Then, it will be time for Heller to cross the Atlantic for the real rendezvous, at Roland Garros. He's excited for the opportunity, no matter what happens.

“It’s not only about to win or to lose,” says Dubourg. “It’s to have an experience of a Grand Slam.”

Read more articles by Ed McGrogan

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