Sofia Kenin the Latest Top Junior to Become Grand Slam Champion

Sofia Kenin with the Australian Open trophy

Excelling in your sport in the junior ranks guarantees only one thing. Expectation. It is a natural response. Parents, sponsors, fans, governing bodies, even the player themselves, will expect to achieve in the senior ranks. In reality, of course, it is not that easy. Playing against competitors of your own age group is completely different from taking on the best of the best.

At least, that’s what we have come to believe. There have been many junior world #1’s and junior Grand Slam winners who have never come to grips with competing in the professional ranks. But recently that has begun to change, especially in the women’s game. An increasing number of players are finding ways to excel both as juniors and as touring professionals, with many recent Grand Slam champions having also enjoyed successful junior careers.

Kenin goes from precocious junior to senior Grand Slam winner

Sofia Kenin’s triumph in Australia is the most recent example. The American, still only 21-years-old, has been in and around the game since a very early age, as evidenced by the video, that recently went viral, of her being shown around a WTA tournament by the great Kim Clijsters when she was just six years old. And with a racquet in hand as a teenager, Kenin enjoyed success around the globe, but particularly in her native United States.

As a junior, Kenin was ranked as high as world #2 and she won the USTA’s Under 18s title as well as reaching the final in the girl’s singles at the US Open in 2015, competing in the main draw in Flushing Meadows as a wild card that same year. But she lost that final to Hungarian Dalma Galfi, whose career illustrates the double-edged sword of success in the juniors. Whilst Kenin has cracked the top ten, Galfi is ranked 269th in the world and lost to Tereza Mrdeza at the semifinal stage of a $25k ITF event in Florida in her most recent match.

The list goes on

From Kenin’s triumph this week it is possible to work backwards through recent Grand Slam champions and find more junior success. Current US Open champion Bianca Andreescu was also a successful junior. She climbed as world #3, reached two junior Grand Slam semifinals and won two Grand Slam titles in doubles. Ashleigh Barty, current French Open champion, won the Wimbledon juniors as a 15-year-old and reached as high as world #2 as a junior.

2019 Wimbledon champion Simona Halep junior career was not quite as recent as Barty, Andreescu and Kenin’s, but it was no less distinguished. The Romanian was a junior world #1 having also won the junior French Open in 2008. Interestingly, however, Halep only made her senior Grand Slam breakthrough ten years later at the same tournament, having initially struggled to find her feet on the professional WTA Tour.

The recently retired Caroline Wozniacki, meanwhile, was junior #2 and junior Wimbledon champion, although she rather struggled when playing at the All England Club as a senior. Sloane Stephens was once the junior world #5 and in 2017 won the US Open, whilst Jelena Ostapenko, who won the French Open in 2017 just out of her teens, was a junior Wimbledon champion and was once the second-best junior in the world. The list goes on. But that is not to say that all, or even most, top juniors make it. Or indeed that all Grand Slam champions were successful juniors.

Strong junior career not a prerequisite to Grand Slam success

Two-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka didn’t play any ITF junior tennis at all. The most successful female player of recent times, Serena Williams, didn’t play much junior tennis either and neither did her sister, Venus. Beaten Australian Open finalist Garbine Muguruza didn’t break the top 200 in the junior ranks, Petra Kvitova was not a star in the juniors either, failing to get past the round of 16 at any of the junior Grand Slams.

Indeed, no junior Grand Slam winner in singles has won a senior Grand Slam title since Jelena Ostapenko. The Latvian was successful at junior Wimbledon in 2014 before triumphing at Roland-Garros in 2018. It is very difficult to win a Grand Slam event at junior level, just as it is in the senior ranks. Simply being a top player in either juniors or seniors doesn’t guarantee a big title.

However, it does seem to have become something of a trend that recent successful Women’s singles players have a strong junior record. Last year’s junior Grand Slam title winners were Clara Tauson of Denmark, Canadian Leylah Annie Fernandez, Ukraine’s Daria Snigur and Maria Camilla Osorio Serrano from Colombia. It will be interesting to see how big an impact these players have on women’s tennis in the near future.

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