Many Miles from Melbourne, Future Stars on Display at ITF Pro Circuit Martinique
Steve Fogleman, Tennis Atlantic
Melbourne is far. Melbourne is hot. So what’s a tennis fan to do? Go to the ITF Martinique Women’s event in a fraction of the time and cost and be rewarded with the cooling trade winds of the French West Indies.
As I arrived at the ASPTT Center last Wednesday atop a hill in the industrial section of Martinique’s capital, Fort-de-France, I noticed the smell of asphalt and oil refineries in the warm air, and it definitely felt a world away from the slam down under. Many players traveled here by themselves without pesky parents or coaches in tow. For the first time in a long time, I found myself the only person watching a match on outer courts: not the only fan, the only person there aside from the players and chair umpire.
Tournament Director Felix Aurore provided the hospitality, making sure everyone in attendance was hydrated and had a place in the shade. At an outdoor ITF event, Center Court is simply the one where there’s a nearby awning to protect everyone else from the elements. In Martinique, that meant an open air porch that doubled as a player’s lounge and flophouse. With no wi-fi at the facility, there was nothing else to do but watch the tennis, and it was compelling. At this $15,000 ITF Women’s event in Fort-de-France, you could easily imagine that these players were trying to qualify for a grand slam main draw with their determination on full display.
Mayo Hibi, who plays under the Japanese flag, is one who could’ve easily fit into Australian Open qualifying after a series of withdrawals, but decided against it with a possible fine for withdrawing from Martinique and last minute travel plans too expensive for a player at her level.
The biggest challenge for Hibi and most of the other players this week were the asphalt courts. “It’s a very tough surface to play on and it was very windy. It’s almost like your battling yourself and the environment rather than your opponent.” She noted that it often caused an opponent’s kickserve to go over her head.
Hibi hadn’t had time to take a dip in the azure waters of the Caribbean and joked about the bittersweet reality that she only gets to have fun at events “where you lose early.”
Hibi sees herself in the top 100 by the end of the year, trying to prepare to “hopefully get into some grand slams.” She reached the semifinals in Martinique.
Giuliana Olmos is a former ITA All-American from USC who toppled top seed Mayo Hibi in Friday’s semifinals. While I think the picturesque views of the Caribbean from the court would be a distraction, Olmos felt differently. “I think it calms me a down a little bit. It’s nice to play somewhere really pretty. Sometimes in the States or other places, we get stuck in the middle (of nowhere). I mean, look at the ocean. It’s the nicest vacation spot,” she said.
Unlike Hibi, Olmos took a pre-tournament plunge. “I actually did go to the beach already before the tournament started,” she admitted with pride. “I went snorkeling. I don’t usually do fun stuff before the tournament started, but I did this time. It was a lot of fun.” A highlight of the trip before she made the Martinique final was seeing “Dory” in the water on her first snorkeling adventure.
“Long term, I want to crack the top 100,” she said. “Maybe next year I can be in Australia, not that I wouldn’t want to be here.”
More about that surface: most players disliked the high bounces of the ball, but if they were winning, it didn’t matter, and they knew that all players had to deal with the same challenges. “Sometimes the bounces are tough,” Hong Kong’s Ling Zhang told me, “but they’re tough for everybody.”
One exception was Lucie Wargnier of Noyon, France. “I love a rapid surface,” she told me after persevering in a match that lasted three hours and fifteen minutes and was easily the longest of the entire week. Finally free from injury, the 17-year-old was ebullient about competing in the ITF French paradise trifecta of Martinique, Guadeloupe and St. Martin in the coming weeks. She reached the quarterfinals in Martinique.
Though the tour is a long slog for many with few breaks, some players still have a life outside of tennis and some still have to attend high school. Caroline Dunleavy of Darien, Connecticut spent last semester at the Justine Henin Academy in Belgium, but this semester, she’s back to the regular student grind and plans to graduate at Greenwich Academy in the spring. She made the second round in Martinique.
“It’s difficult because I wish I could practice as much as the other players,” she said, “but I think it’s really nice to have a balance between school and tennis. I just signed to Notre Dame for next year. It’s a great team and great coaches.”
Every time I attend a Pro Circuit event, I leave stunned by the high level of play. There are no Primadonnas on this tour. There are no players who mistreat ball kids or line judges. Of course, there are no ball kids or line judges. There are no Mercedes shuttles to whisk you away to a 5-star downtown hotel to hole up and remove you from the tournament facilities. There are no bag checks, security guards, admission fees or overpriced concessions. Hell, there were no concessions at all beyond sports drinks and bottled water in Fort de France. You only get tennis players. They’re everywhere around you at all times, determined to pass the time watching their compatriots and studying their next opponent’s matches. This is where pro tennis begins. It’s a beautiful thing to watch at this primal level and for me, it re-ignites the passions of the tour after a long absence since the U.S Open.