As first appeared in Boxscore
By Aron Solomon
Hans Deng is a very, very good tennis player, but you’ve almost certainly never heard of him before today.
Such is life on the International Tennis Federation (ITF) junior tennis tour.
On the same day that Coco Gauff won the US Open at age 19, a glimpse into the world of junior tennis shows that her success is an even greater anomaly than one would expect.
On Saturday in Montréal, Hans lost 6-7, 4-6 in the first round of qualifying in the J200 tournament, an annual fixture at the national tennis center in Montréal.
Hans is Canadian, as were many of the people playing this weekend in an attempt to qualify for the main draw. Yet it’s not just Canadians here, there are kids from all over the world, working as hard as humanly possible to meet their tennis dreams.
We all remember the iconic sports movie Hoop Dreams. The numbers are just as bleak in any sport. To go from talented junior even to NCAA D1 college player – forget around the pro tour for a sec – is closer to none than slim.
These numbers aren’t a secret. Kids and their parents realize that the wide funnel at the top – that embraces all who love tennis and can afford to play what can be a deeply cost-prohibitive game once players begin to play tournaments – very quickly narrows. Most of those who make it deep enough in the funnel to play juniors drop off before college or the lowest levels (think rookie-league single-A baseball) of the pros.
Those whose names even the most ardent sports fan will ever hear is, at most, a couple hundred in the entire world.
The percentages are strongly against Hans being one of them.
Hans is 16 and has a career-high ITF junior ranking of 2,368 in the world, though he is currently 2,710. As a point of reference, the top seed in the main draw this week, Abel Forger, of The Netherlands, has a career-high ranking of 29 and comes into this tournament ranked 51st in the world.
That’s a LOT of ground to make up.
Hans hits the ball with a massive amount of topspin, especially on the forehand side. You watch and think he’s going to rip the fuzzy green hide off the ball with how hard his strings are brushing it. But he often sacrifices the power his opponents have, who still hit with topspin but power through the ball.
Again, Hans is an excellent player, but the gap between this top level of junior tennis and the next level is a gulf. He’s a fun kid to watch and has time to improve – one wants to write “plenty of time,” but no such thing exists in the tennis world.
Aside from the predictable obstacles, there are plenty of unknowns. Tennis, a sport played in relative quiet, was sharing the complex today with some kind of cross-fit-style iron-person competition. There were close to 1,000 people there for the event that spread across several tennis courts, with plenty of very loud and very bad music.
So why did I read about Hans Deng just hours before Coco Gauff won her first Grand Slam at 19?
I was walking around watching the matches and looking at who seemed to be a really nice kid giving it their absolute all.
Hans Deng seems like a really nice kid and is a nice player. That’s the problem at this level, there’s a lot of talent out there and it’s impossible to predict what’s going to take some kids to the next level.
While the stories of the anomalies who defy the odds – today read “Coco Gauff” – compel us, we can only hope that the thousands of others who are competing for the same points and the same advancement in the game can make it to the place where they feel happy and content with what they’ve achieved.
For some of these kids, that will be a college tennis scholarship. For others, it will be years trying to break through the lowest levels of the professional game. And, for others, it will be the kind of immensely well-deserved breakthrough day Coco Gauff had on Saturday.
About Aron Solomon
A Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer, Aron Solomon, JD, is the Chief Legal Analyst for Esquire Digital and the Editor-in-Chief for Today’s Esquire. He has taught entrepreneurship at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania, and was elected to Fastcase 50, recognizing the top 50 legal innovators in the world. Aron has been featured in Forbes, CBS News, CNBC, USA Today, ESPN, TechCrunch, The Hill, BuzzFeed, Fortune, Venture Beat, The Independent, Fortune China, Yahoo!, ABA Journal, Law.com, The Boston Globe, YouTube, NewsBreak, and many other leading publications.