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A Grand Slam Rite of Passage: Be Young, Burn Bright, but Not for Long

It happens every year in tennis. Actually, four times a year.

A young, bright-eyed player with fistfuls of skill and promise wins a match or two at a Grand Slam, and all of a sudden, the next big thing has arrived. There were U.S. Opens past when the grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center were buzzing with the names Donald Young and Ryan Harrison, or any number of other quick hits who had their moments but never lived up to those first-week spectacles, or their own expectations.

And here we are once more, just a few days into the year’s final Grand Slam, with no shortage of chatter about Arthur Fils, the gallant, 19-year-old Frenchman, who a year ago was battling to get within sniffing distance of the top 300. Now he is ranked 48th in the world and won his first match at a Grand Slam — on his third try — on Tuesday.

On a field court in front of bleachers teeming with in-the-know spectators desperate for a glimpse of the future, Fils outlasted Tallon Griekspoor, the 24th seed, in five sets. Fils battled through cramps in the fourth set, hung with Griekspoor through the fifth, then overpowered him in the final two games, swinging his racket without fear, like only a player who has almost zero professional experience with failure and heartbreak can.

On Thursday, Fils has a golden opportunity to reach the third round when he faces Matteo Arnaldi of Italy, a 22-year-old ranked 61st in the world. In the span of three days, Fils went from a teenager who was winless in his two previous matches at a Grand Slam to a favorite to make the final 32. The crowds will no doubt be there once more.

“I really trust in myself,” Fils said an hour after his win over Griekspoor. “I think that I can win against anybody.”

Between mouthfuls of salmon and rice, Fils spoke of his journey from a boy who picked up a racket on a family vacation in the south of France when he was 5 years old, to hitting once a week with his father at their home near Paris, to developing his game with coaches at France’s tennis federation beginning when he was 13.

Until that point, he had competed in swimming, track and field, judo, and soccer — his true passion — but he was better at tennis than the other sports, so tennis became his thing. He is so young that when he was asked about the matches he watched during his childhood that made early impressions on him, he mentioned Roger Federer’s win over Rafael Nadal in the 2017 Australian Open final. Since he won his first ATP tournament in Lyon in May, he has been shouldering the hopes of a nation desperate for its first male Grand Slam champion since Yannick Noah in 1983.

“That’s my dream since I’m 10,” Fils said. “Dreams now sometimes can help in the real life.”

Maybe, but professional career arcs in tennis rarely follow an ever-upward trajectory during the early years. On Tuesday, Fils did not have to look far for the cautionary tale.

Shortly after he was done for the day, Jack Draper, a 21-year-old from Britain, was sitting around a high table, the hood of his sweatshirt pulled over his head, fresh off a much-needed first-round win over Radu Albot of Moldova.

A year ago, Draper was where Fils is now, the buzz of the tournament and the guy his compatriot Andy Murray touted as a future top player, vanquishing sixth-seeded Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada in the second round before losing to Karen Khachanov of Russia in the third.

Since then, Draper has battled pain all over his body — there were abdominal and hip injuries during the first months of this year and a shoulder injury in the spring that caused him to miss the grass court season.

“There’s people who are now in a better position than I am who I hadn’t heard of for a while last year,” Draper said. “So everyone’s on their different journey.”

He shares an apartment near the Lawn Tennis Association’s Roehampton headquarters with Paul Jubb, his close friend and another rising British pro who caught his own buzz last year when he pushed Nick Kyrgios to five sets in the opening round of Wimbledon. Jubb has been battling an ankle injury for much of the year. On many days, hitting sessions have been replaced by physical therapy as together they have tried to come to terms with their immediate tennis lives not going exactly they way they hoped.

“We’ve been keeping each other’s spirits up,” Draper said. “Just try and keep going and know that my time will come.”

The challenge for players in the Fils and Draper cohort is that the time for one of their own has already come. Carlos Alcaraz is just 20 and is already the world No. 1.

Alcaraz’s breakthrough came years after conventional wisdom in men’s tennis held that the game had grown too physical for teenagers to excel. Then Alcaraz came along and set a new standard for Gen Z, likely raising the volume of the buzz when a fresh face has a good day or two at a Grand Slam.

That suits Fils just fine. He is on his maiden voyage to New York.

“Really nice,” he said. “Big city.”

Noisy, too, which he doesn’t mind, especially when fans are buzzing about him, something he — and Draper, too — will try to use to their advantage on Thursday.

“The New York City crowd is amazing,” Fils said. “They pushed me.”

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