French Open junior champ Whitney Osuigwe eyes bigger things

Whitney Osuigwe of Bradenton, Fla., walks into a surprise welcome-back party at IMG Academy after she won the French Open girls' championship. Morgan Liber/IMG Academy

Whitney Osuigwe says she didn't know why Margie Zesinger had summoned her to the IMG Academy's main tennis stadium earlier this month. Osuigwe had just returned home the day before as the newly minted French Open junior girls' champion. Her coach's text message was cryptic.

What Osuigwe (o-SEE-gway) saw when she entered the stadium at the Bradenton, Florida, training facility made her jaw drop -- and then a wide smile spread across the 15-year-old's face. IMG's coaches had formed two lines on the court, facing each other, and held up tennis rackets to form an arch. Her French Open trophy was perched on a table, and a daisy bouquet -- pink, her favorite color -- lay next to the trophy. Her favorite song, "Girl on Fire" by Alicia Keys, played on the speakers. Osuigwe walked under the arch of rackets while shaking hands with the coaches and soaking in the moment.

While other academy athletes sat in the bleachers watching, Osuigwe noticed that Japanese star Kei Nishikori had stopped his practice on the adjacent court to check out the spectacle. Her family was there, too, watching it unfold with a look of pride on their faces.

This moment was everything to her, affirmation that she had taken a huge step in the world of tennis -- winning a junior Grand Slam.

Her 18-year-old brother, DeAndre, who'd driven the trophy over to the academy earlier in the day, said to her, "Whitney, this is just the beginning."

Osuigwe has come a long way since first stepping onto a court when she was around 3 years old. Her fashion sense has come a long way, too.

"She started playing tennis wearing boots and Cinderella clothes," said Desmond Osuigwe, Whitney's father. "She would never get out of those clothes, and it was totally uncoordinated with what she was doing."

Zesinger said people would call Whitney the "Pink Panther" because she would only wear her favorite color and she ran up and down the court as fast as a jungle cat.

When Whitney was 6 years old, she started beating DeAndre. That's when Desmond realized his daughter had the potential to play professionally -- and it wasn't just parental optimism, because Desmond happens to be a longtime tennis coach at IMG. That meant it was time for Whitney to enroll full time at the academy and spend eight hours training and two hours in the gym daily.

According to Zesinger, Whitney was the youngest and smallest player in her group -- many of her cohorts now play Division I tennis -- but was willing to work extra hard to keep up with -- and even surpass -- her older teammates.

Osuigwe, who is 5-foot-6 and will be a high school junior at IMG in the fall, had her first national breakthrough in 2014 in the form of a Junior Orange Bowl championship in the 12-year-old division. In 2015, she won the 14-year-old division at the Easter Bowl. Those victories put her on the map. In 2016, she played junior tournaments exclusively in the highest division, which goes up to age 18, even though she was only 13 at the start of the year, and she's a member of this year's U.S. Junior Fed Cup team.

Initially it was about having fun. Now it is about winning tournaments.

"She really walks around like she is a pro," DeAndre said. Maybe that's because she is a pro, having made it official a few months earlier.

This year has been a dream come true. Osuigwe had ended 2016 at No. 111 in the ITF junior girls' rankings, and victories on clay in Brazil and Paraguay early in 2017 not only prepared her for the surface at Roland Garros, but propelled her into the top 25. The French Open triumph vaulted her to No. 2 in the world.

"I have been working on a couple of tactical things like opening up the court more, moving in and serving better, and I saw myself improve in the last year," said Osuigwe, who likens her style to that of former world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka.

The French Open triumph did not come easy for Osuigwe, the ninth-youngest champion in the tournament's history and the first American to win the event since Jennifer Capriati in 1989. She endured three three-setters on her way to the June 10 final against fellow American Claire Liu, who is 17 years old and had crushed Osuigwe 6-1, 6-1 in a tournament just two months earlier. After splitting the first two sets of the rematch, with Liu winning the second in a tiebreaker, Osuigwe ran out to a 5-1 lead in the final set before finishing off a 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-3 victory.

"Many players play it safe when they are down, but Whitney thrives off of the pressure," Zesinger said. "She knows how to play risky tennis in pressure situation."

A lot of young players let the pressure get to them before a big tournament, but Osuigwe oozes calmness unlike anybody else whom her coaches or teammates have seen. And she rarely has mental lapses that lead to a string of bad points.

"You have to stay incredibly focused when you play her," IMG teammate Kylie Mullaney said. "She is consistent but she attacks at the same time."

With fresh confidence from winning in Paris, Osuigwe heads into the Wimbledon junior tournament looking to replicate her clay-court performance on a new surface. In her first grass-court season, Osuigwe will compete in the Roehampton junior event before heading to London to warm up ahead of Wimbledon, where the girls' main draw begins July 8.

It won't just be the surface that will make Wimbledon a new challenge for Osuigwe. As a Grand Slam champion, you can bet her opponents will be extra motivated to take her down.

"Sometimes, the greatest success happens when you kind of go into situations that is a little unknown, and she doesn't have any expectations on how she plays on grass, and so I think it will be a great experience for her," Zesinger said.

After Wimbledon, Osuigwe will get ready for hard-court season and the U.S. Open. And then 2018 will be a crucial year as she furthers her transition from juniors to the highest level of pro tennis.

When she turns 16 next April, she will no longer be limited to participating in 10 women's tournaments a year. Once she can play regularly and her WTA ranking is high enough, she'll be able to enter the qualifying rounds of Grand Slam women's tournaments.

Osuigwe's dream: to win the French Open women's singles title.

"I see her winning at least two or three Grand Slams, and I will be there to cheer her throughout," Mullaney said.