Two Outsiders Get Career Boosts at the French Open

PARIS — The French Open, as one of the four Grand Slam tournaments, is the big time for a tennis player: large and loud crowds, major prize money and most expenses paid, including hotel accommodations, laundry and meals on-site.

Welcome to the big time, Léolia Jeanjean and Fernanda Contreras Gomez.

It is the first Grand Slam tournament for both, and they have arrived relatively late in the game. Jeanjean, a wild card from France ranked No. 227 in the world, is 26 years old. Contreras Gomez, a qualifier from Austin, Texas, who represents Mexico, is 24 and ranked No. 225.

They are outsiders. Their biography pages on the WTA website do not yet include their photos or even their birth dates. But they are the latest reminders of how much talent and persistence exist beyond the elite in the global game of tennis. And while only Jeanjean was still in the tournament on Thursday night after her second-round upset of Karolina Pliskova, the No. 8 seed, Contreras Gomez was hardly short on memories or gratitude after her straight-set defeat to Daria Kasatkina, the No. 20 seed.

Until qualifying for Roland Garros, Contreras Gomez had never faced a top 100 player in singles, but she won four matches in Paris: three in qualifying and one in the first round, reading through her tactical notes on changeovers and scribbling new ideas in her notebook as well. Writing comes naturally. She wrote a novel entitled “Rise of the Darkness,” completed this year though still unpublished.

“I have had this sense of wonderment here,” Contreras Gomez said in an interview in a French Open players’ lounge on Thursday. “Every time I was on court and things got stressful or things got complicated, it was like, I’m in Paris; I’m in Roland Garros. What’s there to complain about? This is amazing.”

She, like Jeanjean, played college tennis, an increasingly common path to the tour and even to the top. See Cameron Norrie, a former Texas Christian University star, who reached No. 10 in the ATP rankings this season, and Danielle Collins, a two-time N.C.A.A. singles champion at the University of Virginia, who is No. 9 in the WTA rankings after reaching the Australian Open final this year.

Contreras Gomez is from a tennis family. Her father, Javier, is a teaching professional and her grandfather Francisco Contreras played in the Grand Slam tournaments and was a player and captain on Mexico’s Davis Cup team. She was born in Mexico before her family immigrated to the United States in her early teens, and was a fine enough student to be accepted at Yale in the Ivy League. But she chose to attend Vanderbilt University on a full scholarship because she felt it was her “nesting ground” and that she would be happy there. No other top-flight Division I tennis program recruited her.

“When I signed her, people thought I was insane,” said Geoff Macdonald, her coach at Vanderbilt. “She has a one-handed backhand and weighed like 82 pounds. Her dad is slight. Her mom is slight. She is a little person, but I just liked her spirit and who she is, and after the first fall tournament I knew that this kid is absolutely magic.”

She played in a range of slots on the Vanderbilt team and reached the semifinals of the N.C.A.A. singles tournament. Macdonald remembers her telling him after her sophomore year that she needed to conquer her fears on court to play better tennis. She then headed to Cape Town, South Africa, for a study-abroad program.

“I get a video that says, ‘Hey coach,’ and she’s jumping out of an airplane skydiving,” Macdonald said. “In the next one, she’s bungee jumping over the Zambezi River.”

After graduating in 2019 with a degree in mechanical engineering, she followed her dream of playing on tour but started to have understandable doubts during the coronavirus pandemic hiatus in 2020, which she spent with her parents in Austin.

“It was highly tempting during Covid,” she said. “I knew as an engineer, you could make a comfortable salary, and I was like, ‘Wow I’m a struggling tennis player, I’m barely making ends meet, I could be like my friends, who have an engineering job and have a nice apartment and can go out with friends.’ But I realized that it wasn’t the money that was driving me. It was the passion for it and the desire to live, like fully live, and feel all the emotions: the sadness, the loss, the ecstasy of reaching a dream.”

She met a South African former men’s pro, Christo van Rensburg, in 2001 as he was coaching players in Austin. He saw potential and encouraged her and provided some coaching and even some financing. The former Spanish star Emilio Sanchez Vicario also has been a mentor of late and Eric Ferguson has helped with physiotherapy, but Contreras Gomez broke two small bones in her right wrist when she slipped on a clay court last year. “The money situation really got in my head, and it got in my head so much that I said, ‘I have to speak to my therapist, and we’ll figure out how not to focus on this,’” she said.

Fernanda Contreras Gomez after qualifying for the main draw last week.Credit…Robert Prange/Getty Images

She was on the edge again financially just a few months ago. She was trying to lift her ranking high enough to get into the French Open qualifying tournament and decided the best path was to fly to Australia to compete in small-money events.

“I had to fund it on my own and because I did well I was able to pay for it, but I remember coming to Europe, I was on the last bit of my savings,” she said, anticipating that even if she only played in the qualifiers at Roland Garros, it could bring in a little bit more money.

Jeanjean has faced many obstacles — financial and otherwise — of her own. Until her early teens, she was considered one of the most promising junior players in Europe and was provided with the services of a full-time personal coach by the French Tennis Federation at age 12.

She dominated competition in her age group, drawing some comparisons to Martina Hingis, the Swiss prodigy who played tennis like it was chess, adjusting her tactics depending on her opponents and rarely trying to overpower a point when finesse was still an option.

But a major knee injury stopped Jeanjean’s progress, and she ultimately chose to study in the United States, playing Division I tennis at Baylor and Arkansas before finishing her eligibility at the Division II Lynn University, a small private university in Boca Raton, Fla., where she was an outstanding player and received her master’s of business administration in 2019.

But it is quite a leap from Division II excellence to Roland Garros, which she had not even visited for 10 years.

“What surprises me is to see that my game troubles these players so much,” she said on Thursday after bamboozling Pliskova, a former No. 1 still working her way back from injury, with her rhythm shifts to win, 6-2, 6-2. “I thought I’d be overpowered and see winners flying by me everywhere, but that’s not the case.”

Jeanjean said that for “four or five years” she never thought she would play in a Grand Slam tournament, but fueled by the desire to honor the potential she demonstrated in her youth, she decided to give herself “a second chance.” She was ranked in the 1,000s at the beginning of 2021, and without sponsors she relied on government subsistence funds and some help from her father, according to L’Equipe, the French sports publication.

Now, after working her way through the minor leagues and earning less than $20,000 in career prize money, she is in the big time with a chance to get bigger, considering that she faces Irina-Camelia Begu, an unseeded Romanian, in the third round on Saturday.

Contreras Gomez will head to Britain for the grass-court season with her notebook and second-round prize money of about $90,000 (minus French taxes). She still has no clothing sponsor, but her plucky performance in Paris has attracted a two-year financial commitment from Martin Schneider, an American businessman and benefactor who has supported Collins and other college players to try to make the transition to the professional tour.

“Without resources, this is a brutal sport,” Schneider said.

Contreras Gomez, with her engineering degree, at least has an excellent Plan B. But Plan A is going rather well for the moment.

“Both my brains are fighting each other,” she said. “The creative side is let’s stay on Cloud Nine. The engineer side is like, OK, next tournament; it’s grass season.”

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