The adventure of Alexis Tan, 12, shy representative of Singapore, wearer of braces, owner of a spinning forehand, admirer of Rafael Nadal and fellow wielder of a Babolat racket, began in Paris at midday yesterday.
Across the city, grown-ups battled at the French Open for an eventual winner's cheque of €2 million (S$3.1 million). Here, in the financial district, pre-teens attacked short balls with skinny arms as they pursued their own prizes: the Longines Future Tennis Aces trophy, a Longines watch and a US$2,000 (S$2,700) bursary every year for sports equipment till they are 16.
Sport is decided by skill but helped along by luck and good fortune in tennis starts with a good draw. Except yesterday, on a red court, under grey skies, watched over by looming glass towers, Alexis ran into America's Nikki Yanez, No. 1 in Florida and No. 2 in the US, in the first round.
Both hurled heavily-spun balls at each other, but Nikki was too solid, Alexis too errant, and the Singaporean lost 0-4, 0-4 in a match of truncated sets. Results matter in sport but while this Longines event is ostensibly a competition it is in truth a valuable experience.
Years ago David Tan and his wife, May, introduced their two daughters to tennis. In a distracting world, Sundays were family time: first church, then athletic worship. But in Singapore, tennis remains an undeveloped sport and only when players like Alexis adventure outside, to classrooms like Paris, and meet peers like Nikki whose father Paul is planning a pro career for her, are wider experiences found.
In the past year and a half, Alexis has not played a match abroad and yet here she was, playing in the same city as Serena Williams, in a public area, in front of a crowd, with media watching, cameras filming and passers-by gawking. Welcome to pressure and anxiety at 12 years old.
David had sweetly promised that win or lose he was going to take Alexis shopping, but this type of experience is hard to buy. In a few days here, Alexis has run on a world-class claycourt, watched her peers practise, seen where her game stands, rallied with four-time Grand Slam winner Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, met Steffi Graf at the draw and hung out with fitness trainer Remi Barbarin who worked with Gael Monfils.
What they take home is not only a new appreciation of competition but also of mateship. These 16 girls come from various geographies, speak diverse languages and yet they all talk tennis. They discovered cultures and also, as Juan-Carlos Capelli, Longines vice-president and head of international marketing rightly said, "fair play". They found it from each other and also from their fathers. At one point, Paul Yanez and David Tan sat side by side, filming their respective kids and yet applauding the fine shots by each other's child.
But maybe the toughest experience concerned the result. All athletes, even Alexis, suffer sporting loss but some defeats simply sting more. Usually because the athlete hasn't been able to find her best at her biggest moment.
Years ago a grown man named Roger Federer wept in front of millions in Melbourne and Rafael Nadal put a comforting arm around his shoulder. Yesterday a bespectacled 12-year-old cried in Paris with her father's gentle arm draped around her. This was one of sports' most familiar images and yet always amongst its most telling: When defeat hurts so much, it tells us only that athletes care.