Eastern at Les Petits As
Allez! Two Eastern players—Izyan “Zizou” Ahmad, of Wayne, N.J., and Michael Antonius, of Buffalo, N.Y.—helped represent the United States at the Tarbes, France-based Les Petits As tournament, one of the most prestigious 14 & Under competitions in the world. The event is notable for a reason; past champions include a who’s who of today’s top players: US Open champion Bianca Andreescu, US Open semifinalist Frances Tiafoe, French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko and even 22-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal all lifted the championship hardware in Tarbes when they were up-and-coming juniors.
Although they both lost early in their respective singles campaigns at the event, Ahmad and Antonius teamed up to compete in the boys’ doubles draw, where they ultimately reached the semifinals against some of the best players in the world in their age group. The pair had previously found success as doubles partners, capturing the Empire Cup and placing fourth at the Easter Bowl in 2021.
“Michael is an awesome player and a great teammate,” Ahmad says of what makes their partnership work. “The most important thing in doubles is communication, and Michael and I are good friends and have known each other for a long time. We also know each other’s games very well, so that’s a huge advantage for us as a team.”
Antonius agreed that the duo share a high level of comfort when they’re on the court and added that they also stayed in sync regarding the game plan.
“When we are both aggressive, we can play really well, and I think that was key throughout—to stay aggressive,” he says. “Also, Zizou has great hands at the net.”
In addition to scoring a doubles semifinals berth, Antonius also ended up winning the consolation draw, defeating competitors from Bulgaria, Greece, Russia and France along the way. He explained that staying on the front foot throughout the event helped him over the line.
“My coaches have been challenging me to play more aggressively and I think I executed that pretty well,” he says. “I used my forehand more when the opportunity was there, while also playing disciplined and consistent.”
The match that made Antonius most proud, however, was actually the one he lost, in the first round of the boys’ singles tournament, against eventual finalist Daniel Jade of Lebanon.
“We played for almost three hours in a three-set battle that went back and forth,” he explains. “I really felt I played aggressive tennis, and I was also able to grind it out when I had to.”
Beyond results, both Ahmad and Antonius said one of the best parts of the three-week trip overall was bonding with their fellow American teammates. Prior to heading to France, the US contingent—made up of four girls and four boys total from across the country—played a warm-up event in Bolton, England, so they had a lot of time to get to know one another and hang out with each other as they traveled across Europe.
“Spending time with the team was the best part of this whole experience,” Ahmad says. “This whole trip was about the team environment, and we did everything together as a team, including practicing, eating, sharing rooms. We created great friendships.”
They also got a taste of what competing on an international circuit feels like.
“Independence was big for me—I learned what it takes to travel for tennis tournaments,” Antonius says. “The biggest challenge was definitely [figuring out how] to manage everything that was going on: eating, sleeping, practicing, prepping for matches, while also finding time to relax. Also, the venue was very busy with thousands of people coming in and out, which created a great, but hectic, atmosphere. It was really good learning from my coaches and also my teammates [throughout the experience].”
Ahmad agreed with that sentiment.
“This tournament is like a Grand Slam for 14 & under juniors, and it’s very easy to get distracted with everything that’s going on,” he says. “To be honest, I don’t think I handled it very well, but it was a great learning experience. I learned a lot about myself, my game and the areas that I need to work on. It was great to see the competition from all around the world and pick up the positive things from them that I can incorporate in my game on and off the court. I’ll utilize all that learning next year to my advantage.”
Les Petits As wasn’t the only big moment in Ahmad’s tennis life recently; last summer the young player got the chance to share the court with none other than Roger Federer. In a video that now has 5.5 million views on YouTube, Ahmad can be seen at a 2017 US Open press conference asking the 20-time Grand Slam champion if he could continue playing for “eight or nine years” so that they could play each other once Ahmad turned pro. Federer promised he would, and this past August the tennis icon—who ended up retiring at the end of 2022—organized a surprise hitting session for the pair to make good on his promise.
“It was a surreal experience and I still can’t believe that it happened,” Ahmad says of the big surprise. “Hitting a tennis ball with Mr. Federer is the best thing that has happened to me. He was so generous and down to earth and made me feel comfortable because I was sort of freaked out after seeing him. He gave me a lot of amazing advice and tips that I’ll always remember. I’ll cherish that experience for the rest of my life.”
Photos courtesy Beth Antonius and Farooq Ahmad