Around the US, college/university graduation ceremonies were taking place while Roland Garros was underway. Few, if any of those parading across the campus stages to accept their diplomas, came close to earning the accolades Léolia Jeanjean received.
The 26-year-old wild card from Montpellier at one time was known as “The Next” in French tennis circles. Then she disappeared only to return as one of the 2022 tournament surprises.
Before she reached her teens, Jeanjean was practicing at Centre National d’Entrainement at Stade Roland Garros, had a fulltime coach, along with a substantial Nike contract. Her future was bright or so it seemed until the summer of 2010. Shortly before her 15th birthday, while playing a tournament in Russia, she dislocated the patellar tendon in her knee.
Unable to walk let alone play, rehabilitation became her game as contracts and Fédération Française de Tennis (FFT) support disappeared. She was sidelined from tennis for two years and had to make a “What am I going to do?” decision.
After discussions with her parents, Laurent and Isabelle Jeanjean, and having begun to train again, she took a chance in 2014 and moved to Waco, Texas to study and play for the Baylor University women’s tennis team. From Baylor, she transferred to the University of Arkansas, in Fayetteville then to Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida.
At each of the university stops, she added variety to her game and became a more complete competitor. Jeanjean’s academic performance exceeded her on court success. She earned a degree in Sociology at Baylor; one in Criminal Justice at Arkansas; and an MBA in Finance & Investment at Lynn.
As good as she was in the classroom, in 2019, her final year at Lynn she earned a collection of honors including Sunshine State Conference Female Athlete of the Year following a competitive season in which she had a 21-0 singles record and was 29-0 in doubles.
Having completed her studies, at the end of 2020, she returned to France intent on giving herself “another tennis chance…”. As she explained to journalists at Roland Garros, “…if I was good at 14, 15, ‘Why can’t I be good 10 years later…?”
Reflecting on her time in the US, she told the media, “…college is a good thing for some people, because it makes you grow as a person. It makes you see life differently. I think it’s just important for your life to take this path if you can.”
She began 2022 ranked No. 378 and had reached No. 227 when Roland Garros began. Playing her first Grand Slam match, she defeated Nuria Párrizas Díaz of Spain, 6-4, 6-3.
In her next contest, one that will surely be near the top of her career memories, she used the diversity of her game polished in intercollegiate play to befuddle Karolína Plíšková of the Czech Republic, the No. 8 seed, 6-2, 6-2. Irina-Camélia Bégu of Romania ended Jeanjean’s enthralling Roland Garros run, 6-1, 6-4 in the third round.
Following the match, she explained Bégu’s game “…disrupted me [and] I didn’t disrupt her very much. To be quite honest, I didn’t find any solutions.”
(With her Plíšková victory, she became the lowest ranked competitor to defeat a Top 10 player at Roland Garros since 16-year-old qualifier Conchita Martínez in 1988 – in her third professional tournament – defeated Lori McNeil, the No. 9 seed, 1-6, 6-3, 6-1 in the third round.)
Thanks to reaching the third round, Jeanjean’s ranking will jump to around No. 150 and the Top 100 is her goal. She candidly said, “I thought I would be eliminated in the first round in two sets, and now I have just beaten one of the ten best players in the world, it’s just totally crazy…I could never have imagined that…
“I’m living in the moment…I’m enjoying it…I’m where I’ve always wanted to be from a very young age.”
Reaching the third round she earned €125,800 (US$135,171) which will “make life easier…” as she said. “I can certainly pay a coach, pay my tickets when I go to tournaments. I can actually travel around further away. I can actually have staff. So this will change everything, certainly.”
She concluded, “It’s only my second year on the tour. Although I’m 26 years old, I want to say that mentally it’s like being 19. I have less experience than Elsa Jacquemot who has played three Roland Garros.” Most important, “…I never gave up, I always believed in myself, it’s probably why I’m here today.”