From a cracked cement court with plants growing in it… to dreaming of reaching the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas World Group in a full 6,000 seat stadium. Jean-Julien Rojer’s journey starts in Curaçao more than two decades ago and he will have a special role to play in Holland’s quest to conquer Switzerland on the clay of the Westergasfabriek stadium in Amsterdam. Although the home team have beaten the Swiss on three of their last seven meetings, they have not been able to do so at home.
“We have the potential to progress from Group I and we will prove that”, announced the doubles specialist born in Curaçao 31 years ago. Although this will only be his third match in the Dutch team (all at home), Rojer has a lot of Davis Cup experience, because he made his debut in the competition at 16 years old representing the Dutch Antilles (dissolved in October 2010).
A past in the Caribbean
Ronald Liverpool, Wilbur Callender, James Betts, Yari Bernardo are just some of the players with four digit rankings – or no rankings at all – that Rojer faced in his first years in the Davis Cup. The clubs and stadiums were familiar, because throughout his junior career he had visited countries in Central America.
“Costa Rica is one of my favourites, I played the Copa del Café juniors tournament at the Country Club. I love that place and I have fond memories of it. My best Davis Cup victory came there against Juan Antonio Marín, 9-7 in the fifth set in doubles. I also won in singles. I will never forget it”, recalls Rojer, who throughout the interview will repeat the word “luck”. “You need luck to be a professional and live like that, in my case at least”.
Jean-Julien grew up watching his older brother, Jamil, on the cement court closet o his home in Curaçao . The court was awful, “decorated” inside with these horrible plants which grew, untamed, “but it was one of the few courts on the island, and it was ours”, he remembers. At the age of 6, motivated by his brother, Jean-Julien started to take classes.
“We were a lucky family, we weren’t the richest, but neither were we the poorest in the region. We could travel a little. Curaçao is close to Miami, so we played under-8, under-10 and under-12 tournaments there. A trainer based in Miami saw potential in me and, at 13, I sat down with my parents and I told them that I wanted to play tennis. I moved into the trainer’s house, I learned English and a little Spanish from being in the city and I went to school, and then secondary school, all in the United States. At the same time, I was playing tennis”, he recounts.
Sports and studies
“My parents always stressed that their dreams were to play and study. Of course, they’re older and they know more about life than me. They know that a tennis player can become anything in a professional career, everything can change very quickly”. Rojer lived in Miami until he was 18, when he moved to Los Angeles to study at UCLA. He represented the university in the national tournament – becoming singles No. 1 – while he studied sociology.
During the third year of his studies, he decided to turn fully professional. No more mixing. “I was 21. I felt that I was big enough to try, I could survive and wanted to try to live by tennis”. The players he’d played with on the youth circuit served as a fine example: Coria, Feña González, Federer, Mathieu, Olivier Rochus, Robredo, started to get results on the pro circuit. “I was one of those who didn’t arrive (smiles). It took me longer and I did things a different way”, he recounts.
He left with one year to go in his degree. “I want to finish it, it’s great having a degree; not a lot of tennis players have one. Perhaps I’ll do something in sports management as well”. But it was sociology, as he points out, that interested him “to understand the world, human behaviour, how things work. Of course, there are a lot of aspects and specialities. Sociology was an easy course in the sense that I could arrive tired from tennis and at the same time concentrate on reading. If it had been maths, late at night and exhausted, the numbers would have started to move around”.
After a singles career at futures and challengers level, Rojer decided to focus all of his energy on doubles, the speciality in which he is now ranked No. 20 in the world. During his singles years, he crossed zone groups IV, III and II with the Antilles team.
“I grew up in the Central America zone, in Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad. We played in these places which were familiar to me, I enjoyed it a lot there. This year I changed my nationality so that I could represent Holland. It was a step forward in my career. I really enjoyed the time I spent in zone group IV, but I also want to play at the highest level, in the biggest stadiums, in the most important points, and Holland has a great tennis tradition. I wanted to have a little of both worlds”, Rojer explains.
“It’s not easy arriving as a new player in a team. The Dutch singles players can also play doubles, but they don’t have a doubles specialist. If I don’t play, hopefully I can help them with their movements: I studied doubles, it’s the only thing that I do, I know the strategy, the positioning, the shots, whatever gives you more options to win the point”.
His debut in the European Zone, against Finland, came in February, and ended in victory in the doubles which he played with Robin Haase. In April, he teamed up with Igor Sijsling to beat the Romanians 9-7 in the fifth set.
"It’s funny: in the second match I was under more pressure than in the first. In my debut, I walked into the stadium and the atmosphere was incredible, everyone dressed in orange, shouting loudly… Because I wasn’t born in Holland, I didn’t know how they would accept me. What I do know is that the best way to be accepted is by winning. In the first match, the excitement lifted me, but in the second, I was more nervous”.
Would you rather play against a Switzerland team containing Roger Federer or one without him? “That’s a good question (thinks). Personally, I don’t want him to play because I want to win. I have never been to the World Group and that is one of the reasons that I joined the Dutch team. If Roger plays, it will be very difficult. If he doesn’t, it will give us a better chance, but nothing is certain, they have great players”, he said.
While Dutch tennis goes through changes – the executive director left his post and has assumed a new role – Rojer believes in the potential of the team while at the same time highlighting a flaw.
“We have great players, and I have always said that. They are very good friends of mine but if I could change anything, it would be the mentality. With a stronger mentality, we would be better. Sijsling is playing very well, Thiemo de Bakker and Haase were in the world Top 40, Jessie Huta Galung is a very good tennis player, there are a lot of people who can play, but we should encourage each other, not argue, and strengthen ourselves mentally. It is difficult to do it with only two weeks of Davis Cup, but I always remind them, and I encourage them. If we are stronger mentally, we can do it”.