Most tennis fans didn’t know Leolia Jeanjean’s name prior to the French Open. Even many of her peers didn’t know much about her going into the event. After all, the world No. 227 had never played in the main draw of any tour-level event, let alone a major, and had never competed against anyone ranked in the top 50.
But that all changed this week. And no one will be forgetting her name anytime soon.
The 26-year-old Jeanjean, a literal and figurative wild card at Roland Garros, defeated No. 45 Nuria Parrizas Diaz in the first round. She then upset a stunned Karolina Pliskova, the No. 8 seed and former world No. 1, in the second round, 6-2, 6-2 — in front of a thrilled crowd on Court Simonne-Mathieu on Thursday. It was undoubtedly the biggest win of her career, and just the latest stop on one of the more unorthodox journeys on tour.
Jeanjean was once a promising young French junior player but found her professional dreams derailed due to a serious knee injury. After being sidelined from the sport for some time, she decided to play collegiately in the United States. She played her freshman season at Baylor before transferring to Arkansas, but ended up playing at Lynn, a Division II school in Boca Raton, Florida.
While former NCAA players have certainly found success on tour in recent years, including Jennifer Brady (UCLA), Danielle Collins (Virginia) and Cameron Norrie (TCU), the path from college to the pros remains unusual. And making the jump from a Division II program? Well, let’s just say, that’s nearly unheard of.
But for Jeanjean, it was her time at Lynn that made her realize she wasn’t done with her professional tennis dreams just yet. During her senior year, she went undefeated in singles (21-0) and doubles (29-0) and she was named the ITA Senior Player of the Year, as well as the Sunshine State Conference Female Athlete of the Year.
« After [that season]I was thinking maybe I should try to go and try to play a few ITF [tournaments]which went really well too, because, you know, I went to the semis and stuff, » Jeanjean said after win over Pliskova. « I was, like, ‘Okay, so maybe if I practice hard enough, get back in shape, maybe it will work. »
Jeanjean is expected to move up to No. 148 with Thursday’s win. If she were to defeat her third-round opponent Irina-Camelia Begu on Saturday, she would enter the top 120. But no matter what happens from here, she has already joined a pretty exclusive club of athletes from across sports who have made the leap from DII to big-league success. Here is a small sampling of other athletes who have done just that in recent years.
A two-time Super Bowl champion (responsible for that interception) and Pro Bowler, it’s hard to believe Butler didn’t have DI interest, but he played at Hinds Community College (Raymond, Mississippi) before eventually ending up at West Alabama. The New England Patriots cornerback played two seasons for the school, earning first-team all-conference honors during both years, and led the conference in passes defended and passes broken up during his senior campaign.
Before winning a world championship title with the American 4×400 team in 2017 or making the 2020 Olympic team by besting Allyson Felix at the Olympic trials last June, Hayes was competing for Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina. During her time at the school, she became the first woman in DII history to win three consecutive NCAA outdoor 400-meter titles. During her senior season, she added the 200-meter title to her collection as well.
The two-time US Open champion (1993 and 1998) and eight-time winner on the PGA Tour didn’t exactly get his start at a golf powerhouse. Instead, he opted to play for Florida Southern and, alongside fellow future-PGA pro Rocco Mediate, helped lead the school to an NCAA Division II team title in 1985. The following season, after Mediate had left, Janzen lifted the team to another championship and won the individual title. He now plays on the senior tour, and won his most recent title at the 2021 SAS Championship in October.
Before he became a four-time MLB All-Star and World Series champion, Boston Red Sox slugger Martinez played collegiately at Nova Southeastern (alongside fellow 2018 All-Star and current St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Miles Mikolas). Martinez set the then-program record with 32 home runs during his final season with the team.
The UFC welterweight champion and former « Ultimate Fighter » winner helped the University of Nebraska at Kearney win the NCAA Division II wrestling national team title in 2008 and earned the individual national title at 174 pounds in 2010. He turned to mixed martial arts after failing to qualify for the 2012 US Olympic trials, and it seems to have worked out pretty well for him.
A bronze-medal winning member of the Canadian softball team at the 2020 Olympics, Wideman played collegiately at California University of Pennsylvania. During her senior season, she led the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference with a .454 batting average, 49 runs scored and a .535 on-base percentage and was named the Division II Catcher of the Year.
The all-time goal-scoring leader in MLS history had Division I offers for track and field goal was largely under the radar for soccer. Ultimately, he helped lead Chico State to the Division II national championship game. He went on to have one of the most successful careers in MLS history and was named the league’s Most Valuable Player in 2012. He retired in November.