Wednesday, August 26, 2009

US Open Qualies

Yesterday kicked off the US Open Qualifying rounds, the gateway into the American tennis classic. The qualifying rounds are not as well attended as the main draw, but a number of diehards show up to witness the great depths of the sport. The players are just as hungry, maybe even more sanguineous, than the lucky one-hundred who get an instant birth into this last leg of the Grand Slams. The qualifiers are a mix of up-and-comers, college players, journeyman, and even some former stars who need to schlep through the preliminaries before getting back onto the main stage.

This year there are of few of those former stars who are retuning their strings, but with so much hot new blood out there the stakes are higher. Xavier Malisse got dumped in his first round match, as did the Argentine, Gaston Gaudio. Today I watched veteran Frenchman Arnaud Clement. He looked snazzy as usual in his classic country club attire complete with his white bandana keeping his floppy golden locks away from his trademark shades, but his strokes were a far cry from his A-form.

Tim Smyczek, the American, took the first set tiebreaker from the 2007 Wimbledon Doubles Champ. Impressive indeed for the wildcard who had to win another tournament just to squeak into this event. Smyczek didn’t seem intimated by the Frenchman who in previous years had been ranked as high as #8 in the world. In two short weeks from June 22nd to the first week of July Clement’s singles ranking dropped from 53 to 128. This put him in his current predicament of needing to qualify to get into the main draw of the US Open. The ATP Tour is a grueling schedule and many players fall from grace never making it back.

Early into the second set, Clement cracked an easy forehand twenty feet over the fence and probably onto court 9. Two games later, and down love fifteen on his serve, Clement locked into a long corner to corner rally only to get blasted by Smyczek’s blistering down-the-line forehand winner. Behind 3-1 in the second set, and already down a set, things weren’t looking so hot for the Frenchman. The heat index on the court rose to one hundred degrees. My heart really went out to the guy. It always seems a bit hotter when you have to come from behind.

I thought back to another US Open qualifying round back in 2002 when low and behold another once great Frenchman Cedric Pioline, a US Open and Wimbledon Finalist, was ousted before he could gain entry into the main draw. Could Clement be on his final fade?

The seventh game of any set is important, but when you’re 2 games from elimination it’s critical. The veteran switched into another gear, letting loose on a couple of overhead smashes, an ace and a backhand rip. Smyczek answered back and went up 5-3, one game from the match. Clement may have been on the ropes, but he stayed pesky and kept clawing away. Smyczek got to match point on his opponent’s serve and Clement hung tough throwing in a service winner then followed it up on the next point with a rush to the net and a sweet jab volley.

It went to another tiebreak and Clement kept attacking the net. His touch was excellent. The American flubbed an important point and it seemed, for the moment, there’d be a third set. Smyczek broadcasted a few telltale choking signs. The crowd pulled for the American and he started to go for broke. Why not? He could blow the set and still come back in the third. He painted lines with his passing shots and just wouldn’t let the Frenchman find his groove.

Smyczek prevailed and let out an ebullient cry of joy.

I also had the pleasure of watching another promising American, Donald Young, who has a wicked lefty forehand. The whipping motion helps disguise his placement and causes havoc for his opponents guessing its direction. Young played a hard-hitting Italian, Marco Crugnola, who wore a retro outfit topped off by a glowing orange headband ala Aaron Krickstein.

After Young won the first set in a tiebreaker there was a mass exodus of spectators. I chilled out for a while not wanting to write off this Mediterranean Aaron Krickstein Doppelganger with a one-handed backhand. He looked like he had another tank left in him and he grinded out the points and made some clean winners. Time would tell if this guy had heart.

Then there was Young who needed to slam the door on Crugnola. The 2007 Wimbledon Juniors Champ is a rising star, but still hasn’t proved himself. You might recall he made it into the third round of the 2007 US Open and he went five sets with James Blake in the first round of last year’s event, but this year he didn’t even qualify at Wimbledon.

Donald made some great angles and kept the Italian on the run, but Crugnola blasted some tremendous backhands. I give the American a lot of credit for mixing up the pace. There were a couple of rallies that truly reminded me of the moonballers I suffered against in the juniors. The slow, lofty pokes that sent you back to fence sometimes scraping the Kevlar off the top of your frame— a battered racquet was the least of your worries because you’d end up losing a slew of cheesy points. Donald blooped some hits over the net as if he had a volleyball target instead of a three-foot tennis net to clear. Effective, you bet.

Crugnola pulled the old injury time-out and waited for the trainer. Not a bad move for a rookie. Didn’t matter because once the players resumed Young took care of business and breezed through to the second round of qualies. On a funny note though, during the penultimate point of the match, Young flubbed an overhead but the ball landed good and Crugnola couldn’t get his strings on it. The Italian mocked his opponent by replaying the same goofy swing. Young obviously had the last laugh though.

Tennis is such a mental game that weekend warriors from all over the country, all over the globe, will be returning tomorrow to see how the next great armada of talent will deal with the trials and tribulations of this old gentleman’s game.

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