Saturday, August 23, 2014

US Open Qualifying 2014



So far the Qualies have cooked up a slew of nail-biters, plenty of 3-setters, and a good chunk of tiebreakers. Since the home of the Open is in my backyard in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens, I take advantage (pardon the tennis pun) and head out to this beautiful four-day binge.

Day one is balmy, an SPF 70 Aveeno Suncreen day if ever there was one and you can feel the endless possibilities for these 256 hungry players, vying for 36 spots into the main draw in the last leg of the Slams (128 men and 128 women). The tournament is single elimination, think gladiators with racquets and headbands instead of swords and maces. Since word broke that last year’s champ, Raphael Nadal, would have to bow out of the tournament, there’s been a big sigh of disappointment. Djokovic and Federer
have bumped up to the 1 and 2 seeds, and a lucky loser will get to take Nadal’s vacant spot.

I’m watching Roberto Marcora from Italy who is currently ranked 221 in the world. He has amassed a whopping $19,309 to date for singles play and $587 for doubles. At this rate, he’ll be lucky to clear $35K for the year. Peanuts. Consider this: tennis, unlike team sports (baseball, football, and basketball) you are responsible for your own transportation, housing accommodations, and sunflower seed addiction. In his first match, Marcora up 4 – 2 in the 3rd set, is serving at 30 all, he blasts his first serve into the net. His second serve is an offspeeder into the box and wins a sweet rally only to have the line judge reverse the call. They replay the point and it’s an awesome one, Marcora makes an unbelievable get, outstretched, driving the ball down the line. He follows it up with a service winner. The next game the Serbian holds and Marcora has a chance to serve out the match. At 30 all they’re trading monster forehands as a 747 soars overhead. Although the groundies are muted by the plane, the grunts are still audible. Marcora cranks out an 129 mph ace down the T and then lets loose a barbaric yawp to celebrate his victory.

His second match is another nail-biter, but this time the #4 seed Facundo Bagnis is pushing him to the limit. The Argentine has a solid ground game and he is pinning Marcora to the baseline. They trade corner shots, but Marcora miss-hits a crosscourt forehand. His backhand doesn’t have the same zip as the day before. Bagnis also looks hungrier and takes it in 3 sets and will have one final challenge. He will face the American Ernesto Escobedo.

I had the chance to watch the old-timer, 36-year-old Michael Russell. The American has been a staple on the ATP for the past 14 years and reached a career high at #60 in 2007. Michael holds the dubious distinction of being the all-time USTA Pro Circuit singles champ with 24 titles. That’s like being the all-time Triple A homerun champ. Russell doesn’t waste any time in his first hurdle, dispelling Enrique Lopez-Perez of Spain in straight sets 6 – 1, 6 – 4. They play on Court 11, which is something of a mini grandstand. Russell is decked out in his Day-glo green and black top and is bouncing around like a clubber in the Meatpacking. Lopez-Perez is fast and has a wicked forehand, but Russell doesn’t seem impressed by it. On the changeover, Russell sits under the umbrella the ballperson has opened, and appears deep in thought as he sips his Evian. The ump intones, “Time” and both players spring from their movie director-style chairs. The Spaniard is adjusting his strings as he walks to the baseline. He cranks out a big serve down the T and Russell blocks it back. They trade 5 or 6 crosscourt forehands before Russell goes the other way and Lopez-Perez sprays a backhand wide. They seem to be even, trading winners and Russell will only barely eke out the Spaniard in that department 22 to 19, but Russell exploits his opponent’s weakness, the backhand. Lopez-Perez goes on to fluff 18 of those suckers. He makes 29 unforced errors in all to Russell’s 17 unforced errors. Russell also breaks his opponent twice as many times 4 – 2.

In the Second Round, Russell squares off with Belgium’s Steve Darcis. This is less a continuation of where Russell had left off and more of an uphill battle. He never seems to find his rhythm and ends up getting spanked by Darcis in straight sets.

Two Americans face each other in round 2, the up-and-coming Rhyne Williams and the seasoned journeyman, Rajeev Ram. Williams, a 23-year-old, qualified for the Australian Open back in January. His biggest show to date was in Delray Beach where he reached the quarterfinals. This guy looks like he has some promise. Ram, on the other hand, has been around for a while. He’s been to the quarters of Wimbledon, French Open, and Australian Open. His forte is doubles and he’s been in the top 50 for some time. Doubles is not singles and now Ram is scrapping it out in the singles qualies. Both players had fairly easy first-rounders.

It’s hard to watch two Americans battling it out. Who do you give your heart to the youngblood from Boca Raton or the seasoned doubles’ pro? Maybe you want to pull for Williams, hoping he can improve on his 1st round loss in the main draw of the 2012 Open. Ram has another idea. He comes out of the box with great composure and is really clocking his serves. He’s got great flow and is in control. Williams never really gets the upper hand. Not that he makes a lot of errors, but he is clearly outplayed. Ram doesn’t outgun his opponent, he outplays him without making a double fault or an unforced error. He’s off the court in little over an hour 6 – 3, 6 – 2. He will have to face the 7-seeded German, Andreas Beck.

As the gate shuts on many talented players, the gate opens for others. It’s a lot of fun watching these rising stars because who knows who for sure will make it to the next stage. Who will be the next Gilles Mueller, the first Luxembuorgian to advance to the Quarterfinals of a Grand Slam event back in 2008? He did it as a qualifier.

It’s time now for my banana break so I can take in the second half of the grueling day’s schedule. I hear Sharapova is practicing on Louie Armstrong. See you courtside

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