Friday, August 28, 2015

Journeyman’s Guide to Flushing: Welcome to the 2015 US Open Qualies

The big rub for the journeyman is how he can seal his apprenticeship and sluice into a full-fledged master. Doesn’t happen by osmosis and it doesn’t come cheap. One must make sacrifices and be totally committed. Precision is the key. Tennis is no different than blacksmithing or carpentry in this instance, it requires the dedication and diligence of a craftsman. I shadowed the racquet-wielding journeymen this past week during the US Open Qualifying rounds. These guys have battled all year long, playing just about everywhere a net can be staked. They’d rally with frying pans if it came down to it.

The Qualifying Rounds don’t get much press, if any. You won’t catch these matches on cable. Nobody is tuning in at their local watering hole. None of matches are slated for the stadiums of Arthur Ashe or Louie Armstrong. They’re relegated to the outside courts, but every match is a battle for survival, the lifeblood of the sport. The next Pete Sampras or Rafa Nadal may be smacking groundies on one of these blue courts. To get an idea what’s at stake you need to realize that most of these guys cannot fully earn their living playing matches. Yes, they are playing for prize money, but their purse is a pittance compared to the main draws of Masters level events. Due to the incredible costs of travel and lodging, equipment, inflation, and oh yeah food, some of these guys have had to crash in their cars or in sleeping bags under the stars. Many have had to do various odd jobs. Stringing racquets and giving tennis lessons happen to be two of the most popular staples. Many of these guys don’t have the luxury of traveling with their coach. Some don’t have formal coaches.

Qualifiers cover a large swath of skill level. There’s pedigree too. Some are rising stars, still in high school or college, others have been career journeymen. A few have made into the bigtime and have slid back into the lion’s den. This year’s top-seeded Qualifier is Paul-Henri Mathieu from Strasbourg, France. He’s been ranked as high as 12 in the world back in 2008. He’s raked in some $5.4 mil in prize money since he’s turned pro. He’s the anomaly, French Open Juniors champ of 2000. He went the distance with Agassi at Roland Garros in 2002. He’s beaten Andy Roddick, and Fernando Gonzales when the Chilean was #5 in the world. Mathieu has 4 ATP tour titles under his belt, but has recently fallen on hard times, and now he’s forced to grind it out as a Qualifier. So far this year he’s made 2 ATP tour finals, most recently the Generali Open in Austria, earlier this month where he succumbed to Phillipp Kohlstreiber. At Wimbledon, he didn’t even make it into the main draw, losing in the 3rd round of qualifying.

Here in Flushing he seems to have his A-game, knocking off the Italian, Matteo Donati 6-3, 7-6 in his first bout. In his second-rounder, he crushes the German, Tobias Kamke 6-1, 6-2, but there’s always one more match, and the looming anxiety of breaking through. He’ll to get past the hard-hitting Colombian, Alejandro Falla or else it’s a plane back France.

This year the Sake Squad is a new attraction. You might be familiar with James Blake’s groupies. Allow me to introduce you to the Sake Squad. There’s about 35 to 40-some-odd of them (give or take) clogging up the left side of benches on court 12, wearing bright orange shirts that read Sake Squad. I mistook them for fans of the German, Jan-Lennard Struff garbed in an orange and black top. An innocent mistake, but I soon noticed that their cheers and claps were out of sync with the German baseliner. I then realized they were fans of Saketh Myneni, the 6 foot 4 Crimson Tide Alum, originally from India.
Myneni’s best results this year topped in the Spring. He made it into the semis at the Batman Challenger in Turkey, and then in May he made the semis at Samarkind Challenger in Uzbekistan. Early in the second set Myneni pops a string, and has to go over to his bag to grab a new stick. He must have at least 9 racquets hidden inside. You’d think they are all identical, the frames for sure, but, as a longtime journeyman myself, I have a hunch some may have slightly different tensions. Sometimes you want more bounce off your serves, the trampoline effect, and, other times you need a tighter, more laser-focused touch. That kind of edge makes all the difference. Maybe.

Myneni’s contingent is loud and eager to pump fists for their player. Tennis fans aren’t as dorky as you might think. Some show the souped-up ebullience of soccer nuts, they might even throw-in a wave (the rippling kind often associated with beer-chugging sports). All that hullabaloo doesn’t shake the German. Struff gets stronger as the match progresses. His serves are booming. He cranks his backhands. Midway through the second set it looks like the Myneni has run out of gas. Struff wins in 3 sets.

Later on, I stumbled upon a nearly crowdless match on court 6 what was merely a green practice court oh so many years ago. Am I dating myself yet? It’s the court I won my Freshman Doubles Championship match with my doubles partner Richie Reyes back in 1988. I was drawn to the match because it pitted a lefty, Jonathan Eysseric against a righty, Jose Hernandez-Fernandez. I’ve always been smitten with that racquet dichotomy. McEnroe-vs-Lendl, Ivanišević-vs-Agassi, Nadal-vs-Federer.

Hernandez-Fernandez is currently ranked 183 in the world and plays Davis Cup for Dominican Republic. At this year’s Wimbledon, he suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Czech player Jan Mertl (15-13) in the third. Despite that he’s jumped 100 spots from 2014. Here he started off slow, hitting balls at what I’d call warmup pace. Eysseric looked sharp had those nice lefty angles. The lift off his back foot made him seem like a pelican or an old-school Nintendo character, think Super Mario swinging a racquet rather than an oversize hammer. Hernandez-Fernandez hung in with good repertoire. Clearly, he had a big forehand, but what impressed me was his ability to rush the net when necessary. During the critical fifth game, while he was twice in jeopardy of going down 4-1, he chipped his way into the net, and eventually broke his opponent’s serve, placing a crisp forehand volley winner to get back on serve. Then in 10th game of the first set down 5-4 on his serve he ran around his forehand and sliced a backhand to force an error. Eysseric was livid. During the tiebreaker the Dominican dialed it up a notch, cranking forehands and backhands. The Frenchman clubbed his way back, and then Hernandez-Fernandez began mixing it up, and won an awesome rally with a chip forehand. He bulled through the second set and onto the next round where he fell to the American, Tommy Paul. Tommy is a Jersey boy who lives and trains in Boca Raton. Having won this year’s Boys French Open he comes into US Open with high hopes. Nonetheless, he’s still a dark horse never having risen above 429 in the world). After Noah Rubin and Mitchell Krueger lost in their second-rounders, Tommy becomes the lone American left in the Qualies.

Taro Daniel is back. He qualified last year in his first US Open appearance. Now he’s seeded #9. He won his first match against the Argentinian, Renzo Olivo. Keep an eye on Elias Ymer, the 19-year-old Swede, Galo Blanco’s protégé who has earned a trifecta of births into the Australian Open, the French Open, and Wimbledon. He’s a favorite to make a qualifying slam after he dispatches Jan-Lennard Struff in the 2nd round.
One of the great joys about wandering around the courts during the Qualies is that you get to see the dwarf stars before they burst into supernovas. Back in 2004, I remember being impressed with a young Frenchman who had sweet strokes and a cannon for a serve. His name was Jo-Wilfred Tsonga. Nobody knew much about him. I caught both his matches. He eventually lost to fellow countryman, the veteran lefty, Jérôme Golmard. Then in the 2005 I stumbled upon a talented British kid, Andy Murray. He was cocky as hell, but he had the weapons to back him up. I caught his 2nd and 3rd round qualifying matches when he knocked off Paolo Lorenzi 6-3, 6-2 and then made minced meat of the Ecquadorian, Giovanni Lapentti 6-0, 7-6. When he beat Andrei Pavel in the main draw I was convinced that this guy was something. This was even before he hooked up with Brad Gilbert. But Murray ran into a wall with Arnaud Clement. Clement too had qualified into the main draw 2005, and cruised through his 1st round match beating the former #1 Juan Carlos Ferrero.

It’s 7ish and the sun sluffs off and will probably crown the Unisphere before the next batch of fans pours in. Night tennis in New York rocks. The blare of white light on blue courts brings new energy. It’s invigorating. The 21st century gladiators are smashing, lunging, and slugging their way into the blue hour. Some will win. Others will not. It’s great to be out, watching this protean transformation. That guy, that guy right over there that beanpoley guy he’s going to be the next Djokovic. Wait, what’s his name? Let me check my program.

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