by Saqib Ali
The last major is upon us and the ATP tennis fraternity is heading to New York. Qualifying action starts Tuesday at the Billie Jean King USTA National Tennis Center. Tennis can be a very unforgiving sport — it has a knockout format all year long. Add to that the international nature of the tour. The travel from one stop to another is a drain on resources and part of the grind. Constant flights are part of most sports, but intercontinental travel is different. It makes tennis an extremely hard profession to master on a sustained basis. It is quite an expensive way to make a living. We (commoners) plan our small vacations or day trips extremely carefully. On those grounds alone, one can only begin to imagine how hectic life on tour really is.
Don’t get me wrong — the payoffs can be rewarding if a player can crack the main tour. The main tour usually means a top-100 ranking, sometimes higher, where a player can play a majority of his matches at ATP level tournaments. Injuries or a bad run of losses can send a player back to the challenger tour. The level of tennis is also extremely high at the challenger tour. A lot players who were once ranked comfortably in the top 100 or better can be seen at challenger level events. However, the prize money for challenger wins is minuscule, a tiny fraction of main-tour winnings. That is the revolving door of pro tennis, where staying locked in the challenger realm damages the cost-benefit balance for players. Spending most of a year on the ATP Tour — making a reasonable number of main draw events — is necessary to earn a reasonable profit and make the constant global travel worthwhile.
This week in New York, 128 men will comprise the qualifying draw for the 2017 United States Open. Most of them have competed on the challenger circuit all year long. Some have tasted main draw success or exposure at the ATP tour level. Lot of familiar names are there: Canadian southpaw Denis Shapovalov, big-serving American Reilly Opelka, talented Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas, French veterans Nico Mahut and Paul-Henri Mathieu, and Citi Open (Washington) quarterfinalist Yuki Bhambri from New Delhi. You can make a case for more than few guys who can make the cut. The pressure of qualifying for the biggest events of the year is enormous — a lot of money and ranking points are at stake. Picking this draw can be as challenging as picking the last 16 of the main draw. I have narrowed down my list to three players who I feel are good stories to follow.
I am not making predictions — this field can really make one look silly — but I will follow a few players because of their results this year. The first one on the list is Ramkumar Ramanathan from Chennai, India. He is a very soft spoken and polite young fellow whom I met briefly in Newport last month at the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
He has had some good results this year and seems in good form to gain a spot in a main draw for the first time. Meeting him gave me an insight into a pro’s life on the tour. After losing a challenger final in Illinois, Ramanathan flew to Boston that evening to play qualifying on Newport grass. He took an Uber ride from Logan Airport to his hotel in Newport. Had a hit of 45 minutes on grass and played his second match in less than 24 hours on a different surface. He won that match but lost in the second round of qualifying to eventual finalist Matt Ebden of Australia. He then hung around at the same venue for the remainder of the week because a bunch of other Indian players were in the doubles draw. That validated to me how difficult and lonely tour life is.
I spent more time with the Indian players that week. I learned more about Ramanathan as well. He prefers to use his forehand as his big shot and told me how his serve was on fire when he took out Austrian Dominic Thiem earlier in the year in Antalya, the new ATP Tour stop in Turkey. He followed up that result by reaching the second round of the Cincinnati 1000 event last week. Ramanathan trains at the Sanchez-Casals academy in Florida. He will have the support of that team in New York as well. I expect him to make a run in the qualifying tournament.
Another young man I am keenly following is Aussie Akira Santillan. He made news in the recent past for switching federations. He played for the Japanese team and more recently came back to play under the Australian flag. Santillan has allowed his tennis to do the talking, especially when he bagged the challenger title in Winnetka, Illinois, beating Ramanathan in the final. Since then he has recorded solid wins on the challenger tour over fellow Aussie Jordan Thompson and Darian King of Barbados. He possesses a one-handed backhand and uses the slice a lot to draw opponents to the net. He packs a punch on his forehand and loves playing on grass.
When I briefly spoke with him he told me his favorite current player is Federer. He also said that while growing up, he idolized Carlos Moya. Santillan plays an exciting brand of tennis in a generation where styles have become quite monotonous. He is a player to definitely keep on your radar. Like many other younger guys, the process is paramount at this stage. His growth depends on how much he can absorb at this level. His first round is one of the better matches of the qualifying draw in New York. He faces in-form Austrian Sebastian Ofner, who himself had a breakout Wimbledon this year.
Stefano Travaglia is another player whose progress I am very interested in. He has been playing on clay all year long except for the brief interval on grass. I have followed his progress and noted that he has won quite a lot, not necessarily titles but certainly in terms of tennis matches. He has amassed 47 wins in all forms of competition this year and has not played a hardcourt match coming to New York. There is no substitute for winning, and the Italian will aim to bring his match toughness to the last major of the year.
Last but not the least is German Cedrik-Marcel Stebe, who has been on an absolute tear at the challenger level. He has played lot of matches and was ranked as high as 73 a few years ago. He is fresh from a challenger win in Vancouver, where he routed Aussie Jordan Thompson in the final. Stebe has to feel good about his chances at the qualifying event given his momentum and the bulk of matches he has won. He is trying to reestablish himself as a top 100 player. Following his pursuit will be one of the many fascinating dimensions of this week of tennis in Flushing Meadows.
Let the games begin!