by Saqib Ali
The last major is upon us and the tennis fraternity is all heading to NYC if not already there. The qualifying action starts tomorrow at the Billie Jean National Tennis Center. Tennis can be a very unforgiving sport as it has a knockout format all year long. Add to that the international nature of it. The travel from one stop to another is far from lucrative and in fact is part of the grind which makes tennis an extremely hard profession to succeed at. It is quite an expensive way to make a living with all the costs that come along. We plan our small vacations or day trips extremely carefully. On purely those grounds one can imagine the life on tour. Don’t get me wrong the payoffs can be rewarding if a player can crack the main tour. The main tour usually means a ranking of top 100 or slightly better where a player can play majority of his action at the ATP level tournaments. Injuries or a bad run of losses can send a player back to the minor leagues or the ATP challenger tour. That being said the level of tennis is also extremely high and competitive at the challenger tour. A lot players who were once ranked comfortably in the top 100 or better can be seen in action on the challenger level events. That is the revolving door of pro tennis.
One hundred and twenty eight men will comprise of this edition of the qualifying draw of the 2017 United States Open. Most of them have competed in the challenger circuit all year long and some have tasted main draw success or exposure at the ATP tour level as well. Lot of familiar names are there to focus on like the Canadian southpaw Denis Shapovalov, big serving American Reilly Opelka, talented Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas, pair of French veterans Nico Mahut and Paul Henri Mathieu and Citi Open quarterfinalist Yuki Bhambri from New Delhi. You can make a case of more than few guys who can make the cut. The pressure of qualifying for the biggest events of the year is enormous as 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 a good story to follow.
Not making predictions as this field can really make one look silly, but purely will follow them in this draw because of their results this year. 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. He has had some good results this year at the biggest stages as well and seems in good form to gain a spot in a major draw for the first time. Meeting him gave me an insight of 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 the Logan airport to his hotel in Newport. Had a hit of 45 mins on grass and played his second match in less than 24 hours on a different surface. He won that match but ended up losing in the second round of the qualifying to eventual finalist Matt Ebden of Australia. He then hung around at the same venue for the remainder of the week as a bunch of other Indian players were in the doubles draw. That validated to me how difficult and lonely the tour life is. I ended up spending some more time with the Indian players that week. 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. He has followed up that result by reaching the second round of Cincinnati 1000 event this 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.
Another young man who I am keenly following is Aussie Akira Santillan. Santillan has been in news sometime back for switching federations. He went to play for the Japanese team and then more recently had come back to play under the Australian flag. Santillan has had his tennis do the talking of late especially when he bagged the title in Winnetka IL, beating Ramanathan in the finals. Since then he has recorded some 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 does pack 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, while grew up he idolized Carlos Moya. Santillan plays an exciting brand of tennis in a generation where styes have become quite monotonous and is a player to definitely keep on your radar. Like many other younger guys it is about the process at this stage and how much he can absorb at this level. His first round is one of the better matches of the draw with 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 of late and took note of the fact he has won quite a lot, not necessarily titles but tennis matches. He has amassed a total of 47 wins in all forms of competition this year and has not played a hard court match coming in to New York. There is no substitute for winning and the Italian will be aiming 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 of late. He has played lot of matches in the recent past and is someone who is was ranked as high as 73 few years ago. He is coming fresh from a 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 and following his pursuit will be one of the many fascinating accounts of this week of tennis.
Let the games begin!