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To Be Determined: Snapshots From U.S. Open Qualifying

Skip Schwarzman

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Skip Schwarzman -- Tennis With An Accent

I first went to the US Open in 1970. Forest Hills. I was there again in ’71. I met Bob Falkenburg’s father, standing next to him while watching Pancho Segura have a doubles knockup on an outside court. I kneeled under the green screens on the fencing to film the pros. (Where’d that film ever go?) I saw Althea Gibson hitting. I was there to fill out Ceci Martinez and Esme Emanuel’s questionnaire about women’s tennis.

I’m a lucky guy.

But my US Open tennis curriculum vitae was incomplete: I’d never been to the qualifying tournament. (Was there one in ’71? Or did you just send in an application with your national ranking and keep your fingers crossed?)

After years and years of going to Flushing Meadows, I finally made it to see the qualies. What follows are observations from flittering from match to match on Tuesday, August 20.

— I can’t say it’s a feature of the qualifying tournament, but the weather was great, much better than what I’m used to at the Open. Typically it’s hot hot hot, with lots of direct sun. While it would get as hot as 90º last Tuesday there was always a breeze; in many ways perfect for tennis, if at times a bit warm.

— For someone accustomed to going to the Open the scene as we approached the entry to the National Tennis Center was, well, surreal; no crowds, no lines to get in. I saw so many features I had never previously seen on the grounds before. I’m so used to the place being packed to the rafters that I almost didn’t know how to navigate without there being a full house.

— My friend Andrew and I went to see Asia Muhammad play Basak Eraydin of Turkey. I clearly have not kept up with the American junior scene: Muhammad is 28 years old. They grow up so fast! The most telling aspect of the match, which Muhammad won 7-5 6-1, is the coaching Muhammad receives, during the match, in full voice, from her coach, who was sitting 12 feet from me. There’s no attempt to hide it, none, and no attention paid to it by the chair, Eraydin, or the spectators sitting right beside the coach. To say it was flagrant is to devalue the meaning of the word. It would have been more properly called arrogant except that it’s implicitly obvious that it goes on all the time. And I don’t mean it’s Muhammad who does it all the time, but a whole slew of players.

If we believe main draw players should get dinged when their coaches are caught sending signals, or worse (and I do), then clamping down on this in lower tier tournaments has to happen. Quite frankly it was embarrassing to hear how blatant it was. It should have been embarrassing, anyway.

— We took a look at Ha-Lae Nan vs. Magdalena Rybarikova. The Slovakian has been ranked as high as 17 (March 2018), has won four singles titles, and made the semis of Wimbledon in 2017. Now she’s No. 163. I can’t claim to know why she’s fallen so low in the rankings. Her game has been described as difficult to play against; she does mix it up on the backhand between slices and topspin, she varies her shots’ trajectories some, and generally moves well enough. None of which was sufficient to get her the W however. She went down to the double-handed forehand of Nan, 4-6 6-3 6-3.

What I did notice was the first example of what’s apparently a fashion trend (having seen more of them in subsequent matches): the barely-a-skirt-skirt or, as Andrew wants to name it, the skort. Having grown up in the retail clothing biz I know there’s already such a thing as a skort, however, so we leave without giving the new style a name.

— If Bethanie Mattek-Sands is playing and you don’t go to watch her, you miss seeing one of the real competitors in tennis today. Of course she’s coming back from that horrific knee injury (a dislocated right kneecap and a ruptured patella tendon) at Wimbledon in 2017. Her movement to her right is hampered, that’s clear, yet she makes a real match of it versus Ana Bogdan of Romania, losing 7-5 7-5.

The loss included a questionable call on Bogdan’s last serve; Hawkeye is not being used at any of the qualifying matches, so Mattek-Sands had no recourse other than to say, “But the ball was so far out!”

Is the lack of Hawkeye an issue of finances? Would the USTA have to pay extra to use it during qualifying? If so I say the USTA should be spending the money. It’s not as if the tournament doesn’t record substantial income; 20 years ago Gene Scott reported that the USTA netted $60M from the Open. Numbers aren’t readily available today, but the gross revenue was at least $350M in 2018. It’s the most successful multi-day ticketed event in the sports world. Is it too much to expect that players fighting for a place in the main draw, at the exact same facility used for the Big Show, should compete under the same rules as will be used the following week? I think that’s a reasonable request.

One other thing about this match: We noticed that each player’s changeover seat had a flexible, ribbed tube next to it. From watching Mattek-Sands, it appears the tubes deliver cooled air to the players to use as they will. BMS used it for the full body cool-down, with the tube under her jersey (note the flapping of the fabric):

VIDEO LINK (click to download):

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— After wandering around we ended the day watching Rogerio Dutra-Silva (Brazil) and Peter Polansky (Canada) as they went to a fifth set. No staid match, this, there was “aggro” aplenty. Polansky evidently was irked by the Brazilian’s extended grunts, which all happened after the ball had left his strings. It was rude, and extreme, but in today’s game not unheard of. In response Polansky made a point of exhorting himself loudly when he won points, and the tension between them mounted. More than once there were fist pumps that didn’t stop until the fist-pumper had made eye contact with his opponent. It got pretty heated.

To the credit of both of them, they channeled their anger in a positive way. Points were well played, frequently long, with plenty of great gets and sharp shotmaking. In situations like this you find yourself wondering why the players you’re watching aren’t in the top echelon; surely the tennis they’re displaying is good enough for them to hang with the best, and occasionally challenge.

But even an ATP 250 tournament needs you to be this sharp, or better, for five matches. To really be at the upper level you have to do just as well the next week… and the week after that. Being a truly top-shelf tennis pro is about more than just how you’re able to hit the ball. Among other things it’s also about how often you do it.

It’s been said the US Open qualifying is the best deal in sport: entirely free entry, a fabulous facility that’s so empty you feel it was built just for you, and nail-biting, do-or-die tennis that, without exaggeration, can determine a player’s future. I will not miss it again next year. If you have any chance to go don’t miss it, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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