Michael Shaw shares his memories of the U.S. Open’s qualifying tournament
Ten years ago, Aussie Pat Rafter won the U.S. Open men’s title, defeating Canadian-turned-Brit Greg Rusedski in four sets. Though Rafter was known as a very talented player and received ample attention going into the Open that year, he certainly wasn’t among the favorites. Frequently self-aggrandizing commentator John McEnroe made the mistake of calling Rafter a “one slam wonder” after his win. Rafter responded by dominating the following year’s summer hardcourt season, taking titles in Montreal and Cincinnati before winning his second Open title (over Mark Philippoussis). As it turned out, those two U.S. Opens were Rafter’s only slams, though he did make the finals of Wimbledon, also in consecutive years. This past summer he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
As the landscape of the game has shifted over the last decade, it’s highly plausible that Rafter will be the last unheralded player to win a men’s slam title. OK — if not that, then at least the last winner of a Slam who had at some point in his career played in the qualifying of the same event. In 1993, during Rafter’s first year with a full schedule on the tour (he turned pro in 1991), I was able to see him play the qualies — the tournament of 128 players competing for 16 spots in a tournament’s “main draw”.
The little I knew of Rafter at that point had come from catching a glimpse of him on TV earlier that summer, his debut at Wimbledon as a 19-year-old; I believe he was playing Agassi in the third round (and lost). In the Open qualies, he was the #1 seed, which may have raised my eyebrow enough to lead me back to him. Here was the epitome of ‘slash and dash’ tennis: each serve was followed by an aggressive rush to the net, where sometimes he would crash and other times he would burn. He wound up losing his match, the third (and final) round of qualies, to a guy from North Carolina named Brett Gardner (?); odds are pretty good you’re not familiar with him.
I can only guess, in retrospect, that Rafter’s kick serve hadn’t quite evolved to where it needed to be: getting him close enough to net where he could easily put away volleys. Instead, he was making many of his first volleys at the service line, as opposed to inside it. Or, on second thought, maybe I’m remembering wrong: maybe he was getting in really tight to net, but his opponent was making great passes, and Rafter’s volleys weren’t yet up to snuff. In any case, he lost, but he looked great in the process. Because a player in the main draw had to withdraw due to injury, Rafter -– the highest ranked player to make it to the last round of qualifying -– got in as what’s called a ‘lucky loser.’ No matter: he lost the first round to Doug Flach (the younger brother of former doubles star Ken).
The bottom line is that I was able to see Rafter in his early development as a pro, well before he was getting hype beyond Aussie shores. His career arc is impossible to mimic these days. The current crop of players their peak years at about age 20, or they come into their own as late as 24-25, a la James Blake, but none of those who are now in the top 20 -– including Blake — ever played qualies.
Beyond Patrick Rafter, the U.S. Open qualifying matches I have witnessed feature a very short list of players you (may) have heard of: Thomas Enqvist; Mikael Pernfors; Wayne Black; Kenneth Carlsen; a number of Americans whose names you’ve never seen, or in some cases I can’t even recall myself. Speaking of Kenneth Carlsen and unknown U.S. players, by the way: Carlsen, a perennial participant in the qualies, lost in a tight first round match last week to American Eric Nunez, the 405th-ranked player in the world (Carlsen, who has played in 12 (!) U.S. Open main draws, is currently at #263).
This year’s top seed in the qualies was Canadian Frank Dancevic, who squeaked by Czech Jan Hernych 8-6 in the second set tiebreak (Hernych himself has played in two main draws. Having main draw experience has to be considered noteworthy among those in the qualies). Dancevic is currently ranked 63rd, which would have been good enough to get him straight into the main event, but back in late July, around the time when the USTA determined the straight-in entrants to the Open, he was at 109. That was just when he had his run at Indianapolis, beating Roddick on the way to the finals, where he lost to Tursunov. Dancevic now has the honor of playing Marat Safin in the first round, which is either a curse of a gift, depending on the day (one kind of hopes Safin pulls it together this year, as he’s one of just three players that could potentially upset Sir Fed).
As I haven’t been out at Flushing Meadows to watch the qualies since 2001, I can’t tell you if and how they may have changed. I would suspect that, as was the case throughout the ‘90s, some of the matches draw a relatively small number of fans, making it an intimate setting on many courts. Such was the setting for my most memorable qualifying moment, from the same year I saw Rafter: I was watching a young Canadian player, Andrew Sznajder, in the second round. He was short at about 5’8”, and I had seen him play the qualies the last couple years. The year prior he had won all three rounds and made it into the main draw.
So there we were: about ten or twelve hardcore fans scattered among the low bleachers on the far side of the complex, watching this Canadian fellow battle it out in a tense, tight match. As hardcore fans are wont to do, some nut sitting near me was asking aloud -– to no one in particular -– who this player was. Knowing as I did about this guy’s past, I decided I’d share with him, maybe shut him up.
“He made it to the main draw last year — lost in the first round to Wheaton,” I said, several notches above a whisper.
As I said it, it seemed almost pin-drop quiet. Oops. Sure enough, the young Canadian had heard me: he looked over from where he was waiting to return serve and shot me a piercing glance, annoyed, and perhaps vengeful, one that essentially said: “shut the f@#% up, you friggin’ idiot.” Which of course I did. It would not have been good etiquette to leave then and there, in the middle of the game, so I stayed for a bit longer and tried to swallow my shame. But as soon as the other guy held serve, I got the hell out of there- off to find that year’s #1 qualie seed.
Michael Shaw writes about tennis and other subjects for the Los Angeles Times, and is also an artist. He can be reached at michaelshaw_sar AT yahoo DOT com. For TSF, he previously wrote about Roger Federer.
For more U.S. Open coverage, check out: