I saw Keri Russell, the star of Felicity, on the train to Flushing Meadows, which seemed like a good sign. But she got off somewhere in Manhattan. There are no celebrities at the qualifying tournament of the US Open.
Instead there are players who’ve spent their lives at the game and are struggling to stay in it. All they want are points. Points (along with prize money) are the foundation of professional tennis. They determine the rankings and rankings determine who can play the most point-rich tournaments—so players travel around the world like knights, plotting and training for the wins most likely to maximize their numbers.
Those who make it to the US Open qualifying tournament are usually ranked between 100 and 250 in the world. (The top 100 go directly to the main draw. Sixteen spots are left open for qualifiers.) Prospective qualifiers fly in from around the globe with their coaches, put themselves up in New York, and for this they receive $3,000 and only the possibility of points. The rewards get better later in the tournament—players who escape the qualifiers’ third round are guaranteed $19,000, fifteen points, and a spot in the main draw—but it’s worth keeping in mind what it’s like at the top. Winning the US Open guarantees 2,000 points and $1.6 million. Roger Federer, the top-ranked men’s player, currently has a little more than 12,000 points and has earned $50 million in prize money in his career. By contrast Alexandra Stevenson, the 28-year-old daughter of Julius Erving, is ranked 240 and has made $21,000 so far this year.
The US Open qualifying tournament is said to be the seventh-richest tennis event in the US, but the brutality of the tour is more obvious here than at most other tournaments. Winning this tournament means you have to turn around and play a more difficult one right away. One loss and you go home.
Walking down the boardwalk from the train to Flushing Meadows is kind of exciting. It feels like going to the beach, a feeling enhanced by an audio recording of an aggressive pigeon, placed under the steel eaves of the station to scare the other pigeons away.
The qualifying tournament is played entirely on the outer courts that surround the two stadiums, so watching is more casual. Matches go on simultaneously and with no clear hierarchy, so it makes sense to walk from one to the next, as though they were part of a tennis theme park. Many of the spectators seem to know the players, which makes talking about them slightly awkward. Anywhere from five to one hundred people gather around each one of the matches, and after they lose, most players walk off the court and disappear into the crowd.
Some vendors were closed during the qualifying event but there were still a lot of things to consider buying. There were picture books at the US Open Bookstore and starchy skirts at the Lacoste store, which seemed most appropriate for enthusiastic tennis mothers. There was a huge replica of a tennis ball near the courts with the word “Lexus” stamped on it and people posed for photos with it as though it were a tennis player or their friend. Eventually I bought an aromatic sandwich and an enormous yellow Gatorade, which I had to abandon abruptly when they became the target of swarming, fearless late-season bees.
The first match I saw was American Lilia Osterloh against South African Chanelle Scheepers in the second round. When I played high school tennis in Palo Alto, Osterloh was something of a celebrity. Playing for Stanford, she won the NCAA Championship in 1997. Three years later she was ranked 44 in the world and reached the “round of 16″ at both Wimbledon and the Open. (At the Open in 2000, she took Elena Dementieva, now ranked 4 in the world, to three sets.) After twelve years on the tour, Osterloh is ranked 220. She quickly lost her second-round qualifying match to Scheepers, a 25-year-old who recently reached a career high of 137. Neither player is young by women’s tennis standards, but they represent two types who appear at qualifying tournaments: players who hope for unprecedented results and those who try to recapture past success.
Most players compete in the qualifying in obscurity: they have always been there or have returned to it. But there was a crowd watching Carsten Ball, a 22-year-old who is six-foot-six, long-limbed, and left-handed. Ball has been on the tour since high school, slowly creeping up the rankings. He plays the classic serve-and-volley game that many longtime spectators prefer to watch. He has an extremely hard serve and aggressive court presence, and takes risks to hit winners. Ball wore the same white checked shirt and blue hat both days I watched him play, and constantly rushed the net in a way that looked both crisp and gawky. His throwback style is likely the influence of his father, Syd Ball, a champion doubles player in the seventies. Syd Ball coaches his three sons in Newport Beach, but Carsten competes as an Australian.
Ball beat 29-year-old Argentine Diego Alvarez in the first round of the qualifying in two sets, although it took him two tie-breakers. His second-round match, which was also close, was against the South African RiIk De Voest. The South African is half a foot shorter than Ball but, being an accomplished doubles player, he didn’t hesitate to come to net. On many points, Ball followed him there and seemed to chase De Voest back. De Voest looked like the more polished, consistent player and as though he might beat Ball—until he made three consecutive errors in the third-set tie-breaker, and it was over. Ball’s straightforward third-round win, which guaranteed him a spot in the main draw, was against Japanese player Tatsuma Ito, a 21-year-old who just joined the tour and couldn’t return Ball’s serve.
Somdev Devvarman, who graduated last year from UVA, plays a different type of game. Devvarman, like Ball, is in his early twenties and ranked about 160, but unlike Ball, who often wins points on aces, Devvarman prefers to outlast his opponents. He has risen quickly in the rankings since he joined the tour last summer, mostly on the strength of superlative fitness and consistency. He stands far back from the baseline, moves quickly, and returns practically every shot in the manner of an athletic firefly. The points in his matches tend to be long and slowly wear down his opponents, and over the summer Devvarman has become increasingly unbeatable.
Devvarman, who grew up in India, came to the US for college. He has become a hero in his home country: the newspapers follow him closely and he has almost 2,000 fans on Facebook. Devarrman met expectations in the qualifying, beating several other relatively young players: 26-year-old American Alex Bogomolov (whose father was a well-known Soviet coach), 22-year-old Igor Sijsling from the Netherlands, and 18-year-old Jerzy Janowicz from Poland. Sijsling was the only one who took a set off Devvarman, but Janowicz was also impressive to watch. He’s as tall as Ball, with the look of a beanstalk, hits the ball extremely hard, and comes to net. The problem for Janowicz was that Devvarman can get almost every ball back and Janowicz was more inclined to make mistakes.
Ball won his first main draw match but then ran into fourth-ranked Novak Djokovic. Devvarman also made it to the second round before losing in four sets to 24th-ranked Philipp Kohlschreiber, another consistent, superbly fit baseliner with seven more years of tour experience. The most successful qualifier was 27-year-old Swiss player Marco Chiudinelli, who for the second time in his nine-year career made it to the US Open third round, where he fell to ninth-ranked Nikolay Davydenko.
Both Devvarman and Ball won at least 45 points and $31,000.