Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Quietly Playing the Qualies

Several of the chapters in my novel Red Dirt take place in the qualifying draws of the French Open and the U.S. Open.  This week the Australian Open qualifyings are going on, a largely forgotten part of the tournament that precedes the main draw. Here’s a blog post I wrote about the U.S. Open qualifyings in August 2008.

Most tennis fans consider the Grand Slams a two-week event, but in reality, there are three weeks of play starting with the qualifying draws — what insiders refer to simply as the “qualies.”

The qualies are a battle of 128 players hoping to win three matches to earn one of 16 open spots at the Open table. For those who have cracked the top 100 before, the qualifying tournament is a dreaded sign that their game has fallen and may never get back up

Last year’s U.S. Open qualifying draw included longtime pro Andrei Pavel who is 0-5 this year and ranking has plummeted to 237. Other players, however, like Rainer Schuettler, who also played last year’s Open qualies, have proved you can play the qualies and still turn their careers around; Schuettler reached the Wimbledon semis this summer and is now ranked 34. But for less-accomplished players -- youngsters on the way up and journeyman pros who’ve never cracked the top 100 -- it is a chance to reach the main draw of the U.S. Open, perhaps the greatest feat of their tennis careers

Reaching the main draw also means a substantial payday for low-earning players: first round losers in the main draw earn $16,500. Professional tennis at the minor-league level is a very tough row to hoe. While everyone obsesses over Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, there are legions of players battling it out for peanuts and coveted-ranking points on the Challenger and Futures tours

Consider that the 147th best baseball player in the world earns a few million year in a guaranteed contract that will be paid even if he injures himself in April and misses the season. In tennis, Sam Warburg, the American ranked 147th in the world as of Aug. 10, this year has earned only $68,201 and has career earnings of a mere $231,207.  That’s a pittance when you consider the expenses of travel and training professional tennis demands.

For fans, the Open qualies are an excellent alternative for those who find attending the main draw of the tournament too crowded and too expensive. Attendance at the qualifying tournament is free, and there are always multiple matches taking place on the outer courts from which to choose.

There are no binoculars required to see the matches, as is the case if you have upper level seats in the Arthur Ashe Stadium in the main draw. From the top sections of Ashe, the view of the court is about the same as a window seat from the airplanes taking off and landing at nearby La Guardia.

At the qualies, you can sit in the front row.

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