The US Open Qualifying Tournament features a wide range of characters in a four-day prequel to the main event.
It starts simply. There are no opening ceremonies. No speeches, no fireworks, no celebrity singers. Just two players, two racquets and two cans of freshly opened balls. The first match begins as quietly as one played amongst friends in a park, with a single ball tossed to the air.
But when the ball is struck and beelines over the net cord at 125 miles per hour, the similarities end. This is the 2004 US Open Qualifying Singles Championship. Two hundred fifty-six men and women are targeting a goal that is at once unifying and decidedly divisive: to earn one of 32 vacant spots in the main draw of the season’s last Grand Slam.
The game’s stars are never seen in qualifying matches — even when their rankings fall beneath the cutoff for the US Open, they receive a wild card to proceed directly into the main draw. However, the lack of celebrity never creates a dearth of drama. The epic of the qualifying tournament features a varied cast of characters, from young rookies seeking their first break to storied veterans pursuing their last.
“You generally see some players who used to be Top 100 but bounced out, maybe due to injury, and they’re just trying to work their way back,” says veteran player Paul Goldstein, indirectly relating his own reasons for playing the 2004 qualies. “You also have some young guys who get a chance to be exposed to big-time tennis. And you also have guys who are really ready to crack through but haven’t been on tour long enough to be in the Top 100. There are a lot of different types of players in the field.”
Goldstein followed a stellar 1990s college career with two seasons ranked in the ATP Tour’s Top 100, high enough each summer to earn a spot in the US Open’s main draw. But in 2001 Goldstein’s ranking declined. He’s had to play the qualies ever since, each year losing in the second round.
In 2004, at 28 years old, Goldstein is again fighting for a spot in the main draw. He breezes through his first two qualifying matches, losing only 13 games.
Being relegated to the qualies is not an indication of skill-level; these players are not the tours’ slackers. “Basically, you’re playing against the top 128 players who are not in the main draw,” says Glenn Weiner, a tour journeyman playing in his fifth US Open Qualifying. “The lowest ranked player you’re going to face is usually around 260, and on the other end you’ve got to play someone who’s just missed the main draw. All of these guys probably have a chance to make a break-through and become Top 50. It’s not an easy tournament.”
While Goldstein had early-career success on the ATP Tour, Weiner did not. Examining Weiner’s bio in the USTA Pro Circuit Media Guide, one might tire of reading the phrase “attempted to qualify.” From 1997 to 2002, a time in which he underwent shoulder surgery and fought other injuries, Weiner “attempted to qualify” for 12 Grand Slam events — and reached the second round only twice. In 2002, his Circuit record was 6-7, his ATP Tour record, 0-1. His career had high points — he’d won two Circuit events and was runner-up at three — but in 2003, when his ranking sunk too low to play even the qualifying event in Flushing, he decided it might be time to retire.
Then something ironic happened. Weiner started winning. He won a Futures event in Claremont, Calif.; he advanced to consecutive Circuit semifinals; he qualified for an ATP tournament in Tokyo, then another in Ecuador, where he made the semis. The winning continued — in 2004 Weiner qualified for the Australian Open and Wimbledon, and by mid-summer his ranking reached No. 119. It was a career high, but still too low to earn a spot in the main draw of the US Open. So at 28 years old, Weiner is playing the qualies at Flushing for the first time since 2001. And he’s playing well — like Goldstein, Weiner wins his first two matches.
On the younger end of the 2004 men’s event is an 18-year-old who had played countless hours on the courts of the USTA National Tennis Center, but none in professional matches. Mykyta Krovonos lives in Flushing, just 10 minutes from the NTC. It’s one of his home parks, one of the facilities he uses when he wants to hit with friends.
Krovonos’ development in junior tennis was stalled in 2003, when two surgeries and a staph infection sidelined him for eight months. He rehabbed in time to have a strong 2004 season, including a quarterfinal finish at the U.S. National Championships. Four days later, he received a message that the USTA had awarded him a wild card for the US Open qualies.
Krovonos’ first qualifying match is a noisy local happening. “All my friends came and cheered for me,” he says. “Even [my opponent] Janko Tipsarevic said to me, ‘I wish I had some fans like that in my corner.’ ”
The fans at the US Open Qualifying Tournament are a devoted lot. Admission to the event is free, but the lack of stars in the draw keeps the crowd at a moderate size. Some are merely curious onlookers, locals with a free afternoon, searching for free entertainment. But most attendees are dedicated and knowledgeable tennis fans. They appreciate what’s at stake. “I like watching the unseeded players battling it out,” says Arnold Horenstein of nearby Melville, N.Y. “For many of them it’s the one chance of a lifetime to make the main tournament.”
For Bish Makuch of Queens, N.Y., the attraction is seeing a preview of tennis’ future. “I like to see the young faces,” he says, “kids I don’t really know, who I’ve never seen before. I’m hoping maybe to see one of them come into the main draw and do well there, too.”
In 2004, Makuch’s wish is granted. He sees Shikha Uberoi. Uberoi’s story is about capitalizing on opportunity. After spending some time as a junior in the 14s, she skipped playing tournaments for three years. She attended Princeton University, where she played No. 2 singles for one season. At 21, she is awarded a wild card for the 2004 US Open Qualifying Tournament. She doesn’t squander it.
Uberoi wins her three qualifying matches, each in straight sets. Along the way, while looking for practice space, she’s offered an opportunity to use the court in Arthur Ashe Stadium; she declines, saying that if she ever plays on center-stage, she wants it to be because she earned the experience.
On Day 2 of the US Open, under a nearly full moon, in front of an enthusiastic late-night crowd at Court 4, Uberoi rebounds from a 0-3 third-set deficit and wins her first-round match. She becomes only the second wild-card qualifier ever to win in the main draw. Her reward? A second-round prime-time bout with Venus Williams in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Uberoi loses to Williams 7-5, 6-1. But she treasures the experience. “I had such a good time that I’m actually sad it’s over,” she says. “This is the biggest party I’ve ever been to. I’ve never had anyone cheer for me that loud in my whole life.”
Meanwhile, in smaller stadiums, other stories have reached their own finales.
Journeyman Weiner misses his chance to qualify for his third Grand Slam of the season. Despite winning his first two matches, in the third he encounters another hot American: Goldstein.
Goldstein wins 6-3, 6-2, advancing to his first appearance in the US Open main draw in four years. He wins one match before falling to No. 15-seed Paradorn Srichaphan in the second round.
Krovonos, the hometown hero, doesn’t fair as well. He loses his first-round qualifying match in straight sets. “I lost,” he says, “but it’s a good loss. I can learn from it, and next time play a little better.” Despite the result, Krovonos says the match is the highlight of his life in tennis.
With a $1 million purse, the 2004 US Open Qualifying Tournament is the ninth most generous tennis event in the U.S. Losing in the final round provides Weiner an $8,000 prize for a few days’ play. But the money doesn’t comfort him. Like so many fellow opponents, Weiner’s goal wasn’t to collect cash, but to win a place for his name on the draw sheet of the 2004 US Open Championships.
“Even if you win a couple of matches,” Weiner says, “it’s not much of a good feeling. If you don’t qualify for the US Open, it’s a heartbreak.”