NEW YORK – Grand Slam qualifying is a tournament unto itself, a high-level competition involving pretty much every player who isn’t currently ranked in the top 100.
There are youngsters getting their first taste of a major since they were juniors.
There are former highly-ranked players who are either on the comeback trail from injury or retirement.
And there are players who are not what they once were, but still in the game because in the end, what’s better?
There also is prize money. And the prize money isn’t bad at all – a total of $3 million US.
Players will get $8,000 just for showing up, $16,000 if they can win a round, $30,000 if they can win two and reach the final round – and $54,000 if they can get through and reach the main draw.
It’s a tournament-within-a-tournament that generates plenty of storylines on its own. And the best is that admission is free, if you can get to New York City.
Former top players still fighting
Four years ago, the Latvian was in the top 10. In July 2017, he was No. 589. But while he has fought back up the ranks, playing the Challenger circuit, he still hasn’t yet broken back into the top 100.
And if it weren’t for his efforts at the last two Grand Slams, we probably wouldn’t be talking about him at all. He qualified and reached the second round in Paris. And then he qualified and reached the round of 16 at Wimbledon.
Since then, he has played two matches, and lost them both.
First-round opponent Christian Harrison qualified at Wimbledon for the first time last month. But he has a lot more experience at the US Open. So when you look at the other players in their section, that’s a tough one to kick it off.
At 39, the big-serving Croat is at his lowest ranking in five years. A year ago in New York, he was in the top 40.
Karlovic played the qualifying back in 2013, when he was coming back from a nasty Achilles injury. And he made it; he then upset James Blake in the first round before losing to Stan Wawrinka.
Before that, you have to go back to 2003.
Karlovic probably has more “big-league” experience than the rest of his section combined. Which doesn’t mean he’ll get through. But you kind of get the feeling he will.
Now, will this be his final Open? That’s another question.
At 36, you wondered if the former world No. 5 was going to make it back to the Grand Slam level, as he enters his third decade on Tour.
Robredo missed most of 2016 after right elbow surgery, something he had been struggling with for quite awhile.
He’s been inside the top 200 for about 14 months now. But he’s not tested himself in the majors beyond the French Open.
Robredo reached the second round of the main draw in 2017 on his protected ranking.
And this spring, he lost in the first round of qualifying to Simone Bolelli of Italy.
(Bolelli went on to get into the main draw as a lucky loser, the record fifth time for him in his career. But more on that later).
It feels though there are a lot of clay courters in this section. Imagine if Robredo and Nicolas Mahut – who is fourtmonths older – ended up the last two standing and played for a spot in the main draw.
Bernard Tomic and Thanasi Kokkinakis
The law of the draw will always turn on someone at a Grand Slam.
And this year, the hammer falls upon former top-20 player Bernard Tomic and former rising star Thanasi Kokkinakis.
Tomic, the ultimate enigma, had a super patch of play in May and June when he put together a nice streak of match wins after hardly playing at all the first four months of the season.
He reached the final of a Challenger in France and qualified for the French Open (where he lost to the feel-good story of the first week in Paris, Marco Trungelliti).
He went from the qualifying to the semifinals in ‘s-Hertogenbosch on grass, then qualified and reached the second round at Wimbledon.
But he lost his first match at his three appearances on the North American hard courts. And in the first round of qualifying at the Rogers Cup against American Bradley Klahn, he literally didn’t even try.
The reason given, after Tomic had played one match in each of the previous two weeks, was “fatigue”. He hasn’t played since, so he should be plenty rested.
As for Kokkinakis, the road back from shoulder surgery (and then an abdominal strain) has been a tough one. In 2015, there were only four teenagers in the top 100, and he was one of them (along with Coric, Chung and some kid named Alexander Zverev). He and Nick Kyrgios were going to be the new wave from Down Under. But the wave crashed, and Kokkinakis is still trying to come up for air.
He’s had his moments – beating Milos Raonic at Queen’s, Roger Federer in Miami this year. There have been plenty of “lowest-ranked player to beat so-and-so since … forever” type of milestones. But starting back without a ranking in May 2017, the best Kokkinakis has been able to reach is No. 148.
Kokkinakis won a Challenger in California two weeks ago, then pulled out of the Vancouver Challenger last week before his second-round match. The official reason was an abdominal strain.
Who will win this one? You’d expect a few Aussies to be watching even though Lleyton Hewitt, the Davis Cup captain, is busy playing doubles in Winston-Salem. You hope they’ll at least finish it.
The two played three times in 2015 – before both their careers stuttered. Tomic won both matches played on hard courts.
All eyes will be on Félix Auger-Aliassime, the newly-minted 18-year-old who upset Lucas Pouille in the first round of his first Rogers Cup main draw two weeks ago.
He nearly pulled off the next match, as well, before falling to Daniil Medvedev in a heartbreaker.
A year ago, as the defending US Open junior boys’ singles champion, Auger-Aliassime ran into veteran Sergiy Stakhovsky in the second round of the qualifying.
This year, he returns as the No. 9 seed, at a career-high ranking, and you’d think he has a pretty good shot.
He doesn’t give up a ton of experience to the other players in his section, with the exception of Australian lefty Jürgen Melzer, who is twice his age.
As it happens, Auger-Aliassime ran into Antoine Hoang twice during his spring clay-court Challenger tour, and defeated him 6-3, 7-5 on both occasions.
Another Canadian, Filip Peliwo, drew No. 5 seed Marcel Granollers in the first round. Granollers, a top doubles player who also has been a very good singles player, has been playing all over the place this summer to try to raise his ranking.
Peliwo is capable – he posted a nifty straight-sets win over Malek Jaziri in the first round of the Rogers Cup.
This is Peliwo’s fourth attempt to qualify at a Slam this year. He lost in the first round the first three times although at Wimbledon, he had a tough draw in Gulbis.
Will Polansky be the luckiest loser?
As for the third Canadian, No. 12 seed Peter Polansky, all tennis fans with an eye for minutiae will be anxiously looking to see if he can pull off the quadruple-impossible: get into the main draw of a Grand Slam as a lucky loser for the fourth time in a season.
Polansky squeaked in in Australia, Paris and Wimbledon.
Let’s just say he’d rather get in by winning his final-round match. But he’s not unaware of what an anomaly that is.
As it happens, should Polansky get through to the final round and meet the other seed in his section, it will be lucky-loser central.
Simone Bolelli also made it into Roland Garros and Wimbledon as a lucky loser. They were the fourth and fifth such moments of luck in his career. And that’s a record.
Other than Donald Young, who has a fairly high ceiling, you’d have to think these two are the favorites to get to Friday.
Notes from here and there
**If Jürgen Melzer and Gerard Melzer win their first-round matches, they will meet.
That has happened just twice before, and never on a hard court.
**There are two players from the Dominican Republic in the draw, which probably has not happened before.
Victor Estrella Burgos, now 38 and ranked No. 265 (he squeezed into qualifying because his ranking was higher than that at the deadline), made his big splash here four years ago.
At 34, he was playing his first US Open main draw. And he got a whole lot of attention. He also defeated Igor Sisjling (then in the top 75) and a young Borna Coric in the second round, before putting up a lively fight in a loss to Milos Raonic.
He hasn’t won a match in New York since.
Right below him in the draw (but they’re not playing each other) is No. 227 Roberto Cid Subervi, who is playing in the first Grand Slam qualifying event of his career. It would have been too much, had they ended up meeting in the first round.
***An all-Brit affair between Liam Broady and Jay Clarke should be a good one.
*** The former top junior bowl: Miomir Kecmanovic vs. Reilly Opelka
The American Opelka, who turns 21 next week and is 6-foot-11, has had a pro career has been a slow-developing storm so far.
He was the Wimbledon junior champion in 2015. But after closing out his junior career the following month in New York, he’s been beset by some injuries and so far, his career-best ranking is No. 125. He currently stands at No. 173.
As for Kecmanovic, who turns 19 next week (three days after Opelka) he reached the junior boys’ final in New York two years ago (losing to Auger-Aliassime).
A few months later, he won the Eddie Herr – Orange Bowl double.
Currently at No. 199, Kecmanovic’smelze career high was No. 176, reached in Feb. 2018.