US Open Qualifying: The Most Intense Tennis Nobody is Watching

Indoor view focusing on Arthur Ashe Stadium US Open qualifying

Which has more pressure: lining up to try a field goal to win the Super Bowl in the final seconds, or betting $50 on a game of late night billiards in a pool hall, with only $10 in your pocket?

Pressure shifts when one’s well-being is on the line. While not the same as the personal danger a late night saloon wager can bring, the pressure of the US Open Qualifying Tournament is intense, draining. For 32 surviving men and women, the result sometimes makes or breaks a year or launches a career.

What is US Open qualifying?

The world’s Top 100 or so men and women in the world earn direct acceptance into the main draw of the US Open. This acceptance guarantees ATP or WTA level points, significant earnings, and the opportunity to play for riches and fame.

layers just outside the direct acceptance line receive an invitation to a pressure cooker, the US Open Qualifying Tournament.  The chasm between being the last direct acceptance and the qualies is one slot in the world rankings. The experiences are worlds apart.

The Atmosphere

Matches played in US Open Qualifying can vary greatly. A well-known name like Donald Young, scheduled to play in the 2019 event, draws several hundred fans to the stands, maybe a thousand. Relative unknowns, often from foreign countries and playing at off hours, play in relative obscurity. Often times, celebrity matches and practice sessions for top players draw more onlookers than actual qualifying matches.

In the first round of qualifying in 2018, Colombia’s Santiago Giraldo complained to the chair umpire about line calls. One of about two dozen spectators nodded in agreement. The hotly contested match was so sparingly attended that Giraldo literally made eye contact and pointed at the fan who nodded. Giraldo almost seemed to hope the fan could convince the umpire that the balls were out. Without fan help, the Colombian eventually survived Croatia’s Viktor Galovic 6-4 6-4.

Likewise, spectators do not always understand the perils of potential qualifiers. In qualifying Round 1 in 2018, young American Thai-Son Kwiatkowski faced Ukraine’s Sergiy Stakhovsky. After surviving in three sets, onlooking kids asked Kwiatkowski for his wristbands. “I am sorry, I can’t. I am not sponsored,” replied Kwiatkowski before quickly offering pictures and autographs.

The Stakes

In the Nordic Naturals Challenger Tour event in California in early August, world #79 Steve Johnson won the title. Johnson needed to win five matches to claim the trophy and $10,800 in prize money. With no players near a ranking level as high as Johnson, a single win in 2019 US Open Qualifying guarantees a player $18,000. Two wins in qualifying are worth $32,000.

Those who advance through three rounds guarantee themselves a whopping $58,000. While Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic eye the more than $3 million for winning the title, $58,000 might change a season for a struggling pro. Likewise, the ranking points, potential sponsorship opportunities and experience are critical.

The Format

Just days before nearly 50,000 live fans and a world TV audience turn their eyes to the US Open, 256 men and women compete in the qualies. Contested on the outer courts of the National Tennis Center, within the figurative–and sometimes literal–shadow of Arthur Ashe Stadium. The world stage is just so close…

Different from regular tournaments with a single winner, each event identifies 16 winners to move to the main event. The US Open Qualifying Tournament is essentially a set of 16 separate eight-person tournaments. The survivor of each pool of eight advances to the US Open, while the other seven walk away knowing what might have been.

To advance, a man or woman must win three consecutive matches in a five day period. The USTA announces the brackets less than 24 hours before the first matches start. Men and women both play standard best 2-of-3 sets.

Who Plays?

The collection of players in the US Open Qualifying spans a wide range. Multi-million dollar winners trying to reclaim past success play twenty-something journeymen hoping to break through. Teenagers that gained entry from stellar junior results match up with veterans returning from injury, and everyone in-between.

Those scheduled to compete in 2019 qualies include 30-year-old mens’ former world #38 Donald Young, and 18-year-old national junior runner-up Govin Nanda. Nanda currently holds world ranking spot #709! For the women, 2008 Wimbledon round of 16 player Bethanie Mattek-Sands and teenager Emma Navarro, who holds a world ranking outside the top 450, are scheduled to play.

Worth Some Attention

Event among tennis fans, few pay close attention to qualifying. ESPN and the Tennis Channel rarely televise any matches or even report results. Compared to the actual US Open, very few people attend. Even host New York City media stay away from giving the event any real coverage. They are missing out. Fans and New Yorkers love it, though–because attending US Open Qualifying is free for the public.

Some of the very best players lurking just outside the World Top 100 grind it out for a chance to make it to a Grand Slam event and sometimes, to keep their career alive. The pressure cooker starts Monday, August 19, at 11 AM. The drama often supersedes many main draw matches–even if nobody is looking.

Main Photo from Getty.