US Open Men’s Qualifying Preview – Question Marks Everywhere

Ivo Karlovic
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The US Open Men’s Qualifying Tournament, one of the wildest events of the season, is finally here after it was canceled in 2020 due to pandemic concerns. 128 players will battle for 16 main draw spots during four thrilling days of action. It actually seems that this year might be even more unpredictable than the ones that came before. Many seeds are clay-court specialists, and due to the lack of hard-court Challenger events in recent weeks, most of the players will be lacking matchplay on hard courts. Without further ado, what are some of the most exciting matchups and storylines of the next four days in New York?

US Open Men’s Qualifying Preview

Popcorn matches

  • Thanasi Kokkinakis vs Bjorn Fratangelo

While he’s still unable to do so consistently, Thanasi Kokkinakis has shown real glimpses of his potential throughout the season (the match against Tsitsipas at the Australian Open, Biella Challenger, etc). His forehand is undoubtedly among the best shots in the whole competition and Kokkinakis had to be at the very top of the unseeded floaters’ list before the draw was made. His chances to qualify are now lower because he’s going to face someone who wouldn’t be far off from that spot right away. Bjorn Fratangelo has a Challenger title on American hard courts this year (Cleveland), and is as solid as they come, also possessing a brilliant forehand that’s less powerful but perhaps even more accurate. This should be a cracker.

  • Christopher O’Connell vs Altug Celikbilek

Christopher O’Connell has limited himself to playing Tour-level events this year and made a couple of very nice runs, including a quarterfinal in Atlanta, where he took out Jannik Sinner. He’ll be the favorite of this first-round clash, but one shouldn’t sleep on Altug Celikbilek. The 24-year-old is having a breakthrough season on the Challenger Tour, capturing hard court titles in Porto and Pozoblanco. His serve-and-forehand-oriented game has been doing wonders on that circuit this year and O’Connell will have to be on top of his game from the get-go.

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  • Bernabe Zapata Miralles vs Stefan Kozlov

Bernabe Zapata Miralles has already shown a couple of times this year that he’s not a clay specialist like some thought. The Spaniard had a really good summer, mixing Tour-level events and a couple of Challenger titles (Heilbronn and Poznan). While it’s been years since Stefan Kozlov was considered the next American prodigy, his last two tournaments on the Challenger Tour were some of the best tennis we’ve seen from him in a while. This could be a very interesting matchup of Kozlov’s defensive skills trying to withstand Zapata Miralles’s heavy topspin forehand.

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Favorable draws

  • Maxime Cressy

It hasn’t been a great year for the serve-and-volleying American, but Maxime Cressy should really like the draw he’s been handed in the qualifying campaign. Left out of US Open wild card choices, he should be hungry to prove he shouldn’t have been omitted. His section features numerous clay-court specialists like Guido Andreozzi and Vit Kopriva, and the other seed in there is Hugo Gaston. Even not playing that well recently, all the matches should be on Cressy’s racket.

  • Benjamin Bonzi

The top seed has already amassed 34 wins at the ATP Challenger Tour this year, including three titles (two of them on hard courts: Segovia and Potchefstroom). The Frenchman has recently debuted in the Top 100 and while he’s yet to make a big impact on the main tour, that week will come sooner or later. He was already close at Wimbledon, qualifying to take Marin Cilic to tight four sets in the second round.

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  • Zizou Bergs

It’s the 22-year-old’s first Grand Slam qualifying event, so it’s possible that nerves will be a factor. However, Bergs found himself in another section full of clay-court players. His opening round against the ninth seed Juan Pablo Varillas would be a nightmare on the dirt, but on hard courts, the Bergs forehand should be by far the best shot on the court. The other seed in that section is the struggling Joao Sousa. The Belgian’s mental strength has considerably improved in recent months, and despite looking lost at the beginning of that part of the season, he even managed to make clay work for him with a Challenger title in Almaty. Back to hard courts, he should be a threat.

Storylines to follow

  • Alex Molcan, Jiri Lehecka, Holger Rune

All recent Challenger Tour winners on clay, they’re going to have to translate their game to another surface. With many players lacking hard court preparation, it seems like Alex Molcan could go deep here, especially as he’s already come a set away from qualifying for Wimbledon, on a surface that was much less suitable for him.

Jiri Lehecka enjoys playing on hard courts a lot more than the other two and he won the event outdoor hard event that he participated in (back in February on the ITF Tour). His fast-paced game translates really well to this surface and outside of Ilya Marchenko, there aren’t many threats in his qualifying draw.

Holger Rune has just captured back-to-back titles on the Challenger Tour, which is going to leave him lacking hard court practice a tad more than the rest of the competitors. He also founds himself in a really difficult section and hasn’t played on this surface since February on the ITF Tour.┬áIt’s a huge question mark but it will be interesting to see if the talented Dane can leave his mark on his first Grand Slam qualifying campaign.

  • Samir Banerjee

The recent Wimbledon boys’ singles champion has received a wild card here. This is a really long shot, and asking him to beat seasoned pros is probably way too much at this point. One shouldn’t underestimate his talents, though, and since Wimbledon, Banerjee showed up only in Atlanta qualifying, losing to Sebastian Ofner. The match could have gone the other way around had he converted more break points, though, and the American’s game seemed like one that could allow him for a smooth transition to the pros. Probably not that smooth, but watch out.

  • Ivo Karlovic

There’s no official confirmation, but Ivo Karlovic announced at Los Cabos that he would retire at the US Open, unless he did really well in the next month or so. The 42-year-old Croat hasn’t won a match since then, so this is probably going to be his last tournament. Karlovic has played a limited schedule this year, still grabbing a couple of main tour victories in Delray Beach and Newport. The section of the draw he’s landed in is really soft, but there’s nothing you can be certain about at this stage of his career.

Main Photo from Getty.