On Friday, we looked at the eight wild cards in the men's U.S. Open draw. Today, we'll check out the elite eight women who earned—or conspired to secure by some other means—a free pass into Flushing Meadows.
It may not be right up there with winning the Poweball lottery, but any player who gets a chance to perform on the big sports stage in New York without having qualified for direct entry has to count him or herself very lucky (or very good). Here they are:
Bethanie Mattek-Sands, WTA No. 232: Not long after Mattek-Sands reached her career-high ranking of No. 30 in 2011, she was forced off the tour with a rotator cuff injury in her right shoulder. That was a terrible stroke of misfortune for the 27-year-old, who has been a shining example of a hard-working athlete who wants nothing more than to create a career and name for herself.
Something like a "typical American" from the heartland (instead of, say, "typical international tennis star"), Mattek-Sands is a dogged, gritty competitor who's played 11 consecutive U.S. Opens, and she's always made herself available to represent the U.S. in Fed Cup competition. Mattek-Sands won the Australian Open mixed doubles title this year with Romania's Horia Tecau, but has had trouble finding the confidence and form that once vaulted her into the Top 30.
Melanie Oudin, No. 106: Everyone by now knows Oudin; she had a magical run at the U.S. Open at age 18 in 2009, with the word "BELIEVE" scrawled on her multi-colored shoes. She defeated four Russian players (including Elena Dementieva and Maria Sharapova) and riveted the domestic audience until her run was ended in the quarterfinals by then up-and-coming Caroline Wozniacki. Oudin has had a lot of trouble dealing with effects of her sudden fame and notoriety, and has struggled on and off with her confidence.
This spring, Oudin appeared to take a big step forward when she earned the USTA wild card into the French Open (part of the reciporical agreement the USTA has with the French and Australian tennis federations), and she's been improving steadily since then. Given her history at the U.S. Open, you have to figure she'll get a wild card into the event any time she asks, and for the rest of her life, but her ranking presently is just two places lower than the cut-off for direct entry, which shows that this truly a "wild card" rather than a "pity card."
Nicole Gibbs, No. 307: She's the NCAA singles champion, on behalf of that well-known tennis powerhouse, Stanford University. Given the young age at which most women turn professional these days, and the state of the women's game, collegians are rarely more than red meat thrown to rank-and-file WTA players. But Gibbs, a 19-year-old sophomore, has excellent collegiate credentials. She's one of just three players to win both the singles and doubles championship in the same year. (The others were Stanford's Linda Gates  and UCLA's Keri Phebus .)
In July on the pro tour, Gibbs won eight matches to take the Denver ITF event, beating tour veteran Julie Coin in the final. And Gibbs won a main-tour match at Stanford. But odds still are still good that she'll have the fate of a typical collegian. The USTA rewards her with a trip to the big city, shows her the bright lights of Broadway and the jumbotron in Arthur Ashe Stadium—and then throws her to the lions.
Mallory Burdette, No. 246: So here's the funny thing. Burdette was the runner-up to Gibbs in the NCAA championships (the match was a tense and close three-setter), but she was also the the doubles partner with whom Gibbs made even more history for Stanford. Double(s) history, in fact, for in addition to Gibbs being in both finals, this was also the first time that opponents in the singles final teamed up to play (and win) the doubles title. Are you following me here?
How much all this actually means re. the U.S. Open chances of either Gibbs or Burdette is a question best left unasked for reasons I already mentioned above. However, Burdette's star is undeniably on the rise. She had a win over Anne Keovathong at Stanford, and won two ITF events (Evansville and Vancouver) and made the quarters in the another (Lexington, Ky.) in her last three tournaments.
I can also see a weird scenario here where Gibbs and Burdette, who's 21, end up clashing (again) early in the main draw of the singles at the U.S. Open.
Victoria Duval, No. 566: The ranking may be low, but this 16-year-old is a player to watch. A protege of the USTA player development program (and coach Kathy Rinaldi), Duval recently polished off five Top 10 seeds to win the girls' 18 national championship, hence the automatic wild card into the Open. While she's still so off-the-radar that she doesn't even have her own Wikipedia entry, read her backstory and I guarantee that you'll be out pulling for this young player of Haitian descent no matter who she meets in the first round.
Julia Cohen, No. 102: At 24, Cohen is a regular granny compared to Duval. She joins Oudin as the recipient of a wild card because she was on the cusp of direct entry and has been working hard to establish herself as a main-tour player; call it a "vote of confidence" wild card. I like that the the USTA chooses to reward the diligent among its constituents, instead of doing more horse trading than it already has to (see reciprocal agreements, above).
A native of Philadelphia, Cohen has had an up-and-down year, but recently built up her ranking to the point where she actually would have qualified for direct acceptance had the entry cut-off not passed. She got a big boost out of making the final at Baku during the last week of July. It was a WTA event, and she defeated a number of main-tour players before losing to No. 97 Bojana Jovanovski.
Casey Dellacqua, No. 109: This is Tennis Australia's nomination for the prized U.S. Open wild card. She's a 27-year-old from Perth and a 10-year tour veteran. Her highest career ranking was No. 39 (July, 2008). Dellacqua is a WTA journeywoman still striving to recapture her form of a few years ago. Her career highlight: Winning the French Open mixed doubles title in 2011, with American Scott Lipsky.
Kristina Mladenovic, No. 153: She's just 19 and not ranked all that highly, but she's already figured out what the big stars do and moved from her native France (although she is of Serbian descent) to Switzerland. Mladenovic won the French Open junior girls title in 2009, and was the top-ranked junior in the world for a period of time. She's 5-foot-11, packs plenty of power, and her current ranking is just 12 places lower than her career high (posted eight months ago). A win at the Open should push her past it.
Of course, "a win at the U.S. Open" is the dream of every wild card, especially a tour ingenue. And if Mladenovic needs to be convinced it can happen, all she need do is ask Oudin about the year 2009.