Just last Sunday, Ernests Gulbis was the toast of Delray Beach. He wiped out two of the tournament’s top seeds, Sam Querrey and Tommy Haas, and toppled Edouard Roger-Vasselin in the final. He held press conferences and signed autographs.
Just a few days afterward, though, Gulbis was in the southern California desert, trying to adapt to the altitude and time change, and vying with the likes of Uladzimir Ignatik and Mohamed Haythem Abid for one of the 12 coveted places in the Indian Wells singles draw that go to survivors of the qualifying tournament.
At big tournaments these days, the qualifying event might as well be the first round of the main draw, what with the talent on hand. Familiar names outnumber the unknowns, which is small consolation to the men and women trying to rise up out of the purgatory that is qualifying.
At this year’s tournament, hopeful male qualifiers included Dmitry Tursunov, Philipp Petzschner, Matthew Ebden, Frank Dancevic (pictured at top right), Sergiy Stakhovsky, Jesse Levine, and Ivo Karlovic. On the women’s side, we have the WTA’s very own version of Gulbis—Karolina Pliskova, who won a tournament just last week in Kuala Lumpur.
If you wondering why Gulbis and Pliskova were forced to qualify, it’s because their rankings at the cut-off date for entry into Indian Wells were too low for direct entry. Some qualifiers invariably play with the added pressure of knowing that their rankings are good enough for direct entry—or would have been, had they achieved them a week or two earlier.
Other well-known WTA pros in the qualifying tournament included Anastasia Rodionova, Stephanie Foretz Gacon, Eleni Danilidou, Vera Dushevina, and Casey Dellacqua.
All of this makes qualifying events, which are usually open to the public at no fee, the best deal in sports. The best deal for everyone but the players, that is.
The best you can say for what Gulbis and Pliskova have been through in the last five days is that it’s been a potentially valuable “reality check.” Fine. Some would say that’s just what the underperforming Gulbis has needed all along. If so, he handled the trial well. Gulbis qualified for the main draw this week with wins over up-and-coming Christian Harrison (a wild card in the qualies) and veteran Olivier Rochus.
Plisokova wasn’t so fortunate. Fresh off a win in her very first WTA final, the 20-year-old found herself paired—ironically enough—with another WTA finalist from last week, Olga Puchkova. A 25-year-old Russian, Puchkova hadn’t won a main-draw WTA match all year until last week, but she sustained her newfound momentum, hammering Pliskova, 6-4, 6-2, and then besting Renata Voracova to qualify.
No less an authority than Patrick McEnroe, the former Davis Cup captain and current head of the USTA Player Development Program, calls the final round of qualifying “the toughest W in tennis.”
McEnroe knows all about that. Thanks to his family connections, McEnroe was given so many wild cards at the start of his career that he set a record for most consecutive losses by one so honored. It served as a wake-up call, after which Patrick resolved to earn his way into tournaments. That forced him to work harder and it increased his satisfaction when he did belt and batter his way through qualifying.
“The thing with that last round of qualifying is that if you win and get into the main draw, you’re elated, no matter what happens after that,” McEnroe told me some time ago. “But if you lose, you have nothing to show for those two previous wins and you feel really empty.”
It’s a tough lot alright.
So let’s take a quick look at what lies in store for some of the men and women who did fight through the two rounds of qualifying at Indian Wells, because you’re not likely to get much of this in the standard tournament or daily previews.
Ernests Gulbis vs. Feliciano Lopez: This match, last on Stadium 2, is a tough one for both guys. Lopez, the Spanish lefty, has been struggling; Gulbis is on fire and up to No. 67, so he’ll have all the momentum on his side. He also leads the head-to-head 2-1, so you could be forgiven for asking “which guy is the qualifier?”
I have a funny feeling that many tennis-loving women of a certain age will flock to this match, if nothing else than to provide Judy Murray with some company. Don’t be surprised if some of them walk away all ga-ga over the wrong guy in this one.
Daniel Brands vs. Marcos Baghdatis: This tough assignment for Brands will precede the Gulbis-Lopez match. Baghdatis is a streaky player and hasn’t always been in the best of shape, so Brands would do well to avoid unforced errors and turn the match into a marathon. Easier said than done, though.
Philipp Petzschner vs. Dmitry Tursunov: This is the ironic match-up of two qualifiers, although I’m sure the lads agree it beats heck out of having to go out and play Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray in the first round. These are two of the more well-known pros who have been banished from the elite, direct-entry level.
Petzschner is on the direct-entry cusp at No. 119, while Tursunov has battled his way all the way up to No. 76, thanks mainly to a semifinal performance in Marseille. But he’s terribly erratic, so give Petzschner a good shot to improve his head-to-head advantage over Tursunov to 2-0 and, more important, move one step closer to the promised land.
Ivo Karlovic vs. Jack Sock: Consider this a good opportunity for both men. Sock, the 20-year-old American, is in via wild card. Karlovic had to serve his way into the main draw. Between Karlovic’s serve and Sock’s forehand, the balls are going to take a severe beating in this one.
Vasek Pospisil vs. Denis Istomin: Pospisil, No. 128 and surfing along quite nicely on the crest of the Canadian wave, has a good shot in this match. It’s just the kind of challenge that he’ll need to face and overcome in order to become a direct-entry player.
Mirjana Lucic-Baroni vs. Pauline Parmentier: Lucic-Baroni, a Wimbledon semifinalist in 1999, has been through hell and back as a burned out prodigy. But she’s still plugging away at age 31, and just missed direct entry (she’s presently ranked No. 109). This looks like a winnable match for Lucic-Baroni, who emerged triumphant after three tough sets in their only other meeting, a clay-court struggle in 2010 in Palermo. They’ll meet in the fourth match on Court 8 today.
Stephanie Foretz Gacon vs. Daniela Hantuchova: Fourth on Stadium 2, this match will be an ideal warm-up for the Gublis-Lopez match to follow. Hantuchova has won Indian Wells twice (stranger things have happened in tennis, but I can’t think of any), but she’s very erratic—which means that anyone is in with a shot against her.
Garbine Muguruza vs. Bojana Jovanovski: You could call this a battle of a present-day prodigy with one whose use-by date—at least as a prodigy—is about to expire. Jovanovski, now 21-plus, is doing quite well, although she hasn’t quite found the consistency and success some predicted for her. Venezuelan-born Muguruza is coming on strong despite being just 19. It’s one of those matches that might have a lasting impact on either player; Jovanovski needs the win.
The good news for the qualifiers, if not the elite ATP and WTA players, is that nobody is being thrown to the lions this time around. No qualifier has drawn a top player as a first-round opponent. As a group, they must feel relieved, although they undoubtedly will feel a little more pressure now, too. After all, going two or three rounds is suddenly conceivable, and you know what that can mean: A ticket out of purgatory.