Players converge in the carousel capital of the world this week, playing for a ticket to ride into the U.S. Open.
The road trip to the New York City major begins at a Southern New York Challenger. The Levene Gouldin & Thompson Tennis Challenger, a $50,000 USTA Pro Circuit men's tournament in Binghamton, N.Y., celebrates its 20th anniversary this year and serves as a launching pad for players' U.S. Open aspirations.
The USTA will award an American man one main-draw wild card into next month's U.S. Open based on performance in four USTA Pro Circuit events played over the next four weeks: Binghamton, Lexington, KY, Vancouver, and Aptos, CA. A year ago, Steve Johnson won the wild card and advanced to the third round before falling to Richard Gasquet.
Binghamton, which is about 190 miles north-west of New York City and earned its nickname as the "Carousel Capital of the World" because it boasts the largest collection of antique carousels in North America, hosts the nine-day tournament on public park courts at Recreation Park. It's a big-time tennis in a small-town setting: Center court is surrounded by a row of houses behind the baseline, a baseball field, and, naturally, a carousel. Admission is free for the qualifying rounds, with main-draw tickets selling for $3 a day Monday-Thursday and $6 a day Friday-Sunday for the tournament semifinals and finals. Operated by Tennis Charities of Binghamton, a registered USTA Community Tennis Association comprised solely of volunteers, the tournament turns a solo sport into a community effort.
"The public park setting promotes a sense of community and makes it easy for tennis enthusiasts and anyone interested to come watch world class tennis up close and personal," says 14-year tournament director Laurie Bowen, a retired former teacher and postal worker who knows a bit about navigating obstacles. Bowen, who began playing tennis at age 35, is such a devoted 3.5-level tournament player that she plays with a cadaver tendon in one leg and a CTI brace on the other. "There is a pool and a carousel and fields nearby—so it's a great setting for families and the entire community. The level of play is phenomenal."
Several American men—including top-seeded Rhyne Williams, Donald Young, Bradley Klahn, Alex Kuznetsov, Christian Harrison (the younger brother of Ryan Harrison), and ITA National Player of the Year Jarmere Jenkins—are in the 32-player field that also features 2012 Wimbledon doubles champion Frederik Nielsen.
"Getting acclimated to the courts and conditions for New York is always helpful, and for me this is my favorite time of year because we're in America playing on hard courts and American fans want to see you do well," says Young. "I grew up playing in a park like this one so it's more calm and relaxed atmosphere. But once you get out on the court it's really the same feeling. The guys here are very hungry and the guys at the top are very hungry as well. In tennis, everyone wants to win everywhere."
The 2012 U.S. Open singles champions each collected checks of $1.9 million, while the Binghamton champion earns a more modest $7,200. But past results show that Binghamton has been a hot spot for rising players and veterans playing for revival.
In 2005, a rangy kid clad in Fred Perry clothes named Andy Murray defeated Alejandro Falla, 7-6 (3), 6-3, to capture the Binghamton title, nearly a year after he won the U.S. Open junior championship. Past Binghamton champions include Kei Nishikori (2010), former Australian Open champion Thomas Johansson (2007), Ivo Karlovic (2003), and Grand Slam doubles champion Leander Paes, who took a set off Andre Agassi at the U.S. Open two years after winning the 1994 singles title. Lleyton Hewitt, James Blake, and Mark Philippoussis have all played Binghamton before.
Flushing Meadows Park once served as the site of the World's Fair; Recreation Park isn't big enough to host the county fair. Therein lies a chunk of its charm. This is world-class tennis played in the intimacy of a local public court where you not only see the strain of effort—you can smell the sweat and hear the players exhorting themselves or chatting with their supporters on court. Serbia's Ilija Bozoljac stood behind the baseline chatting with his wife and watching his young daughter in the front row while waiting for opponent Chase Buchanan to return to court after the second set of their opening-round match yesterday.
"This is the third time I've been back to Binghamton; they always do a great job putting on the tournament," says Klahn, who is ranked No. 161 and seeded fifth. "You try to approach every tournament with the same mindset because you've still got to go out there and hit the tennis ball, try to bring your best and focus on the process rather than the result.
"I think a lot of American guys look forward to playing in the States during the summer hard-court swing: In Binghamton, you're playing on the same surface as the U.S. Open, the conditions are going to be hot, humid and toasty which is good preparation for the U.S. Open and you feel comfortable kind of playing in your own backyard."
In Binghamton, the pros pretty much clash in the locals' backyard. Watch the free web streaming of the tournament this week and notice that several homes overlooking the public park courts are so close to the court that fans can watch the action from their windows. Volunteers—most of whom are passionate tennis fans—create sight lines by building the tournament from the ground up.
"One of the challenges of being the tournament director is making sure that we have the finances in place to cover all of our bills and expenses. Another big challenge is setting everything up at Recreation Park in advance," says Bowen. "We have no bleachers in the park, so we have a crew of about 30 people who set up the risers, bring in the seats, get our windscreens up, and create our own pavilion. We have a friend of the tournament from Canton, N.Y. who donates nine golf carts for us to use every year. It truly is a community-wide effort and requires a lot of coordination before, during, and after the event."
Many of the most distinguished champions in American history—Don Budge, Jack Kramer, Pancho Gonzalez, Tony Trabert, Maureen Connolly, Billie Jean King, Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert, Venus Williams, and Serena Williams—grew up playing in public parks. The volunteers who staff the event believe the growth of tennis in America remains rooted at the local level, and cultivate area players by partnering with nearby school districts throughout the year. A 10-and-under and high school clinic are conducted during the tournament, and wild cards are awarded to local players. Twin brothers Alex and Ian Van Cott—who grew up attending the tournament, graduated from nearby Unatego High School, and now play for Tulane—received wild cards this year.
"The LG&T Tennis Challenger has a pulse and a life of its own. It's about community and people coming together to put on this event," Bowen says. "We have to be out of the park in three days after the final, so we ask everyone to take a chair out with them as we begin to tear down the site. It's crazy how you forget all the trials and tribulations that go into setting up the tournament. As soon as it's over, I am already thinking about next year."