NEW YORK—It’s hard to think of a sporting event where the difference between the players and the fans is as vast as is it on the last day of the U.S. Open qualies. For the competitors, this is a life and death moment—or at least a “make a living or don’t make a living” moment. All of them have won two matches this week, but they need to win one more to get where they want to go.
That's the main draw, of course, the Big Show, and in 2013 getting there means even more to these struggling pros; 39 percent more, to be exact. That’s how much the Open has increased the prize money for first-round losers this year. The 32 winners today will be guaranteed to walk out of Queens with $32,000 dollars. That’s enough to make life a good deal more secure on the road for the rest of the season. The clearest sign of how important it is to the players comes when they shake hands. Forget the hugs and grins we see from the stars on the ATP tour these days. Here the players are more likely to greet each other with a cold clap of the hand. It’s hard to ask more of the loser. When a match between two big-name pros ends, the player who didn’t win still walks off a millionaire. Not in the qualies.
For the fans, of course, life is a little different. In theory, they understand what this day means to these players, and when a qualie veteran like Donald Young is in action, they gather round to root him on. But for the spectators this is mostly a chance to enjoy a fine, warm, sunny weekday afternoon. For now, there’s room to walk on the grounds and sit in the stands, the lines at the food court are nonexistent, and no one has paid a dime to be here—aside from the $21 to park and the $15 for a brisket sandwich, of course, but we won’t count that now.
Retirees, students, tourists, slackers, the unemployed, moms and their kids, the tennis obsessed decked out in their playing clothes: We wander from match to match, trying to pronounce the players’ names. For the most part, the applause is light, but the chatter is conducted at the normal New York volume. Twice when cell phones rang near me today, the owners weren’t in any hurry to turn them off.
Desperation on court, diffidence off it: That was the theme at Flushing Meadows, as the U.S. Open continued to stir to life. Here are four highlights from do-or-die Friday.
That’s the sound I hear as I approach Ivo Karlovic’s match with Andrey Golubev on Court 7. There’s really no word to describe the sound of Karlovic’s first serve. It’s like a pistol shot sent through an amplifier—you expect smoke to come off his strings after he hits it.
As usual, Karlovic is using that serve to put a stranglehold on a match. He’s up a set and a break, and Golubev knows he’s running out of time. At 3-4 in the second, he scratches his way to 30-30 on Karlovic’s serve. When Dr. Ivo casually wipes that half-chance away with an ace out wide, Golubev stares across the net at him and mutters hopelessly. He takes an angry practice cut at a forehand, but what does it matter? Karlovic hits another ace to hold.
Karlovic serves for the match at 5-4; he’s four points from playing in his first Grand Slam since he was struck by viral meningitis this spring and spent days in the hospital, unable to talk. On his first match point, he tightens up and hits an easy forehand volley into the alley. Fortunately, the serve is there to rescue him, and on his second match point, Karlovic makes no mistake with it. When the 34-year-old’s final pistol shot smacks into the back fence for another ace, he looks up and points to the heavens. When he looks back down, there’s a tear in his eye.
Like the sound of Ivo Karlovic’s serve, there’s no way to describe Michelle Larcher de Brito’s shriek in writing. It’s a high wail that gets higher as it goes, before seeming to blow away into the wind.
Larcher de Brito’s U.S. Open hopes are on the verge of getting blown away as well. She’s raging around in the back court after every missed shot, and one of her serves bounces off the top of the frame and shoots straight up, 30 feet into the air. Her opponent, Elena Baltacha of Great Britain, serves for the match at 5-4 in the second set.
But just when Larcher de Brito appears ready to snap, the seemingly calm Baltacha beats her to it. At 15-30, she watches as a shot that she thinks is going to land long instead clips the baseline beneath her—she lets it go and loses the point. After that, she can barely put a ball in the court. And when she does, she tries panicky drop shots that Larcher de Brito easily runs down. In minutes, Baltacha is down set point. Still panicked, she tries another drop shot, and Larcher de Brito hits another winner for the set.
Baltacha, after being one game from the Big Show, wins just one game in the third set, as Larcher de Brito qualifies. On qualie day, you never know who's going to melt down.
“No, no, no”
Alex Kuznetsov, who mutters the three words above in the third set of his match today, is a familiar qualifier type: The Next Big Thing who never quite made it big. I can remember being impressed by him when he reached the French Open junior final in 2004, the same year that Brad Gilbert touted him as a future Andy Roddick.
Eight years later, the 26-year-old Ukrainian-turned-Pennsylvanian has a 4-18 career record as a pro and is currently ranked No. 163. Today, though, Kuznetsov appears to be the stronger player. His opponent, Stephane Robert of France, has a weak, abbreviated serve, and Kuznetsov has more pop on his ground strokes. But as anyone who has ever tried to judge the talent of a young tennis player knows, appearances can be deceiving. It’s hard, specifically, to judge how consistent a player will become, and Kuznetsov isn’t as consistent as Robert.
Kuznetsov serves at 3-4 in the third set. Robert goes up 0-40; Kuznetsov brings it back to 30-40. The next rally lasts long enough that you get the feeling the match will hinge on it. Kuznetsov is again the stronger, but more inconsistent player. After pushing Robert around, he sends a backhand long.
Robert holds for the Show. The handshake is over in a hurry.
That’s what 18-year-old Aussie Nick Kyrgios does when one of his opponent’s serves lands an inch long. It’s a move you see a lot on the men’s side, but it’s still surprising to see a teenager do it to a veteran opponent.
It’s surprising to see a teenager doing much of anything on the men’s tour these days; the prodigy is a dying breed. And Kyrgios, the 2013 Australian Open junior champion, is still learning the ropes. But at least by today’s evidence, he goes about his business in a mature way. He wins that way, too, grinding out the last three games of the third set to beat 29-year-old Malek Jaziri, a 10-year veteran.
Kyrgios has the usual assets: He’s a loose and lanky 6’3,” has a serious serve, and a sharply whipped Western forehand that he can flatten out in a big way. After one of his sonic shots misses the baseline by an inch, the woman next to me sums up the general feeling in the audience.
“Jesus Christ,” she says.
Kyrgios, for the moment, is that familiar qualie type: The Next Big Thing. And as usual, it’s hard to say how big he’ll make it. Time, for now, is on his side. But as so many of the players at Flushing Meadows today know, time doesn’t take long to leave you for someone else. There's always another Next on the way.