The players from any nation where a Grand Slam or Masters 1000/Premier event takes place are lucky; between the trove of wild cards and qualifying slots (a total of 17 places in the men’s draw at Indian Wells this year, and 20 in the womens’), the opportunities are abundant.
Eight of those 17 spots in the ATP draw went to men from the USA — five by way of wild cards. And five of the 20 places in the WTA draw went to American women, four by way of wild cards.
Of course, players who qualify get more props than those who are in with wild cards, the latter often being veteran dead-enders or wide-eyed kids who are shoved out there by their national federations like some sort of lab experiment. Why not roll the die? You never know when someone will pop out of nowhere to set your event ablaze, the way Melanie Oudin did at the U.S. Open in 2009.
The USA had 15 men in the ATP qualifying event, including such familiar names as Robert Kendrick, Jesse Witten, Robby Ginepri, Alex Kuznetsov and Wayne Odesnik. Only three of them made the cut: No. 11 seed Kuznetsov, the veteran Ginepri, and the surprise in the trio, Daniel Kosakowski. So let’s take a look at the American wild cards and qualifiers who played their first round matches yesterday. They were those only in the top half of the draw — the bottom half starts today.
Ginepri, the 31-year old whose game has faded in and out throughout his career like a radio signal during a long care ride, found himself in a tough jam. He made it through qualis, but ended up paired in the first round with Paul-Henri Mathieu. Mathieu been ranked as high as No. 12, and he has four main tour titles to his credit — one more than Ginepri. The French veteran is still on the radar at 32 (suddenly, not such an advanced age in the ATP) and living on the cusp of direct entry. He handled Ginepri with ease, 6-2, 6-3.
Kuznetsov’s fate perfectly illustrated the problem with having so many fellow countrymen vying for a place in the sun in the homeland. He drew one of the most dangerous floaters in the tournament, No. 57 Sam Querrey — an experienced, explosive guy who could use a few good wins. He got one over Kuznetsov yesterday, 6-3, 6-3.
Wild card Ryan Harrison justified the gift with a straight sets win over Andrey Golubev, while Rhyne Williams — another U.S. wild card, fell to French veteran Jeremy Chardy.
The biggest disappointment of all for American fans had to be the loss by wild card Jack Sock, who’s so often described as America’s great hope for the future. A 21-year old ranked No. 102, Sock played a terrible match (see my Racquet Reaction) and lost a three-setter, a disappointment mitigated only by the fact that he lost to fellow American, direct-entry Tim Smyczek.
Nobody has called Smyczek the future of anything, but as Tennis Channel commentator Jim Courier justly pointed out, Smyczek has carved out a very nice little career for himself as an entertaining, creative player. In any event, he has more of a future at Indian Wells than Sock does, that’s for sure.
So in the top half of the draw, the only American wild card or qualifier who lives to fight another day is still-struggling Harrison, who faces 13th-seeded Fabio Fognini next.
On the WTA side, the entire first round was completed by yesterday evening. And among the five U.S. women who took one of the 20 slots reserved for qualifiers or wild cards, three reaped the bonus of a first-round win.
The highlight of the day for U.S. tennis was wild card Taylor Townsend’s impressive win over Italy’s Karin Knapp, a solid 26-year old presently ranked No. 49. Townsend played an excellent tiebreaker, winning it 7-1, and gave up just one game in the second set. It was her first pro tour victory since last year at this same event in the same round.
Now under the wing of former perennial top-tennis and Wimbledon finalist Zina Garrison, Townsend is a gifted youngster. But the weight and fitness issues that generated so much controversy on the eve of the 2012 U.S. Open are not likely to go away any time soon. The issue is too complicated to go into here but certainly deserves to be re-visited at an appropriate time.
Coco Vandeweghe, a 22-year old who stands 6-foot-1 and generates plenty of power — too much of it still put to poor or errant use — also logged a good win. A wild card (in more ways than one, if you’re familiar with her game), she handled Roumania’s Alexandra Cadantu with ease, 6-4, 6-0.
The third of the wild card fleet to make good was Shelby Rogers, who hammered the Czech Republic’s Petra Cetkovska, 6-0, 6-4.
The only American WTA wild card who lost in the first round was the 18-year old Haitian sensation, Victoria Duval. She absorbed a cruel lesson at the hands of Alisa Kleybanova. Duval played her heart out but she still lost a close one, 6-4 in the third.
So all in all, it would be hard to describe the four wild cards (out of a total of eight) doled out to American women as wasted. But it was also a pity that only one of the four American women who entered qualifying survived to play the first round. That was Allie Kiick, and she was in over her head in the main draw, losing to Japan’s Kurumi Nara 6-4, 6-0.
All in, qualifiers and wild cards from the U.S. are 4-6 as of this morning, putting a little black into the red, white and blue. But with three of the men in that group to play today to complete the first round, the U.S. contingent of special entires could still end up above .500. Dare we hope for a sweep?