American Noah Rubin's wild journey to a wild card at Roland Garros

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Noah Rubin, a 22-year-old from Long Island, excelled in Challenger events to reach the main draw. (AP)

When the French Open commences on Sunday at Roland Garros, learned observers will be preoccupied with the leading competitors, wondering if Rafael Nadal can win an 11th crown, fascinated to find out if Simona Halep can secure her first major title at long last, and closely following a cluster of other top-of-the-line players. 

But fans who love to focus on the early stages of this Grand Slam tournament will be examining other participants who are more than worthy of their attention.

For American followers of the sport, 22-year-old Noah Rubin of Long Island will be someone to watch. Here is a compelling performer currently ranked No. 204 in the world who garnered a wild card into Roland Garros after outperforming everyone else at a pair of Challenger events held in late April and early May. He was victorious in Tallahassee, Florida, taking the title with a 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 triumph in the final over Marc Polmans.

Although Rubin fell in the first round the following week in Savannah, Georgia, he collected more points than anyone else in that pair of tournaments, and was rewarded with a wild card into Roland Garros.

Rubin was filled with gratitude about the wild card and the opportunity it provides to him. In the fall of 2015, he accumulated the most points in Challenger events held in the U.S. to gain a wild card into the 2016 Australian Open, upending world No. 18 Benoit Paire in three consecutive tie-breaks for a stunning victory, before bowing out in the second round. This time around, he hopes to make the most of his first appearance ever in the main draw of Roland Garros.

“Regardless of how I do at the French Open,” he says, “this is about putting myself in the position to be competing against the best players in the world. 

“I am excited. I have had some great results at the Australian Open a couple of times and I think those performances in 2016 and 2017 will give me the confidence and knowledge that I can play against these players at the French Open. I am ready to just get out there and play. I played in the juniors in Paris two or three times and in the men’s qualifying once. I was fortunate to get the wild card this year.”

Luck indeed played a role in Rubin’s journey to Paris. After his 6-4, 7-6 (6) defeat against Michael Mmoh in Savannah, he could only turn into an apprehensive spectator from afar as Mmoh and Reilly Opelka reached the semifinals. Either of his countrymen could have potentially overtaken Rubin in the point standings, but their bids ended with semifinal defeats; Mmoh to Hugo Dellien and Opelka to Christian Harrison.

Rubin monitored both of those contests on live streaming, from home.

“I was watching and I really thought Michael was going to win that match,” says Rubin. “He kind of let Dellien into the match. Christian played really well against Reilly, so it just came out in my favor. 

“It was just lucky. I am just happy now to be where I am and to have the wild card. I want to make the most of this opportunity.”

After enduring some bizarre injuries, a debilitating slump and his share of tough setbacks, Rubin is an American in Paris who stands to gain invaluably from the experience.

“It has been a roller coaster for me,” he says. “It really has. I have yet to have a full year on the tour. I think that is a testament that when I have some time to put forth a great effort like trying to get the wildcard, I am able to do it.”

Why has been Rubin been so susceptible to injuries that have kept him out for long stretches—was it a case of overtraining or overplaying? He has the explanation.

“The two big injuries I have had,” says Rubin, “were both because of freak accidents. One occurred in 2016, prior to the grass-court season. I was just jogging and I literally twisted my ankle. I went in between two cement rocks. That was just a freak thing that happened at Saddlebrook in Florida. That kept me out for four-and-a-half to five months, and then obviously it took me a while to get back into it.

“The second injury came last year. I had qualified for the ATP 250 tournament in Houston and I was playing Nicholas Kicker in the first round. The courts were nowhere near up to par. We got the grounds crew out there but, in the fourth game, I fell on my wrist. That was a bad one. I missed the whole rest of the clay season, missed the grass season and didn’t play until the US Open. Everybody knows how tough it is to come back from injuries.”

After all of that disruption in 2016 and 2017, Rubin opened 2018 stylishly, capturing a Challenger tournament in New Caledonia over Taylor Fritz. He then went to the Australian Open qualifying, and was routed by fellow American Mackenzie McDonald, 6-1, 6-0. But Rubin puts that shocker into perspective.

“I had obviously done well in Australia in both 2016 and 2017, but I came out this year against a firing Mackenzie McDonald,” he said. “I mean, the coaches from the USTA were just laughing. Everybody was saying that if he played like that he would get to the second week of the Australian Open, and he almost did. He should have taken out [Grigor] Dimitrov, but he lost 8-6 in the fifth. 

“There are very few times in my career where I have looked back—especially with a score like that—and said I could have won a few more games, but he was playing just great tennis. It was really not on my racquet.”

In the space of a few weeks, Rubin had been reminded how loaded the landscape is with quality players. From winning a Challenger, he had come upon a fellow American utterly in form and unconsciously brilliant. He would then reach a couple of quarterfinals at Challenger events but then fell into a six-match losing streak. But a resolute Rubin recovered his winning ways at an ITF Futures tournament at Orange Park, Florida in the middle of April. Winning there fueled him for the stirring run through Tallahassee that propelled him into the French Open.

Addressing the brief slump that preceded his remarkable successes, Rubin acknowledges that it was discouraging. 

“It definitely was,” he says. “There are a few matches here and there where you are saying, ‘Oh, I have this match’, or ‘This is a great opportunity’. I went to Spain and lost first round in the qualifying of a Challenger [in Marbella]. It is just crazy how fast tennis turns. I felt like I was playing okay tennis but the confidence drops just a little bit. 

“You are like, ‘Oh my God, I am healthy for the first time. Let’s make a jump.’ With that kind of pressure you lose track of what is really important and the overall scheme. I am young and I still have time, but I was rushing it. Rushing the process never works out. Putting extra pressure on yourself when there is already enough pressure in tennis is a mistake.”

He soon rectified the situation, slowing himself down internally, building his game back to where he wanted it to be. Playing Orange Park was a wise move. 

“I wasn’t playing there for the ranking points. People can say what they want, but this was for my confidence and to get some great practice on clay. I was like, ‘Noah, you are fine. You are playing great tennis Just get out and play.’ And obviously that showed when I won in Tallahassee.” 

“I was playing smart tennis there. The way I was striking the ball, it was going to be very tough for anybody to beat me, and I knew that. I had the confidence, and it built with every match. I did have some pressure because without that tournament I was not making it even into the qualifying for Roland Garros at the time. But I didn’t let it get to me. The final with Mark Polmans took a lot out of me psychologically, but it was a great week all around.”

It could well turn out to be a great year across the board for Rubin if he can avoid further injuries. This past week, he made it through the qualifying for the ATP 250 event in Geneva on the dirt. Yesterday, he upended 2006 Australian Open finalist Marcos Baghdatis in the first round of the main draw in Geneva.

He believes playing a lot of clay-court events early in the season will serve him well. Going to Spain and elsewhere allowed Rubin to see some new faces and confront some different competition.

“I thought it would be good to go overseas and see that level of tennis on clay early,” he says. “We get surrounded by other American tennis players and it is great that there are so many of us, but we kind of beat each other up. It gets to the point where you want to see other tennis and see what is out there. Seeing the same names over and over again on the U.S. tour and the same people talking gets monotonous. It can be dreary after a while. I think it helped me to get to a different level of clay court tennis, so when I got back to the States it gave me a leg up and put me ahead of the others.”

Having said that, Rubin makes it abundantly clear that he has genuine appreciation for the camaraderie that has developed among all the young American players.

“We share so many unique experiences together,” he says. “Only we can understand, because we have been on the court together. I have played all of these guys and won and lost against them all. It is just great because there is this friendly competition and we want to beat the other guy out. That is how the best players have gotten to the top. A lot of tennis players will tell people that I keep to myself a lot. My closest friends are not tennis players. But, that being said, we as players are still very close and we follow and root for each other. I know that at least ten percent of us will get to the second week of Slams and that is exciting to think about.”

Rubin and the other young American players often congratulate and commiserate with each other—and have a laugh at each other’s expense. 

“With somebody like me, when I have been out for a while, [Frances] Tiafoe will make a joke like ‘Oh, you can still play tennis?’ So we do have that banter back and forth. Deep down, for the most part, 99 percent of us are all good guys and want the best for each other.”

Be that as it may, Rubin recognizes that his workplace is essentially a world of your own.

“I don’t play tennis for other people,” he says. “I believe I can play with these other guys. I was taken out of a lot of discussions [with the injuries] about whether I have a future in tennis and whether I am going to be good. I have always been professional, but I have upped the professionalism of how I train.”

He pauses before concluding, “Tennis wise, I am just believing in myself and understanding that a lot of these guys aren’t that good. We are all at the same level. Every time I step on the court, I am going to make it a war. I don’t know if everybody is ready for that. There is no limit to what I can accomplish. Now I am in my first main draw at Roland Garros. Even at the top level of Slams I know I can beat a lot of guys. I am excited to see how it all turns out.”

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