NEW YORK—It was reckoning time, that point in some matches when two players simultaneously sense that a potentially decisive point beckons, that the match has reached some sort of crossroads. They can feel it in their bones.

Shahar Peer, once No. 11 in the world but currently the top seed in the U.S. Open qualifying tournament, was in trouble today out on Court 11. She had lost the first set to Ksenia Pervak, no slouch herself, 6-4. And now Peer had been broken for the second time to fall behind 2-5 in the second set. But serving for the match, Pervak fell behind 15-30, then hit a double-fault.

A restless murmur raced like a breeze through the crowd, and for the umpteenth time the umpire asked some spectators to halt their meandering as, apparently unbeknownst to them, a tennis match was in progress. Now, as Pervak prepared to serve, she danced lightly from foot to foot, looking across the net at Peer, who also began to hop around, signaling that she was ready for whatever Pervak had to offer. They danced and dipped, bounced and bobbed like two corks adrift on a tempestuous sea.

It’s often like that in qualifying, the pre-tournament that determines the sixteen qualifiers who will make each of the two main draws. It’s a stressful thing, trying to qualify, particularly for a certain class of player—the one consisting of players who are trying to bang and battle their way out of the horse latitudes of slump, or the insecurities that attend taking time off for any reason, chiefly injury these days.

Patrick McEnroe, the ESPN commentator and former pro and Davis Cup captain, believes that the last round of qualifying is the toughest match in pro tennis. Win and you’re in; one of the lucky 32 qualifiers. Lose and you’ve just wasted two usually hard-fought wins—unless you happen to make it into the main draw as a lucky loser.

But in truth, there’s pressure in every round of qualifying, because it’s the ultimate dog-eat-dog situation in tennis. You may be shocked to know that the U.S. Open pays a healthy $1 million in qualifying prize money. First-round losers earn $3,000 (not bad work—if you can get it) and each of the 32 third-round losers receives $8,638. Successful qualifiers technically get nothing for their effort; the justification is that in any event they will earn big, main-draw money. Pretty crazy stuff, eh?

The players who have the most fun in qualifying are eager, talented youngsters to whom the entire tour experience is new. But neither Peer nor Pervak qualified as such. Peer is a 26-year-old Israeli who lost her game somewhere along the way, not long after she peaked at No. 11 early in 2011. Perhaps it was because she had to keep listening to all that talk about how easy it is to attack her so-so serve, but back and hamstring injuries didn’t help her cause, either. She’s back to No. 80 now, a big step up from her dip into the 120s earlier this year. But she didn’t get to her present ranking quickly enough to earn a direct acceptance in the main draw.

Pervak, a 22-year-old Russian currently ranked No. 156, has been ranked as high as No. 37 in the world (Sept. 2011). You might be tempted to describe her as injury-prone or perhaps even something of a hypochondriac; in 2012 she retired in four events and withdrew from five others. And then there was the bone bruise that, as she told me after this match, sidelined her for four months early this year.

“I didn’t hit at all,” she would say. “I didn’t even go jogging. I only entered the qualifying here because I’ve been training in Miami, so I was in America already.”

Don’t think that the guarantee of at least a $3,000 payday this week didn’t figure into Pervak’s calculations. In effect, she was playing with house money, which helps balance out any feeling that she was unlucky to have drawn such a formidable first-round opponent.

There was this, too: In fatter times for both women, they met once as main-draw competitors in the first round of Wimbledon in that excellent year of 2011. Pervak won that pitched struggle, 6-4 in the third.


Adrift on the Sea of Fate

Adrift on the Sea of Fate

But when you fall far enough off the pace to join the ranks of the qualifiers, all bets—as well as all history—is off. That’s really the source of the stress that is usually so conspicuously written on the faces of the players and engraved like of admissions of fault on so many of their shots. I joined this match with Pervak trying to stave off a retaliatory break of serve that would have leveled it at 3-all in the first set, and saw immediately that this would be a tense one.

Peer was dressed in an elegant and perfectly coordinated outfit of turquoise dress and shoes, a refreshing and classy sight on one of those bright, scorching days when, seen from a slight angle above level, the court appears to be a sheet of dazzling stainless steel. Pervak chose a dark top over a minimal, bright red, hip-hugging dress. It sent an aggressive, jock-ish signal that was also legible in the left-hander’s bold shots.

The meal ticket for Peer in her better days had been precise, schooled, pleasantly consistent groundstrokes combined with good defense for someone who isn’t an outstanding mover. Think of her as a poor woman’s Jelena Jankovic. By contrast, Pervak is more explosive, and while she lacks that pleasing discipline felt in Peer’s groundstrokes, she has that funky lefty thing going. You know, the volatile forehand and a serve that can mysteriously find angles unavailable to most right-handers.

I could see how much the match meant to both women, and it was not always expressed in a good way (to some, that would sum up much of most qualifying narratives). The rust in Pervak’s game was evident, as was the anxiety in Peer’s. At times, you could almost hear each of the women goading herself to take a good free swing at the ball, to let go of the inhibitions each of them had reason and right to feel.

I had to wonder, did either of these women flash momentarily on other times, those occasions when they were going toe-to-toe with some elite opponent in a major event with 10 or 12 thousand people creating an avalanche of applause?

Phew. It’s got to be a bitter pill to swallow. Yet clearly these women and men keep coming back for more, are sustained by the conviction that what once was accomplished can be attained again—but why is it so danged nerve-wracking, frustrating, and downright difficult to get there?

Pervak would go on to hold that game for 4-2, but after a solid hold, Peer would go on to snap Pervak’s next service game like a dry stick, allowing her just one point. In the next game, Pervak got a little naughty. At love-15, she took her time summoning a ballgirl to fetch a towel. At 15-all she decided to re-grip her racquet, right there on the baseline, making Peer, the server, wait again. Pervak incurred a time-violation warning (she would later lose a point for stalling), but that only bought her more time to finish the wrap job—and make Peer think.

If Pervak’s intent was to slow Peer’s momentum, the effort succeeded. Pervak won three of the next four points (two of them on Peer errors) to break back. Peer then played too cautiously and allowed Pervak to hold to win the first set.

Pervak’s willingness to take chances, and her superior toughness, enabled her to build that big 5-2 lead in the second set. It’s hard to say just what Peer was doing wrong; she simply missed the wrong ball here, made the great shot when it least counted, played a little too far back on her heels. She was playing like a qualifier. But just as she was about to lose, she dug in her heels at that moment of reckoning I alluded to before.

Peer broke Pervak in that game to get back to 3-5 and pulled herself together to hold for 4-5. In the next game, Peer’s arm suddenly loosened up again, and she began to flow and find that rhythm that is so easily lost to nerves. It took her four break points, but she finally got the job done just as the match hit the two-hour mark. 5-all.

Yet that confidence proved elusive; it evaporated, swiftly and inexplicably. Seemingly bent on protecting the territory she’d won back, Peer became too defensive yet again. She invited Pervak to take control, and she did—breaking Peer to take a 6-5 lead.

But in the end, the women were still bobbing like helpless corks in that tempest. This was qualifying tennis at its best—or worst. It often amounts to the same thing. Anxiety quietly nibbled at the edge of each player’s consciousness. Fear flickered in the eyes of both women. Both of them wanted to live in the moment; it seemed that each of them looked on in horror at her own mistakes and allowed that her rival was more worthy.

Pervak, slightly woozy from the heat and a degree of physical and mental activity to which she was no longer accustomed, collapsed in the next game, ensuring a tiebreaker. That episode began with a pair of mini-breaks, but two errors by Peer—both of them netted groundstrokes, which tells you something—gave Pervak a lead that even she couldn’t blow.

It was just a two-set match that will show up as a routine win by Pervak, but it lasted two hours and 17 minutes. More than anything, it was mentally grueling, as the uncertain women tossed the match back and forth like a hot potato.

I had wanted to speak a little with Peer after the match, but as she left the court and made her way along the walkway with lowered head, she ignored everyone who tried to commiserate or engage with her. I tried too, falling in beside her to ask if we could talk, “later.”

She acted as if she hadn’t heard a word and didn’t miss a step, disappearing into the stadium. I don’t blame her, I probably would have done the same thing myself.