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The Qualifier: Botic van de Zandschulp's US Open ends how it begins—in relative obscurity
The Dutchman's improbable quarterfinal run ended on Tuesday with a four-set loss to No. 2 seed Daniil Medvedev.
Published Sep 07, 2021
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NEW YORK—The orange-clad Dutch supporters inside Arthur Ashe Stadium were outnumbered by fans of Daniil Medvedev, the second-ranked player in the world, by magnitudes. That was understandable. The player this vocal minority came to see, Botic van de Zandschulp, is an unknown to all but tennis junkies, is ranked 117th on the ATP tour, and needed to qualify for a place in the main draw of the US Open.
But over the course of 2021, van de Zandschulp has grown more comfortable with his standing in the game, even if the strata he occupies requires more labor than others. In each Grand Slam tournament, van de Zandschulp started in qualifying and ended up in the main draw. He lost to Carlos Alcaraz in the first round of the Australian Open, and he reached the second round at Roland Garros and Wimbledon (as a lucky loser at SW19).
While that consistency and trajectory is admirable, no one could have envisioned the qualifier becoming a quarterfinalist at the US Open—not even van de Zandschulp.
“You saw some Dutch people in there,” the soft-spoken 25-year-old said of his support. “I don't really—how do I say it? For me, it's tough to believe still that I was here in the quarters and that I make such an impact on those people and on the Dutch guys.”
The impact van de Zandschulp left wasn’t diminished by his 6-3, 6-0, 4-6, 7-5 loss to Medvedev, a former finalist at Flushing Meadows. If anything, his ability to rebound from such a slow start—“I have to say the first two sets went by quickly, I think,” he said. “Maybe too quickly.”—made his performance even more endearing.
The largest group of Dutch fans sat in the lower bowl of Arthur Ashe Stadium, and cheered for van de Zandschulp any chance they got. Oh, there were a few other Holland emblems here and there, and a wheelchair player wearing a mask emblazoned with “Team NL” was nearby. But the specks of orange amid the crow were no more than a sprinkle of cheddar inside a dense scone.
Medvedev’s experience, shotmaking and serving overwhelmed van de Zandschulp from the onset, but rather than cruising to victory, the Russian let the third set slip, and he found himself in a game-by-game slog in the fourth. The rallies were long; at one point, van de Zandschulp and Medvedev played the longest one of the tournament, 30 shots. It made sense, given van de Zandschulp’s lack of heavy artillery, and Medvedev’s propensity to start points acres behind the baseline.
“I played [Diego] Schwartzman, he was also staying far back, but not like Medvedev,” said van de Zandschulp, whose upsets in New York included the 11th-seed Argentine and No. 8 seed Casper Ruud. “He was staying further. It's tough on the serve in the beginning, because you think you have hit a good serve, and yeah, the guy is making every shot.
“He gives himself a lot of time to make most of the balls. Yeah, of course that was in the beginning difficult for me, and at the end I started to play better and to get used to it a little bit.”
The challenge Medvedev posed forced van de Zandschulp to open up his air-tight game. Serving at 3-4, 30-30, van de Zandschulp connected on a giant forehand to execute a serve-plus-one play. Down match point at 4-5, van de Zandschulp served-and-volleyed—and Medvedev couldn’t keep the return in play. He won the next two points of the must-win game with larger-than-usual groundstrokes.
But serving from behind is a more than a tactical challenge—it’s a mental one, and van de Zandschulp rarely made his service games simple. At 5-6, Medvedev earned two match points, but he only needed one to reach his third semifinal in his last four majors.
As Medvedev felt a cascade of cheers in triumph, van de Zandschulp inconspicuously walked off, certainly receiving kudos for his effort, most of all from bright orange pocket.
“We were counting on being out of here in an hour and a half, after three sets,” said Tjarko, one of the orange-clad. “But no, it was fantastic. Today was a very special day, because I think it’s been years since a Dutch player came this far in a Grand Slam.”
The group all hail from Holland but live in Larchmont, N.Y. and New York City, and originally had tickets to the evening session. But they made the logistical switch once van de Zandschulp’s name appeared on the schedule.
“It was an ordeal, but it was worth it,” said an excited Julien. “To come back from a 6-0, and to pick [himself] up despite being a true underdog, I’m really proud of him.”
Mara, one of the younger fans of the group, could hardly contain herself when asked about her man’s achievement.
“Against the world No. 2? He won a set!”
This collective excitement isn’t to suggest that Botic van de Zandschulp has superfans—even they only started following the Dutchman “a couple of days ago.” And it’s likely that most of the country was paying more attention to its national soccer team, whose World Cup Qualifier began almost the instant “game, set, match” was called. It seemed fitting, but I had to wonder how many orange shirts might line Arthur Ashe Stadium if this remarkable qualifier were to have somehow went another round or two.
“It’s great that they want to support me here,” said van de Zandschulp. “Yeah, I have to say the whole stadium was incredible today.
An hour after it was over, I got my own taste of what those Dutch fans experienced—but in reverse. I was not just the only English-language journalist at van de Zandschulp’s post-match press conference, but I was the only journalist who showed up in the room at all. I was surrounded, though, by mammoth-sized monitors broadcasting a healthy Dutch reporting contingent back home.
About an hour after that, #Hollanda was trending on Twitter—for soccer, of course, with The Netherlands defeating Turkey, 6-1. And so it goes: Medvedev back in the money rounds of a major, Holland following its football, and van de Zandschulp in relative obscurity. But based on this US Open and tennis season, it suits him well.