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For the 200-odd players preparing to play the US Open next week, a spot in the main draw is a given, the launchpad for success—foretold or otherwise. But another 200 players have already descended on the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center to compete in the Qualifying Tournament. The game within a game.

On its face, Grand Slam qualifying presents an almost taunting challenge to those unable to make the main draw on the strength of their ranking. After all, if winning three matches under extreme pressure came easily, they wouldn’t be playing qualies, would they?

It’s an irony the athletes are forced to put aside, lest they lose the game before they start playing. It’s also something I never considered as a young fan growing up 20 minutes from Flushing Meadows. For me, US Open qualifying was better than the main event. Built to rival what begins The Canterbury Tales, it’s a prologue that one can't afford to skip.

Open to the public free of charge, those four days were an early opportunity to scout changes around the grounds, to bound between Louis Armstrong Stadium and the then-adjacent Grandstand to catch top seeds practicing. Most importantly, it was a time to invest early, emotionally speaking, in the players who could find themselves contesting for main-draw glory in a week’s time.

I think the biggest memory that comes back to me is being a little kid, running around the entire site. I don't know if that may be the reason why I play so well here, but there's definitely a lot of nostalgia. Naomi Osaka

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Qualifying contenders typically fall into three categories: the hotshot junior, the former star on a comeback trail, or the lifer, those perennially ranked outside the main-draw cut-off and familiar-enough fixtures to feel like old friends.

Though more fans came to qualies with each passing year, they could never match the record-breaking crush of Labor Day weekend. The relative intimacy allows for more memorable interactions, like when a young Dmitry Tursunov told me I could bleach out the autograph he’d scribbled on my hat if I “found someone more famous.” He would soon make his US Open debut and defeat former world No. 1 Gustavo Kuerten the following week.

Five years later, I watched Clemson University All-American Julie Coin foreshadow her earth-shattering win over top seed Ana Ivanovic—becoming, at the time, the lowest-ranked woman to defeat a world No. 1—by edging past Sesil Karatantcheva on lowly old Court 5, in the shadow of the Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Those memories are what made me want to become a tennis writer. From autographs and high-fives, I would start spending qualies by grabbing players as they left the court, looking for a flash reaction that could be weaved into a story at the end of the day. Without the major media apparatus running at full speed, this is often the only way to get any face time with players who, in the main draw, would expect a more seamless transition from court to locker room to media center. Fifteen years from my first qualies, I was doing something I loved, and was exactly where I wanted to be.

Mullet and all, J.J. Wolf was one of the indelible images from 2021 US Open qualifying.

Mullet and all, J.J. Wolf was one of the indelible images from 2021 US Open qualifying.

Two-time champion Naomi Osaka is similarly driven by sentimentality, noting as much during her Media Day press conference on Friday.

“I think the biggest memory that comes back to me is being a little kid, running around the entire site,” she mused. “I don't know if that may be the reason why I play so well here, but there's definitely a lot of nostalgia.”

This year’s Qualifying Tournament proved a nostalgic fever dream all its own. After foregoing its beloved opening act last year due to COVID-19, qualies came back in 2021, but with its gates closed to fans. Think of your own childhood fantasies of roaming an empty mall or arcade: uninhibited access to the best week in tennis? The reality was more of a mixed bag.

Two years brought about a strikingly new field; many so-called “old friends” have graduated into the Top 100, retired, or, as Karatantcheva announced on Monday, become parents. Though player guests and staff milled about in brutal temperatures—heat and humidity regularly conspired to reach the high-90s—there was hardly the energy one would hope from a Court 9 scrap between former French Open semifinalist Ernests Gulbis and Filip Horansky, which featured the Latvian cursing out a still-nascent Hawkeye Live en route to victory. When Olga Danilovic struck one last winner to survive Sachia Vickery on the new Court 5, her mother Svetlana quietly thanked the sparse attendees around her.

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WATCH: The Break, 2021 US Open Edition

Among the few able to find camp in the supposed futility of playing without a crowd were players like J.J. Wolf and Monica Niculescu. Wolf made the third round in similarly empty territory last summer; downgraded to qualies without a wildcard, the American sported his now-signature mullet and easy power to swing through an impressive opener against Denis Istomin but ran out answers against the higher-ranked Kamil Majchrzak.

Niculescu saw Wolf’s eye-catching look and raised him with physical comedy, culminating in a viral tumble that nonetheless took her into the final round. Her theatrics ultimately went unrewarded on Friday when she bowed out to an inspired Dalma Galfi, a former junior champion. The emotional Hungarian embraced her small team, accepting her first major main-draw with enthusiasm, crowd capacity be damned.

The lack of direct player access also precludes media and players from intermingling off-court, a relief for one who sometimes felt awkward ambushing a heat-affected athlete to ask about the keys to their win, but a new source of consternation for someone who had reshaped his entire experience around this kind of guerrilla storytelling. Through the first two days I instinctively moved between the courts taking in matches as they ended, but to no end.

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Absent the professional task to which I’d become accustomed, I reverted back to the awestruck fan I’d once been, snapping grainy photos on my phone in an effort to convey something, anything: to show I was there, that qualies was everything I remembered, or perhaps that, though the matches were all available to stream, there was still an intangible, even addictive quality that can only be mined from live tennis.

And so, an unorthodox week of qualifying came to an end. Through few were there to see it, the event remained undeniably aspirational. It gave hope to veterans like Evgeny Donskoy, who made it into his ninth consecutive US Open, or rising stars like Emma Raducanu, who backed up her whirlwind Wimbledon with an emphatic dress rehearsal.

The goal of Slam qualifying, surely, is to never play it again. The same can’t be said for the spectators, many of whom eagerly await next year’s game within a game.