They came from across the United States, and from England, France, Romania, the Philippines, Haiti and beyond, thousands of players pursuing 32 precious spots in the US Open National Playoffs – Men’s and Women’s Championships.
The inaugural US Open National Playoffs began April 18 at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, N.Y., home of the US Open, and wrapped June 26 at the Arlington Tennis Center in Arlington, Texas. The reward for surviving the sectional qualifying tournaments and the US Open National Playoffs – Men’s and Women’s Championships is a wild card into the 2010 US Open Qualifying Tournament, held the week prior to the US Open.
The US Open National Playoffs – Men’s and Women’s Championships still await, to be held this summer in conjunction with the Olympus US Open Series, but the sectional qualifiers are now behind us, an unqualified success as the start-up to the 2010 Open Season—the stretch that runs from the Eastern Sectional Qualifying Tournament in April through the Olympus US Open Series and on to the US Open, which kicks off August 30.
In all, 1,232 players (859 men and 373 women) competed in the Sectional Qualifying Tournaments, all pursuing a dream of competing in the US Open.
But while the goal may have been the same, the competitors varied widely. They ranged from wizened veterans like Rick Hughes
of Parker, Colo., a former minor league baseball player who tried out for the NBA’s Denver Nuggets at the age of 55, to self-made phenom Deja Kitchiner
, 14, who has employed You Tube to display her talents to the world.
For some, the US Open is familiar ground. Nikita Kryvonos
, a USTA Pro Circuit veteran who won the Eastern sectional qualifier, hails from Flushing, N.Y., and played in the US Open Qualifying Tournament each year from 2005 to 2007. Meanwhile, Skylar Morton
, 16, of Bethesda, Md., competed in a skills challenge during the 2009 Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day, hitting more targets than five-time champion Roger Federer.
There were products of the USTA as well. Blake Strode
, the Southwest sectional qualifier champion who deferred Harvard Law School to pursue a professional tennis career, grew up playing on his National Junior Tennis & Learning (NJTL) squad outside St. Louis, Mo., and Drew University star Michelle Gbelama
learned to play through her NJTL program in Trenton, N.J.
Of course, not everyone competing in the US Open National Playoffs Sectional Qualifying Tournaments was a collegiate or professional tennis player. Players ranged from a rabbi
from New York to a rocker
from Florida and a jeweler from New Mexico. And then there was Ikaika Jobe
, a University of Hawaii law student and former collegiate standout who came out of retirement for a shot at playing in a Grand Slam, and Happy Mason, a 47-year-old USTA League player from Dallas who was inspired to play by her mom and was playing to inspire her own children in return.
Speaking of the inspirational, there was plenty of that as well. Eduardo Lugo
, of Princeton, N.J., competed without the use of a left arm; David Spellman
, of Melville, N.Y., played to raise money to battle Crohn’s Disease; and Olivier Sajous
, whose family homes were destroyed by the earthquake in Haiti, continued the pursuit of his professional tennis dream by winning the Florida sectional qualifier.
The National Playoffs also served as a route to the US Open for a number of aspiring USTA Pro Circuit players like Kryvonos, Strode, Alexandra Mueller, Samantha Powers and Chris Wettengel
, as well as college players like Courtney Dolehide, Megan Falcon, Eleanor Peters, Thibaut Charron
, Eric Quigley and Maureen Diaz. The youngsters also came out in force, with teenagers Nolan Paige and Rachel Kahan advancing alongside up-and-coming junior players like Brittany Augustine, Belinda Niu, Evangeline Repic and Kaitlyn Christian.
There were Davis Cup standouts as well. In addition to Sajous, who competes for Haiti, Cecil Mamiit
of the Philippines won the Southern California sectional qualifier—defeating former French Open doubles runner-up Jeff Tarango
en route—and Puerto Rico Davis Cup player Eduardo Pavia claimed the Southern sectional qualifier title.
A few professional athletes from other sports came out as well to test their hard court games, with five-time medal-winning Olympian Bode Miller
playing in Hawaii and former Major League Baseball second baseman Todd Walker
giving it a go in Texas.
The vast majority of those competing did not advance to the US Open National Playoffs – Men’s and Women’s Championships, but for most that was never the point. Fulfilling a dream is often challenging and equally as often unattainable. But there is glory in the pursuit, and a piece of history as well. This was the first US Open National Playoffs, and those who played can say they were there—and that they once had a shot to play in the US Open.