For the first time ever, anyone with a set of tennis whites and a dream has a chance to play in the U.S. Open. Of course, talent also comes in handy.
Author Adam K. Raymond Illustration Barry Blitt
THINGS AREN’T LOOKING GOOD. I’m down 4-0 in the first set of my qualifying match for the U.S. Open. The guy I’m up against, a former college tennis player, is obviously toying with me. My serves sail onto the adjacent court, my returns flutter harmlessly into the net. Ten minutes in, I look as if I’ve got a fire hose running under my shirt. But I haven’t given up. After each lost point, I take a deep breath and resolve that I’m going to get it together.
So as my opponent, Pat, a friendly 24-year-old insurance salesman who rips bullets, goes into his serve, I calmly return it, softly and slowly. He runs up to the net and returns my return, and with one uncoordinated flail, I hit the ball back. It goes over his head with a high arc and lands just out of bounds.
Deep breath. Get it together.
But then: “That was in,” he yells.
“It was in?”
“Yep,” he says with what might be a smirk. My first real point. Sure, I’d scored a few times when Pat made an error, but this was the first time I’d won a point thanks to something I’d done. I’d finally gotten it together.
In real life, I’m a desk jockey. The last time I actually went out and played tennis was a decade ago, on a sun-faded hotel tennis court in the middle of Kentucky. Even in my prime I wouldn’t have stood much of a chance of advancing at this event, the U.S. Open’s first ever national playoff, which gives anyone over 14 a chance to compete for a spot to take on the world’s best. The point of the national playoffs is to make the Open truly open, explains Jim Purington, tournament manager for the USTA’s New England office. “We want to give everyone a chance to compete, from weekend warriors to college players to former pros,” he says. If at the same time the USTA makes a few dollars and gets people buzzing about the Open months sooner than they typically would, that would be okay too. The national playoffs are like those first few weeks of American Idol when the delusional singers (that’s me) compete for a place on the real show with the future pop stars. It’s not always pretty, but at least it’s entertaining.
In order to find the players worthy of advancing to the U.S. Open, the USTA is hosting regional tournaments in 16 cities. The winners of the regionals advance to the championships in Atlanta and Stanford, California, where two players (one male, one female) will emerge with a ticket to the U.S. Open Qualifying Tournament in Flushing, Queens. I don’t expect to be one of those players; I just hope I don’t embarass myself. Purington doesn’t have high hopes for me either.
“I think the winner will be a player who’s already on the verge of getting into the Open,” he says. And as he can tell by looking at me, the only thing I’m on the verge of is male pattern baldness.
BEFORE HEADING TO WEST HAVEN, Connecticut, to play in the New England regional, I’ve decided to take a lesson to make sure I know how to serve more than just pancakes. I head to the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, New York, and meet the director of tennis, Whitney Kraft. A tall, athletic man in his fifties, Kraft is a former All-American who’s been playing tennis for decades and has the tan to prove it. As we make our way to the courts, he asks a question I was hoping to avoid: “So, do you play?”
“Not exactly,” I say. “But that’s sort of the point. I want to see what happens when someone with no experience tries to make the U.S. Open.” He’s more amused than annoyed.
As we wind through a sea of green cement I notice a couple of retirees getting in their morning workout. I pause for a second and watch them obliterate the ball on their serves, apply impressive backspin to their returns and somehow do it all with knees that require more braces than a class of seventh-graders.
“Let’s start with your forehand,” Kraft says as he hits me a ball. I bounce from one foot to the other (I may not know how to play tennis, but I do watch it on TV) and return the ball softly but accurately. Then a few more.
“Not bad,” Kraft says. “I was expecting much worse.” I take that as a compliment—I might as well, because I won’t manage to do anything for the remainder of the lesson to earn another one. My backhand is atrocious. I look like I’m trying to knock flies out of the air with my knuckles. My serve is even worse. I hit the ball too softly. Then too hard. Then I throw it up, swing, and miss entirely.
On my way out, I tell Kraft my goal is to at least score one point during my match. “Don’t worry if you don’t,” he says. “It’s called a ‘golden set,’ and it happens to the pros all the time.” That makes me feel better until I get home, Google “golden set” and find out that it’s happened in a professional match only once in the game’s history.
A week later I arrive at the Yale University Tennis Center ready to show off my skills, my brand new Head Six Star racket and my sweatbands. After sizing up the other players, I realize there’s another key piece of equipment I’m lacking: an equipment bag big enough to fit Steffi Graf inside it.
Matches are already underway. On one court, two young players, one of whom looks remarkably like Justin Bieber, sprint from side to side blasting forehand after forehand. On another court, two men in their thirties move even faster and hit even harder, even though their knee braces are wearing knee braces. They growl to themselves when they make mistakes and avoid eye contact when they pass each other to switch sides. They jump as they serve and hit the ball so hard I can’t help but flinch. Some of these guys are ready to take on Roger Federer.
Not Caleb Wetmore, though. The 35-year-old graphic designer, who took up tennis only a few years ago, is here to have fun. “I just want to get out on the court, get a T-shirt and not hurt myself,” he says.
Dave Landoch, a 36-year-old history teacher and tennis pro from Rhode Island, sets slightly loftier goals. “I want to make it to the second round,” he says. Unfortunately, Landoch winds up taking on one of the best players in the first round (there are no seedings) and loses 6-2, 4-6, 5-7.
When I meet Pat, my opponent, I decide to come clean. I tell him I don’t play, that he’s essentially just scored a first round bye. He seems excited, even if he harbors no real expectation of going to Flushing Meadows to compete. “There’s no way I’m going to win it all. But now I get to say that I played in the U.S. Open, sort of,” he says.
We start warming up, and right away I realize I’m in trouble. Pat has a strong, fluid swing. The ball shoots off his racket, travels in a straight line and drops just before the endline. We start playing, and Pat racks up games. Then my fateful shot into the back right corner gives me my first real point. I’ve accomplished my goal of avoiding a golden set and start thinking that my mantra is working. I’ve “got it together!” At least, that’s what I think for a couple of seconds. I score a few more points here and there but can’t string enough together to actually take a game.
As Pat and I shake hands over the net, I notice that the match next to ours has already ended. It turns out I wasn’t the only person to lose 6-0, 6-0 that day. Nolan Paige, a lanky 16-year-old with a mess of blond hair who happens to be ranked second in the country in his age group, made even quicker work of his opponent than Pat did of me. In the next few days Paige will go on to win the whole tournament and earn a place in Atlanta, where he’ll compete for a spot in the U.S. Open. “That would be ridiculous and unbelievable,” Paige says of playing in Arthur Ashe Stadium. “I’d have to really be playing well.”
Which, as I can now say from experience, is harder than it sounds.
New York–based writer ADAM K. RAYMOND isn’t so much bad at tennis as he is in love with love.
How our would-be Agassi actually fared
FINAL SCORE: 6-0, 6-0
TOP SERVE SPEED