by Alex Simon, guest blogger
The draw for the 2016 US Open will be released next week. As you peruse it, you might see some unfamiliar names sprinkled through the 128 player field. You may see a player who has a very low ranking -- or none at all. If the player has “WC” annotated next to his or her name on the draw, then it means the tournament has awarded the player a wild card into the tournament.
Wild cards are given out to players whose ranking doesn’t give them direct entry to the main draw. The USTA heavily favors Americans in their wild card selections in order to help home grown players’ careers and development. (The same phenomenon takes place at nearly every professional tournament in the world.) Top players whose ranking has dropped outside of the cutoff or who are making a return to the game also receive consideration.
The USTA announced the wild card recipients for the US Open this week. I will be taking a look at each recipient, some of his career and season highlights, and what caused him to earn and be considered for a wild card.
|© Jonathan Kelley|
Escobedo won the challenger in Lexington, the second event in the wild card challenge, and held onto his lead to secure the wild card. The 20-year-old is also part of the strong contingent of rising American men, but perhaps has been overshadowed by the flashier results of his compatriots such as Taylor Fritz, Frances Tiafoe, and Stefan Kozlov.
Escobedo has been on a steady rise in 2016. He has seen his ranking jump almost 200 spots this season and currently sits at #207. In addition to his maiden challenger win in Lexington, he reached the final of another in São Paulo on clay and qualified for ATP events in Nottingham and 's-Hertogenbosch on grass. The 2016 US Open will be Escobedo’s first appearance in a grand slam main draw.
Bjorn Fratangelo is one of the highest ranked Americans not directly into the US Open main draw, sitting at #116 in the ATP rankings (the cut-off was #98). Fratangelo first garnered international attention as a junior in 2011 when he won the boys' singles title at Roland Garros. The title helped propel Fratangelo to number 2 in the ITF junior rankings.
While he hasn’t had the meteoric rise that some junior stars experience, Fratangelo has seen his ranking improve each season since he turned pro in 2012. Fratangelo has won 8 futures titles and 2 challengers titles throughout his career.
2016 has been a career best year for Fratangelo. The 23-year-old Pennsylvania native gained attention when he won the first set against world number 1, Novak Djokovic, in Indian Wells before falling in three sets. When Fratangelo moved to the clay court season, his strong results on the USTA Pro Circuit clinched him the USTA wild card into Roland Garros.
At Roland Garros, Fratangelo defeated compatriot Sam Querrey in the first round in straight sets to record his first main draw victory at a major. Fratangelo’s success at the French Open caused him to crack into the top 100 for the first time, where he peaked at #99 in the world.
This is Fratangelo’s second appearance in the US Open main draw, having also received a wild card in 2015. He fell to Thomas Berdych in straight sets in the first round last year.
Juan Martín del Potro
One wild card who won’t need much introduction is 2009 US Open champion Juan Martín del Potro. Del Potro has had a career marred by injuries. He first missed nine months in 2010 due to a wrist injury. Del Potro was able to bounce back and reenter the top 5 in 2013, but another wrist injury derailed his career further. After two surgeries and a premature return in early 2015, del Potro made his long awaited comeback to the tour at the 2016 Delray Beach Open, where he reached the semifinals.
The big hitting 27-year-old has seen his results slowly build since his comeback this winter. Wimbledon marked del Potro’s first grand slam appearance since the 2014 Australian Open. Del Potro upset fourth seeded Stanislas Wawrinka in the second round but lost in four sets to 32nd seed Lucas Pouille in the third round.
Del Potro proved that he was ready to compete against the world’s best at the Olympic Games in Rio. Del Potro opened the tournament with a win over Novak Djokovic, showing off the monstrous forehand that helped propel him to the top of the game in the past. Del Potro continued to storm through the draw and got another win over one of the “Big Four” by defeating Rafael Nadal in the semifinals. Del Potro came away with the silver medal after falling to Andy Murray in the gold medal match.
At #141 in the world, del Potro was shy of the main draw cut off, but if his form in Rio is any indication, he is playing well above that ranking.
Mackenzie McDonald is the reigning NCAA DI singles champion. While a wild card to the NCAA champion is not technically guaranteed, tradition has it that NCAA champions who represent USA are all but assured one.
|© Jonathan Kelley|
McDonald had a successful junior career, peaking at number 12 in ITF junior rankings. McDonald decided to hone his game in college and joined the UCLA Bruins in 2013. McDonald’s collegiate career culminated in NCAA singles and doubles championships this spring and a year-end number one collegiate ranking.
After achieving college tennis’ top individual titles, turning pro seemed like a logical next step for the 21-year-old Californian. McDonald announced he would turn pro despite having one more year of NCAA eligibility.
McDonald took fall 2015 off from college to test the waters on the professional circuit. In three months, he managed to reach a Futures final and two Challenger semifinals. The 2016 US Open will be the 416-ranked McDonald’s grand slam main draw debut.
Mmoh is part of a very strong group of young Americans on the rise. The 18-year-old, who lives and trains at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, earned the wild card that is reserved for winner of the USTA Boys’ 18s National Championships in Kalamazoo, Mich. Mmoh, the top seed, was dominant in his run to the 18s title. He didn’t drop a single set and was only forced to a tiebreaker in one match.
|From left: Michael Mmoh, Frances Tiafoe, Henrik Wiersholm|
Tommy Paul. 2014 USTA Boys Nationals. © Jonathan Kelley
Mmoh is looking to emulate the same success in the professional ranks as he had in the juniors, where he was ranked as high as second in the world. Mmoh won several top tier titles on the ITF Junior Circuit. He was also a part of the USA’s Junior Davis Cup team in 2014, which won the title.
Mmoh had a strong start to 2016. He won a futures title, was runner up at another, and qualified for the ATP event in Memphis all before April. The 2016 US Open will be Mmoh’s first appearance in a grand slam main draw. Mmoh is currently #386 in the ATP rankings.
32-year-old Rajeev Ram is a veteran compared to many of the other wild card recipients. If you look at Ram’s career, he fits the modern mold of a player who peaks at a later age. Ram achieved his career high singles ranking, #56, earlier this season.
Although he turned pro in 2004 following a successful season playing collegiate tennis for the University of Illinois Fighting Illini, Ram didn’t break into the top 100 until 2009. Ram has won two ATP titles: at Newport during his breakthrough 2009 season, and in 2015 -- also at Newport.
Ram started 2016 on a strong note reaching the second round of the Australian Open, as well as the final of the Delray Beach Open in February. Ram is coming off a silver medal finish in Mixed Doubles at the Olympic Games with Venus Williams.
Ram currently has an ATP ranking of 103, which makes him the highest ranked American not directly into the US Open main draw. This will be Ram’s seventh appearance in the US Open; he reached the second round in 2013 and 2015.
Frances Tiafoe has been billed as a potential star of the men’s game, and the ATP has included him in its “Next Gen” campaign, which seeks to highlight the results of promising young players.
Tiafoe first showed his potential by winning the Orange Bowl, one of the top 18-and-under international junior tournaments, as a 15-year-old. He was the youngest player in history to win that event. Tiafoe peaked at number 2 in the ITF junior rankings in 2014.
Following his success in the juniors, Tiafoe turned professional in 2015. The decision quickly proved to be a wise one, as Tiafoe’s strong results on the Futures and Challenger circuit propelled his ranking from #1,145 at the end of the 2014 season to inside the top 200 by November 2015.
Tiafoe has continued to move in the right direction in 2016. He recorded his first ATP Masters 1000 level win in Indian Wells over compatriot and fellow Next Gen star Taylor Fritz. The 18-year-old, who hails from College Park, Md. and trains at the Junior Tennis Champion Center, has continued to post impressive results on the Challenger circuit. He has reached four Challenger finals, finishing runner up at three before finally claiming his first title at the Challenger level in Granby, Canada earlier this month. Tiafoe currently sits at a career best #123 in the ATP rankings.
The 2016 US Open will be Tiafoe’s second appearance in the main draw. Tiafoe earned a wild card into the 2015 US Open by winning the USTA Boy’s 18s National Championships. He fell to 22nd seed Victor Troicki last year in straight sets.
There are arguably more talented American men who were viable candidates for wild cards this year than any other in the past decade. The limited number of slots meant that a resurgent Ryan Harrison, a rising former college star, Dennis Novikov, and young phenoms like Jared Donaldson, Reilly Opelka, Tommy Paul, Noah Rubin, and Stefan Kozlov will all be playing qualifying.
The USTA decided to go with a mix of rising stars, veterans, and players who just missed out on the main draw. There is still one more wild card left to be announced, which will go to an Australian player due to the reciprocal wild card agreement that the USTA has had with Tennis Australia since 2006.
What do you think of the USTA’s wild card selections? Would you make any changes? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below. Next we will take a look at the women’s wild card recipients.