Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Final post

Dear American Tennis:

We had a good run. I supported you through some lean years and more recent good times. I may continue to follow you albeit with a sense of detachment. I feel a mini-golden era of American tennis is on the horizon and I can't help but feel a bit disappointed that I won't be along with you for the ride.

As much as I enjoy tennis as a sport, my emotional connection has for some time been with American tennis. But after the results of this election, and after hearing about so many of them supporting either Donald Trump or the forces that allowed him to reach this place, I have to withdraw. They have no empathy for me and my kind and I can no longer support them. I'm done.

I wish this were a more eloquent final statement. Perhaps after some weeks have passed I will come back with something more florid. But the moment I've dreaded for months has arrived.


- Jonathan Kelley

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Donald Trump's "locker room talk": a pro athlete's perspective

by Beau Treyz

Donald Trump is not one of us. We are athletes, not pigs. Men and women talk about each other, and make judgments on each other’s looks, let’s not pretend it doesn’t happen. But Trump’s “locker room talk” happens in bars, locker rooms, offices, schools and households across the world. That doesn’t make it right, that makes us lazy. It’s easy to talk about people we want to have sex with as objects; it happens all the time on the radio and TV, but again that doesn’t make it right. Trump cannot blame his repulsiveness on being an athlete, because not all athletes are like him. The phrase “locker room talk” needs to be gone; just as society has tried to say “gay” and “retarded” less, now people are opting to use more descriptive language that doesn’t offend or diminish another group of people. It’s about not being lazy.

In today’s culture people make snap judgments and assumptions because it’s easier than actually thinking about certain problems. As a 24-year-old white American male, I’m just now realizing that I am more prejudiced than I thought. Over the last year I’ve traveled to 10 different countries from Egypt to Ecuador playing professional tennis. When I got to South Africa I remember thinking, “These white people don’t look like me” and, “These black people don’t look like the black people in the United States.” And swathed in both of those ideas were judgments and assumptions I had obviously subconsciously been making my entire life. I was shocked, but also a bit ashamed of myself for even having those thoughts.

My next experience like this came when my plane landed in Tunisia and I didn’t speak the language, have wi-fi, or anyone else with me. I vividly remember wanting to buy a ticket back to the States as quickly as I could. I was scared of the men in Jebbas and women in Safsaris; I’d only been exposed to those clothes while associating it with terrorists on TV. I didn’t even know what the clothes stood for, but I had been trained to fear them. Being in that airport, and distrusting the guards with AK-47’s, really wondering about my own safety, was the most terrified I’ve ever felt. I probably only got in a cab and continued to the tournament because I was arrogant enough to think nothing would happen to me. I made it to the tournament, and the cab driver couldn’t have been nicer; I again felt ashamed that I had given in to believing a stereotype.

Traveling and learning to trust cab drivers, airport workers and hotel clerks of different skin colors than me has been a challenge. I would never say I’m racist in the United States, but when I started traveling it became clear to me that I am at least prejudiced. I didn’t realize that as I scroll through Instagram, consume the different TV shows, and listen to songs on the radio and online, I am allowing myself to be told how to think about different types of people. This mass consumption is not just a trait of the American millennials though; it’s worldwide and covers all age groups. It’s not just kids that are obsessed with Instagram, but adults too. How many annoying moms and uncles are there on Instagram and Facebook? We are all seeing, reading and hearing the same information. It’s easy to give in to stereotypes.

“Muslims are terrorists.” “Mexicans are illegal aliens.” We’ve heard these hateful, wrong stereotypes before, but one may soon be hurled at us: “Americans are Trump.” We will all be stereotyped as a group of people who agree with everything Trump says and does. People will be afraid of me, and have underlying ideas about me just as I had of them. I cannot imagine having to fight the Trump stereotype every time I meet someone. They say there’s a bit of truth in all stereotypes. We may be wary of people we don’t know, and we may be prejudiced, but do we want to be ruled by fear, insecurity and hatred? Is that the part of ourselves we want to represent us in the world? Trump is the worst part of all of us. Trump is not “unique and authentic,” he’s basic. He fears groups of people he doesn’t know. He treats women as sexual objects waiting to be conquered. If Trump were just a guy at a bar he’d get punched in the face every time he opened his mouth.

He doesn’t speak any truth. He’s not new to politics. His campaign hinges on whether or not we still want to be liked by the high school bully. He preys upon those of us that are too timid to stand up to someone we disagree with. He hopes we all choose to be Billy Bush and take part in his hateful, entitled, disgraceful way of life. By saying his comments were, “locker room talk”, he imagines himself as Lebron James or Tom Brady; he thinks they’re cool and imagines that that’s how they act. Professional sports are a business, and the most successful athletes are smart, strong, and tactful in their field of competition, just as is someone in any other profession; how they act on the field reveals nothing of who they are off it. Although he imagines himself as Derek Jeter, Donald Trump is really just Regina George from Mean Girls. He is more like a bitchy high school ringleader than Lebron James.

Athletes, like all citizens, are supposed to be leaders in their communities, not just blind followers, so we cannot allow Trump to hide in what he imagines our locker rooms to be like. He should have to answer for his own moral character just as the rest of us do. There are no policy disagreements in this piece because people that believe in stereotypes don’t care about the substance of the people they’re judging. They care about what is said the loudest, the information that is most in their face, regardless of fact or truth; what Trump says loudest about Americans is that we’re all racist, arrogant assholes that should be punched in the face at the first opportunity.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Back to the grind in Colombia

Guest post by Beau Treyz

The reality of professional tennis is that you have to be a Top 100 player for multiple years to make a comfortable living. Outside of those select few, we’re all in the tennis equivalent of the minor leagues. And we all think we can make it to the big leagues. It’s amazing to walk around Futures tournaments and see guys and think, “Man, what is this guy doing here? He has no chance.” But if he thinks he has a chance then why shouldn’t he be here? It’s more shocking to me to see guys and think, “Man, what’s he doing here. How has he not made it yet?” There are so many levels to professional tennis; it can be disheartening if I think about it too much.

I’ve played Futures in seven different countries so far, and seen players ranked inside the top 200 and players that wouldn’t play on my high school team; how could all of these guys think they’re good enough to be Top 100? How much time will a player spend in the minor leagues before he calls it a career? That question lives in the back of every players mind. I’m going to stop playing when I think I can’t improve anymore; when I’ve done everything I can and still not had enough to be a top player. That’s when I’ll know. From talking to other guys on tour, that’s how most of us feel.

Last week I played my first Futures since April, after taking the summer off to teach tennis at a Country Club in New York to fund my travels. I’d say I thought about getting back on tour everyday I was working. I didn’t often think about the intensity of the tour though. No matter where I play, the guys are the same. They may have different names, and be from different countries, but the intensity is the same. These guys work so hard. I lost in the final round of qualies last week because I was tentative and impatient on court; I didn’t show up ready to compete. A hard lesson to relearn, and it’s probably not the last time I’ll relearn it if I’m being honest. But what I’ve learned from the best guys I’ve seen is that they don’t really care that much. Of course they’re focused when they’re playing a match, but to them each tournament is just another week; and every week needs to be a week where they improve. None of us dream of playing Futures. Futures are not the goal; ATP events and a Top 100 ranking are the goal. The best players never forget that.

It’s amazing to know that every player out here is doing the same thing, and more or less in the same boat whether they want to admit it or not. Sure, the guy who’s 300 is playing Challengers, and is closer to the Top 100 than the guy that’s 1000, but neither of them have made it yet. Both guys have to keep improving; and neither of them is making money. One guy may be significantly better, but his process and goals are probably more similar to the lower ranked guy than people think. I didn’t know that last year; I thought there was some magic, or something the other guys knew that I didn’t. What they knew that I didn’t is that a professional tennis career is a process, and it takes time to get to the top of you game physically, mentally and emotionally. This year I know that, and it’s helped my game already in one week back on tour.

Like I said, I lost in qualies last week to a guy I should’ve beaten. I was pissed, and then of course that guy got an easy draw first round main draw and got another point without breaking a sweat; could’ve been me. That would have bothered me last year. But now I don’t want another point, I want hundreds of points, and I want to improve. Having five ATP points doesn’t make you top 100, so then why stress about it? After my loss my doubles partner, Dusty Boyer, and I went on to win two rounds and get to the semifinals of the doubles tournament beating three players in the top 400. Probably the best wins of our careers so far; just days after a pretty bad singles loss. It’s being able to keep the bigger picture of my career in mind that let’s me now bring a certain intensity to every match without it becoming too much. It’s not easy to do, and I’ll probably never perfect it or have to stop reminding myself of it, but I guess that’s what we all have to do. The intensity that the top guys approach their career with is what makes them different from the minor league guys, hopefully I can learn it.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

"See you when you're 450"

By Beau Treyz, Sept. 7, 2016

My old man is a forever-optimist; he wouldn’t give up on one of his kids for anything. He loves a lofty idea, he’s a dreamer and a hard worker; he’s made me who I am. This morning he took me to the Westchester Airport at 4:30am so I could catch a flight to Lincoln, Nebraska where I’m going to spend the next month training with the men’s tennis team getting ready to restart my professional career. I’ve spent the last five months, since April 18th to be exact, teaching tennis at Sleepy Hollow Country Club in Scarborough, New York with the goal of making enough money to fund my playing career. Yesterday was my last day at work, enough money was made, new relationships were built, but I got the first flight out.

This morning dad and I barely spoke on the 30 minute trip to the airport; nothing needed to be said. We fuddled with the radio, but that’s just because there’s nothing good on at 4:30am. I felt alive again for the first time in months. This feels like my last chance to make my playing career happen. I’m not going back to teaching next summer, I’ve got enough money, I’ve got experience from playing and traveling last year to guide me this year; I can’t wait to get to work. We hugged and said goodbye at the airport drop off, “See you when you’re 450”, dad said. He means when my ranking is 450 ATP, right now I’m ranked 1909; forever an optimist like I said. Time to make tennis my career.

It’s so bright and loud up here at 6:45am with the reflection of the sun off the clouds and Pearl Jam blaring through my headphones. As soon as I got up this morning I felt the excitement and quick-fire energy that lets me know I’m doing the right thing by playing tennis; I don’t get this feeling from anything else. This is my search for fulfillment; this is me trying to make my dream happen. This is the feeling I need to be able to sustain and tap into when the weeks get long and slow and my feet and head get heavy. I don’t think it’s tennis that I love, or tennis that keeps me going; it’s this feeling of freedom and control. There is a lot on the line for me, at 24 years old, investing a ton of money into a professional sports career is not the smartest investment to build up for retirement, but it’s the best investment to build up who I am and who I will become.

I’ve worked years to get to this position and put in the time on court, in the gym and at a “real job” to be able to put myself here; now is my time. I’ve turned my hat forwards and backwards a million times since I’ve been on this flight, I’m ready to explode with happiness and ambition on the practice court this afternoon in Lincoln. I’m going back to a place I’m comfortable, with friends I love and coaches that want to help me; I did not see any of this coming when I chose to transfer to Nebraska three years ago. This moment right now is happiness to me; this is what I’m looking for. Sure a higher ranking will be great and is absolutely necessary, but I don’t have a certain goal in my mind that will make me feel like this forever. Being Top 100 will fade, the joy of winning is fleeting, but this feeling of challenging myself is stronger than any emotion I’ve felt besides the days my nieces and nephews were born. They changed my life. I want to keep this feeling alive in me; whatever jobs I do in life, I want to have this feeling. Maybe it’s impossible, but I am my father’s son, and optimism is something he taught me.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Getting to know: Andrew Fenty

Andrew Fenty. © Jonathan Kelley.A
A few weeks ago, while at the USTA Boys 16s & 18s National Championships in Kalamazoo, Michigan, I spoke to two young players who caught my attention -- Siddharth Chari of California and Andrew Fenty of Washington, D.C. 16-year-old Fenty trains at the JTCC, and was seeded #27 at the Nats (he's currently the #222-ranked junior in the world). The match I watched saw Fenty go down an early break against JanMagnus Johnson, then come back to win the last 10 games of the match. He would win his next match in straight sets before falling to #6 seed Axel Nefve 7-6(6) 6-3 in the 4th round. (As he did last year, Fenty went on to play and win several matches in the feed-in tournament.)

What is your name?
Andrew Fenty

Where are you from?
Washington, D.C.

Where do you train?
I train at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Md.

There have been some big names that have come through there, correct?
Yes, Denis Kudla, Frances Tiafoe. We have a player who just won Wimbledon juniors doubles, Usue Arconada. Yeah, they're great players.

When did you start playing?
I started playing when I was 4.

What would you say are the strengths of your game?
The strengths of my game are probably to mix up the pace and just give my opponents different looks throughout the match.

Did you think you did that well in your match today?
I think I did that very well, especially in the end of the first set, and all the way through the second.

You went down 4-2 in the first set, and then you got the next 4 games. What changed?
I started figuring out his weaknesses, I started moving him to his forehand side, started serving better - serving wide and hitting the first ball into the open court. Started playing more of an aggressive game, taking more risks.

Do you really try to think your way through a match as much as possible?
Sure. That’s how you win matches here.

What was your road to get to the Nats?
My only way into this tournament was winning a sectional. If I didn't win it, I wouldn't have played this tournament.

Who did you play in the sectional final?
His name was Joseph Brailovsky. He won today, he's from my academy.

Are you guys friends? Friendly rivalry?
Great friends, yeah.

It it tough playing a friend in such a high-stakes match?
Of course, always hard. But, you know, we'll be fine after the match.

What would you say is your favorite surface?
I like clay a lot.

What do you like about it?
Longer points, you get to find weaknesses, and it's just fun to compete on the surface.

You have a brother who also plays, true?
Yeah, I have a twin. He's here right now, he's watching me. He just had hip surgery. He's coming back, he’s doing physical therapy right now. Hope to see him back soon.

Are you in the process of thinking about college tennis?
Not really.

Is that an aspiration of yours?
My ultimate goal is to play professional tennis. I don't know if that will be before college or a couple of years after college.

What do you think you have to do to reach the level of becoming a professional player?
Probably just work harder, better fitness, better eating habits, better training. Just getting better every day, at least 1%. Just 1% every day.

When you hit against a guy like Frances Tiafoe, do you learn stuff just from playing against him?
Yeah, every day. When he comes back from pro tournaments, even when we're not on the court, you're always learning. Always learning what professional tennis is like.

I was here last year when he played in the final, and that was just crazy. It was an unbelievable match.

Obviously you come from a high profile family. [Andrew's father was mayor of Washington, D.C.] Is that something that people know you for?
Yeah, in D.C. a lot. But as soon as you play international, sometimes people will say stuff, but not as much.

Would you say it has impacted you in any way?
Everyone knows who you are, I guess. You play tournaments and people will be like, "You're him" or something.

Do you go into a tournament like this thinking you have a chance of winning the whole thing?
For sure. I think I'm one of the favorites, or a person who could win the tournament.

How long have you had the beard?
Oooh, recent. Just letting it grow. Probably for the whole tournament, then I’ll shave.

Your playoff beard.
[Laughs.] Yeah, my playoff beard. My Kalamazoo beard.

What's your favorite sport other than tennis?
Probably basketball.

What’s your favorite team?
Wizards. Washington Wizards.

Thanks very much for your time.
Thank you!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Getting to Know the 2016 US Open Main Draw Wild Cards: WTA Edition

Danielle Collins. © Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise

Earlier this week I took a look at the wild card recipients into men’s singles draw of the 2016 US Open. Today I will be doing the same for the women’s draw. 

Danielle Collins

Danielle Collins is coming into the US Open after one of the most successful individual careers in college tennis history. The 22-year-old Floridian was awarded the wild card that is traditionally reserved for American-born NCAA DI singles champions. The USTA has awarded a main draw wild card to every American-born NCAA champion save for Amanda McDowell in 2008.

Collins played one year at the University of Florida, but it wasn’t until she transferred to the University of Virginia in fall 2013 that she really hit her stride. During her first year as a Virginia Cavalier, Collins won the NCAA singles title for the first time. Collins’ second NCAA title this spring made her the sixth repeat champion in NCAA DI women’s tennis history, but the only repeat champion who didn’t win her titles in consecutive seasons.

Prior to her collegiate career, Collins was a top ranked junior within the United States, but only played a limited number of events on the ITF junior circuit. Collins won a $10,000 level pro circuit title in 2011 but has played few professional events since starting college.

Collins is a big-hitting baseliner with a game that seems primed for a successful transition to the WTA tour. Due to her inactivity professionally, Collins is currently unranked on the WTA but has a career high ranking of #553.

This will be Collins’ second appearance in the US Open main draw, having received the NCAA wild card in 2014. In the first round in 2014, Collins pushed the second seed, Simona Halep, before falling in three sets.

Lauren Davis

Lauren Davis has been a fixture in the top 100 throughout the past few seasons. However, a year filled with uncharacteristic inconsistency caused Davis’ ranking to drop out of the top 100 for the first time since 2012. Davis currently sits at #102 in the WTA rankings.

Lauren Davis
Davis had a standout junior career, reaching number 3 in the ITF junior rankings. In the fall of 2010, she was dominant: she went on an 18-match win streak in junior events and won three top tier titles, including the Eddie Herr International Junior Tennis Championships and the Orange Bowl. 

Davis’ transition to the professional ranks was a steady one. After breaking into the top 100 in 2012, Davis eventually reached a career high ranking of #43. Davis has won seven singles titles on the ITF Pro Circuit, including a $100,000 level event in Midland, Mich. The Ohio native has reached at least the second round of every grand slam.

Davis started out 2016 on a strong note by reaching the third round of the Australian Open. Her results stalled until this summer when she reached her first WTA final in Washington D.C. Davis’ run to the final included a win over the recently crowned gold medalist, Monica Puig of Puerto Rico.

Davis will no doubt be looking to build off of her success from earlier this summer and finish out 2016 on a strong note. This year will mark Davis’ fifth appearance in the US Open main draw. Her best showing came in 2015, when she reached the second round.

Kayla Day

Kayla Day at the 2016 Junior Fed Cup
16-year-old Kayla Day is going to be one of the youngest players in the draw, if not the youngest. Day secured her wild card by winning the USTA Girls’ 18s National Championships in San Diego, Calif. Day was the top seed at the event and dominant until the final, where she was pushed to three sets by seventh-seeded Nicole Frenkel.

Day has been one of the world’s best junior players over the last 12 months; she is currently at a career-high ranking of #5. Day’s junior highlights include a runner-up finish at the Orange Bowl, the semifinals at Junior Wimbledon, and three G1-level titles. Day was a part of the American Junior Fed Cup team which finished second to the Czech Republic last fall.

Day has begun to play ITF pro circuit events with more regularity in 2016 and reached a number of quarterfinals at $25,000 level tournaments. Day’s best result thus far on the pro circuit came in May when she reached the final of a $25,000 tournament in Naples, Fla.

Day is ranked #424 on the WTA rankings, which is a career best. The 2016 US Open was to have been Day’s debut in the main draw of a WTA event, but by reaching the final qualifying round this weekend in New Haven, and following Barbora Strycova's withdrawal, she got lucky loser into the Connecticut Open.

Sofia Kenin

Child prodigies have always seemed to have a place in tennis, especially in the women’s game. Sofia Kenin could definitely be labeled as such, having caught the attention of world-renowned coach Rick Macci at age six. Kenin began to train at Macci’s academy in Florida and has consistently been ranked at the top of the USTA’s girls’ rankings in every age division.

Now 17 years old, Kenin was awarded her wild card on the strength of her results on the USTA Pro Circuit. Her title at the $50,000 event in Sacramento clinched her the wild card reserved for the winner of the US Open Wild Card Challenge. The title was Kenin’s second pro title of the year, the first being at a $25,000 event in Florida in January.

Kenin had an outstanding junior career and has been ranked as high as #2 in the world. In 2014, Kenin won the Orange Bowl and the following summer was the runner up at the junior US Open.

Kenin will be making her second main draw appearance at the US Open. She also received a wild card last year after she won the USTA Girls’ 18s National Championships. Last year Kenin fell in the first round to Mariana Duque-Mariño.

Vania King

Vania King has been a stalwart presence in American tennis throughout the last decade. King had her breakout season in 2006 when, as a 17-year-old, she won her first and only WTA title in Bangkok and reached a career high ranking of #50.

At 27, King can now be considered a veteran of the tour. She’s been consistently ranked inside of the top 100 in singles during her career and has also established herself as an elite doubles player. King has won 15 tour doubles titles with ten different partners. Kings’ doubles highlights came in 2010, when she teamed with Yaroslava Shvedova of Kazakhstan to win Wimbledon and the US Open.

King saw her ranking drop after a neck and back injury kept her out of competition for nearly a full year after the 2014 US Open. She returned to competition at ITF Pro Circuit events just before the US Open last year.

Vania King at the 2015 Redding $50K. © Jonathan Kelley
If the entries for the US Open were to have closed this week instead of a month ago, King would have been comfortably in the draw, as she is currently ranked #88. A string of impressive results at WTA events in Bucharest (semifinals), Montreal (qualified and won a round), and Nanchang (finals) propelled King’s ranking nearly 60 spots.

The 2016 US Open is King’s 12th main draw appearance. Her previous best results were third round finishes in 2009 and 2011.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands

For the first part of her career, Bethanie Mattek-Sands was known more for her unconventional on-court style than her tennis. Now, Mattek-Sands lets her tennis do the talking. Since late 2008, Mattek-Sands has reached four WTA level finals, finishing runner-up at all of them. She achieved a career best singles ranking of #30 in 2011.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands
Mattek-Sands' aggressive, all-court tennis makes her a dangerous opponent for nearly any player in the draw. The variety in Mattek-Sands’ game has translated to success on the doubles court as well. She’s a two-time grand slam champion with partner Lucie Safarova. Mattek-Sands’ latest doubles triumph came at the Olympics, where she won gold in mixed doubles with Jack Sock.

In singles, Mattek-Sands has had a rough year. She is 2-11 in main draw matches, but eight of those losses were in three sets. The lack of wins, though, has caused her singles ranking to drop from #60 at the beginning of the season to #109, where she currently sits.

The 31-year-old veteran will be making her 15th appearance at the US Open. Mattek-Sands’ third round finish last year, where she fell to Serena Williams, was her best singles performance at the US Open.

Mattek-Sands is the top alternate for the main draw. Should another player withdraw, Mattek-Sands will be directly into the main draw and her wild card will be awarded to another player.

Ellen Perez

Australia’s Ellen Perez received a wild card for winning Tennis Australia’s wildcard playoff. She defeated former junior star Ashleigh Barty in the final. Tennis Australia has a reciprocal wild card agreement with the USTA.

Although she is from Australia, Perez has lived in the United States for the past two years. Perez plays college tennis for the University of Georgia. As a Bulldog, Perez has become a top player in the college game. Last year she compiled a 28-7 record at #1 singles and finished the year ranked #5 in the ITA college rankings.

This summer, Perez traveled to Europe to play some professional events. She came through qualifying at three separate $10,000 level events. Perez reached the semifinals, finals, and won these events respectively. Perez’s ranking is currently #725.

The US Open will be Perez’s first US Open main draw appearance. The 20-year-old has also played in the main draw of the Australian Open doubles.

Virginie Razzano

Virginie Razzano of France received her wild card due to the reciprocal agreement that the USTA has with the French Tennis Federation.

Razzano is probably most known for her shocking first round upset of Serena Williams at Roland Garros in 2012. Razzano was ranked outside of the top 100 at the time, and it was Williams’ first career loss in the first round of a grand slam.

Razzano was a top player in her own right for a time, following a breakout season in 2009. Razzano reached her career high ranking of #16 that year, with runs to the fourth round of Roland Garros and Wimbledon.

Razzano has won 2 WTA singles titles and 5 ITF singles titles throughout her career.

At 33 years old and with a ranking of #165, this year’s US Open has the potential to be Razzano’s last. This will mark Razzano’s 15th US Open main draw. She reached the fourth round in 2006.

Final Thoughts

In the past six years, there has been a steady flow of new American talent on the women’s side. There are a lot of worthy candidates for wild cards, but with only a handful of wild cards to hand out, it’s inevitable that players get left out who have a legitimate chance at winning a first round match.

Former junior world number one players CiCi Bellis and Taylor Townsend, as well as UCLA standout Jennifer Brady come to mind. All three are young players with big games, but they will have to come through qualifying. Jessica Pegula, who reached the semifinals of at the Citi Open in DC, and Julia Boserup, who qualified and reached the third round of Wimbledon, will have to qualify as well.

What do you think about the selections for the women’s wild cards? Leave your opinions in the comments below.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Getting to Know the 2016 US Open Main Draw Wild Cards: ATP Edition

Bjorn Fratangelo

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.

Ernesto Escobedo

© Jonathan Kelley
Southern California’s Ernesto Escobedo earned his wild card on the strength of his results on the USTA Pro Circuit this summer. In 2012, the USTA established the “US Open Wild Card Challenge,” which takes into account each American player’s best two results in a series of three ATP Challenger events. The player who amasses the most ranking points earns a US Open wild card.

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

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

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.

Michael Mmoh

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.

Rajeev Ram

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

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.

Final Thoughts

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.