NEW YORK — For a player who has spent more time watching Roger Federer on TV than trying to beat him, it’s safe to say Rhyne Williams will not win the U.S. Open this year.
But to say the 21-year-old’s trip to Flushing Meadows has been less than a rousing success — well, that’s not quite true, either.
While Federer, Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams and all those other big names get their chance to make history next week, it’s players such as Rhyne Williams and 17-year-old Samantha Crawford who truly put the “Open” in the U.S. Open this week.
They’re among those who won their third qualifying matches Friday to make it into the main draw. They grinded out the wins on the same courts some of the greats will play on starting Monday. They did it not to the cheers of thousands but in front of the hundreds who got in for free this week to watch the warm-up act for the last Grand Slam tournament of the year.
Nothing small-time about it to these players, though.
“I’m still shaking,” said Crawford, ranked 394th, about 15 minutes after her 6-3, 1-6, 6-4 win over Eleni Daniilidou of Greece.
Williams, ranked 283rd coming into the week, shared the exact same sentiment after his 6-3, 6-2 victory over Peter Gojowczyk of Germany.
“I’m still shaking,” Williams said. “It’s incredible. I’ve dreamed my whole life about playing here in the main draw. I’ve finally done it. Hopefully, I’ll have many more years left here.”
Williams was the NCAA runner-up in 2010 while playing for Tennessee and, after some success over the following months, decided to turn pro. His mother is Michelle Williams, a former pro who, as a tennis-loving little girl, inspired her father, Mike DePalmer, to reach out to a friend and start a tennis school.
The school is now known as the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy.
“I knew I had a good shot at being a pro,” Williams said. “It’s in the family. It’s in my blood.”
Even with great bloodlines, no thriving tennis career is preordained. In search of his first big breakthrough as a pro, Williams got it on a steamy, 85-degree day on Court 17 in front of about 200 fans. His next match will be early next week in his first Grand Slam tournament. His opponent will be determined late Friday night.
“I’ve never played a best-of-5 match before,” he said. “That’s very new for me. But I’ve been around the level. I’ve hit balls with guys in the top 10 and top 100 plenty of times. I’m used to the way they play.”
Williams is among the 32 players — 16 men and 16 women — who will make it through qualifying and find themselves in the main draw early next week.
A priceless experience? Of course. But nobody at this level will tell you it’s not about the money. By winning the three matches, Williams is guaranteed to earn at least the $23,000 that goes to a first-round loser in the main draw. Easily the biggest payday for a player who did pick up a win at a lower-tier tournament in Spain earlier this year — first-place prize money: $1,300.
“I guess I can look at it as probably close to two years’ rent,” he said. “That helps a lot.”
The furthest a qualifier has ever advanced in the U.S. Open is the quarterfinals, most recently by Gilles Muller in 2008. Anna Kournikova made the fourth round as a qualifier in 1996.
So, the obvious question: Could something like this happen to your buddy at the club?
While the bulk of the spots in qualifying typically go to players ranked somewhere between 105 and 250, the USTA reserves a few wild cards, often given to young, up-and-coming players such as Williams and Crawford.
But in keeping with the spirit of what an “Open” tournament really is, the USTA started a national playoff in 2010, with players competing for one of the wild cards into the qualifying draw. Unlike golf’s U.S. Open, which requires most players to have a certain handicap to sign up for qualifying, all you need in tennis is to be at least 14, have the $108 entry fee and a way to get to one of the 13 cities where the opening rounds of the tournament are held every spring. Bode Miller has tried. Chris Evert tried to make it in mixed doubles last year.
Not surprisingly, this year’s spots went to a couple of seasoned players — Alexandra Mueller and Clement Reix, each of whom has extensive experience in pro tennis.
Neither made it past the first round. Still, the way they earned their trips to Flushing Meadows adds at least a small sense of democracy to a sport dominated by a handful of the same names year after year.
“It reminds you that it is a very interesting sport,” Williams said. “Anyone can beat anyone in this tournament.”
Lukas Rosol knows all about that.
The 27-year-old from the Czech Republic was ranked No. 100 when he beat Rafael Nadal in the second round at Wimbledon earlier this year — the last match Nadal played in 2012 because of a knee injury that forced him to withdraw from both the Olympics and the U.S. Open. Rosol’s big win didn’t vault his ranking high enough to make the main draw, however, so he was just another qualifier this week. He lost Friday and won’t make it to the Big Show.
A native of Atlanta, she practices down at the USTA facility in Florida and was awarded one of the USTA’s nine wild-card spots into women’s qualifying.
“When I was younger, I saw Maria Sharapova win Wimbledon when she was 17,” Crawford said. “I always wanted to play like her.”
How about playing against her?
“I haven’t really thought about that much,” Crawford said. “It’s crazy, really.”