TENNIS

Wimbledon qualifiers: a stone’s throw from center court, players dream of reaching the main draw

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Roehampton, London
CNN

It’s unmistakably a scene from the British summer: on a stretch of green, manicured courts, tennis players shoot balls over the net while spectators – some seated, others reclining on benches grass – look out in the lazy heat of the afternoon.

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It’s Wimbledon – the third Grand Slam tournament of the calendar year – but the venue and the competitors aren’t quite as most know it. At this tennis club, the crowds are smaller, the cheers quieter and the courts closer together than at the All England Club three miles away.

While the main draw at Wimbledon may not start until next week, for over 250 players the journey to get there has already begun.

The four-day qualifying tournament in London’s Roehampton borough may be a golden ticket to the main stage at Wimbledon – a place where some players have dreamed of competing their entire careers.

“I haven’t been on the main Wimbledon field since my last days as a junior in 2012. It’s been 10 years,” American Mitchell Krueger told CNN Sport.

“And actually where we’re staying is right by the gate to Wimbledon. Every day I’m so close – I can see it, but I haven’t walked through the doors in 10 years, so obviously it would be amazing to be there one more time.

Prior to Monday, Krueger had never won a match in the Wimbledon playoffs – affectionately known as “qualies”. But a 6-1 6-4 win over Briton Luca Pow saw the 28-year-old take a small but significant step towards the main draw.

“I played a lot of close games in the first rounds, but I never managed to overcome the difficulty,” continues Krueger. “The fact that I was able to close is really important. I’m motivated to continue my season on grass.

Most players qualify for Grand Slam tournaments via their position in the ladder, but up to eight places in each draw are reserved for wildcards – decided by tournament organizers – and 16 for qualifiers, meaning that those ranked well outside the top 100 have an unlikely chance of growing. slam the glory.

Until last year, no qualifier had won a Grand Slam title. But Emma Raducanu’s win over Layla Fernandez in the US Open final produced one of tennis’ most famous storylines as the 18-year-old triumphed without dropping a set during the tournament.

Even progressing in qualification is not an easy task. Players must either win all three matches or hope they can earn a ‘lucky loser’ spot after a late main draw withdrawal.

“There will always be nerves, especially for a slam, but I think the good thing about qualifying is you kind of have those behind you,” said Krueger, who first qualified for the slam. main draw of a grand slam. at the 2018 US Open.

“You will have three difficult games under your belt, while everyone comes in with nothing. If you can handle it physically, it’s definitely an advantage to be able to qualify.

Success in the qualifiers can also be a substantial payday for lower rankings.

Qualifying men’s and women’s singles have a combined prize pool of £3,648,000 (approximately $4,465,000) – a 26% increase on 2021 – and just getting into the first round of the main draw is enough to win a one-time payment of £50,000 (about $61,000).

At this year’s Wimbledon qualifying, some courts have been fitted with temporary stands, while on others spectators can take up a viewing position just meters from the action, creating an intimate atmosphere for the players.

Adapting to playing conditions can take time, especially for those with limited experience on grass pitches. Switzerland’s Alexander Ritschard, ranked 192nd in the world, is taking part in his second grass-court tournament.

“It’s super different. I’m absolutely not used to it,” Ritschard told CNN Sport after his 4-6 6-1 6-2 win over Britain’s Stuart Parker. “But it’s definitely a fun surface with bounces I’ve never seen before. I feel like I don’t have as much ball control as usual on other pitches.

“I’m also surprised that while it’s a bit fast, it’s also a bit slow,” he adds. “I can’t figure it out yet – I’m working on it.”

Ritschard plays a forehand in the first round of Wimbledon qualifying.

Ritschard has never played in the main draw of a Grand Slam, but he came close to Roland Garros this year by losing in the third round of qualifying. Going even further at Wimbledon, he says, would be “very special”.

“It would be a dream come true, that’s for sure,” he says. “Growing up, you always talk about Wimbledon as a kid.

“I would also love to play at the main site – that would be great. Those grounds are beautiful… Last time I was there I think I was eight, just as a fan watching. I can’t remember not quite sure what it looks like.

Some qualifying players have already graced the main stage at Wimbledon. Ukraine’s Daria Snigur won the women’s singles title on center court three years ago and is now keen to compete in her first senior grand slam.

“I love the grass pitch,” she told CNN Sport after winning her first qualifying match. “It’s my favorite place…and the grass is my favorite surface. Of course, I want to play in the main draw.

Snigur plays in Roehampton with the flag of Ukraine pinned to his tennis kit and thoughts of his homeland close to his heart.

Russian and Belarusian players were banned from Wimbledon this year – a decision that proved divisive among players – and the ATP and WTA Tours responded by stripping the tournament of all ranking points.

Snigur fully supports Wimbledon’s decision to exclude Russians and Belarusians, which she says is “very important” to her as a Ukrainian: “For me, it doesn’t matter – with or without points”, she adds.

Snigur beat Suzan Lamens in her first qualifying match at Roehampton.

The removal of ranking points from Wimbledon this year has not deterred players from taking part in the tournament, which will feature nine of the top 10 players in the women’s ranking and seven of the top 10 in the men’s ranking. The four absentees are due to injury and the exclusion of Russian and Belarusian players.

The tournament has the added benefit of winning additional prize money – the total purse is just over £40m ($49m), a 15.2% increase on last year – but the prestige of competing at Wimbledon is also a draw – as those who play qualifying are fully aware.

For some, the mere act of stepping onto the manicured tournament lawns is the fulfillment of many years’ dreams.

“Wimbledon being Wimbledon, it will always be special no matter what happens,” says Krueger. “Playing on the main Wimbledon board is everyone’s goal – whether there are points or not.”

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