Tennis is a “lifetime sport” as you can see by the spectators and participants from venues as varied as public courts, private tennis clubs and at men’s and women’s professional tour events. This year, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) propagated the “U.S. Open National Playoffs” which was a truly “open” event as the only qualifications were that you had to be at least 14 years of age and paid the $125 tournament fee. 800 men and almost 400 women played in 16 Sectionals with the overall winner of each division receiving a wild card to the “Qualifying tournament” of the United States Open in Flushing Meadows, NY in late August. The finalist (loser) would receive nothing – well maybe a handful of “that a way” or “you’ll get ’em next time”. The odds of winning this arduous format were long and even longer for the chance to “qualify” for the U.S. Open. We won’t even mention the chances of winning the last grand slam of this tennis year. But no odds are ever given for that intangible thing called “hope”.
Last week, the U.S. Open National Playoffs (“Playoffs”) Men’s Finals were played at the ATP tour stop in Atlanta, Georgia and the two finalists were,indeed, dreamers but, alas, from very different paths. Blake Strobe, 23 years old and had played junior tennis in the U.S. and then played college tennis at University of Arkansas. He was still a relevant aspiring professional so decided to defer law school at Harvard to play in “challenger”, “pro circuit events”, and formats like this one to continue his quest at the big tour.
Cecil Mamiit, on the other hand, was the #2 seed and other finalist and when I initially heard his name, I thought to myself aloud, “Oh, this must be Mamiit’s younger brother or child because I remember seeing a Cecil Mamiit play in a tournament in San Jose, California in the 90’s”. When I tuned in to the Tennis Channel on this particular Sunday afternoon – to my surprise – it was THE very same Cecil Mamiit who had vanquished Andre Agassi in San Jose and then lost in the finals. Mamiit had played college tennis at University of Southern California (USC) and had won the NCAA Singles championship as a freshman in 1996. He had played the main draw of the U.S. Open on four occasions but other than his win over Agassi was known as a journeyman, though likely more significant to others like myself because of his Filipino descent. Currently, Mamiit is the Philippine Davis Cup Captain and team member – two weeks before the Playoffs final, he had played in a losing tie against Chinese Taipei (formerly Taiwan) by playing 2 singles and doubles. The Philippines lost in a fifth set final match. Mamiit is 34 which is “old” for professional tennis standards oddly because in comparison to the many around the world who continue hitting forehands and backhands at the amateur level beyond their social security receiving years. If there was a picture of a dreamer, then it would be Mamiit holding a Babolat racquet trying to get into the qualifier of a major tourney.
Strobe would outlast Mamiit in three hours, 2-6, 6-4, 7-6(1) to earn his place in the qualifying tournament for the U.S. Open where he will have to win three more matches to get into the main draw. Both men had won eight matches to play for this opportunity. Said Strobe, “It is neat how this gave everyone and anyone a shot.” Yesterday, at the WTA event in Stanford, Calfiornia, 22 year old Alex Mueller won the women’s final of the U.S. Open National Playoff by besting Alina Jidkova 6-0, 6-3.
Local 4.5 player Paddi Tetteh chimed, “I think it’s a great idea that the USTA would install a truly “open” format for anybody who might get a chance to play in New York. It definitely draws interest.”
The stories of the finalists were compelling and though there were the typical adversaries; former college players, up and coming juniors, club professionals there was the match in a New York sectional which saw a fifteen year-old defeat a spry man of 61 in a third set tiebreaker or the beginner in another part of the country testing the waters or the middle-aged club champion who was insisting on finding that youthful form for a few weeks. At the end of the day or the tournament, all 1200 entrants and many onlookers shared that kindred spirit that tennis truly is the sport of a lifetime and along with that comes that eternal hope of some greater horizon.