US Open…Playing For Peace And The Qualies

By Mark Winters

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Playing For Peace…Poetic After A Rewrite

The USTA touted “Tennis Plays for Peace” as a fundraising event at Louis Armstrong Stadium which is on the grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

Fittingly the exhibition benefitting Ukraine was staged on August 24th the country’s Independence Day and sadly the sixth-month anniversary of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “Special Military Operation” invasion.

Ticket selling names, along with the cause, form the backbone of a financially successful benefit. “Tennis Plays for Peace” had an exemplary cast sharing court time in the 10 point doubles tiebreaks that were played.

Peace players. Photo: Mike Lawrence/USTA

The stars included Carlos Alcaraz, Matteo Berrettini, Leylah Fernandez, Taylor Fritz, Coco Gauff, Sebastian Korda, John McEnroe, Rafael Nadal, Tommy Paul, Jessica Pegula, Maria Sakkari, Ben Shelton, Iga Świątek and Frances Tiafoe. Daria Snigur, Dayana Yastremska and Katarina Zavatska, along with recently retired Olga Savchuk and Sergiy Stakhovsky represented Ukraine. Patrick McEnroe ably served as the program’s on court host.

Many of those attending wore blue and yellow Ukraine flag color clothing combinations while others waved supportive banners. The magic began with Ustyn Chornyy, a 12-year-old who is a member of the Ukrainian Chorus Dumka of New York, singing the Ukrainian national anthem.

Ustyn Chornyy singing the Ukrainian national anthem.
Photo: Mike Lawrence/USTA

Too good to be true, and it came ridiculously close to being “Bricked…” On Thursday, August 4th, US Open Tournament Director, Stacey Allaster announced that she had called Victoria Azarenka, a long-standing friend, and asked her to take part. The Belarusian, who is a two-time Australian Open Women’s Singles champion and three-time US Open finalist, responded, “This is a player choice and I want to play…”

Once Azarenka’s involvement was made public, the reaction by the Ukrainians on the WTA Tour was incendiary. Marta Kostyuk, the 20-year-old from Kyiv, has been one of the most outspoken of her countrywomen. In an interview at the Granby National Bank Championships in Canada, (where she was competing), Kostyuk admitted declining her invitation to the event. Previously, she had expressed the feelings of many those who are part of the “Ukrainian Sisterhood”, it is wrong for Azarenka to remain on the WTA Player Council when she has done next to nothing (when so many need assistance because they are unable to return to their country).

The Ukrainian ribbon. Photo: Mike Lawrence/USTA

Realizing the furore that had been ignited the afternoon before the exhibition began, the USTA released a “Brick” of a statement in an effort to “Unbrick” what had been created…”In the last 24 hours, after careful consideration and dialogue with all parties involved, Victoria Azarenka will not be participating in our ‘Tennis Plays for Peace Exhibition’ this evening. Vika is a strong player leader and we appreciate her willingness to participate. Given the sensitivities to Ukrainian players, and the on-going conflict, we believe this is the right course of action for us.”

It was head-shaking bewildering that an individual, though having lived in the US for many years, would have been invited to play since she has said little about the war but was candid about her unhappiness with The 2022 Championships banning Russians and Belarusian competitors. Azarenka has also been photographed on occasions throughout her career with her country’s autocratic President Alexsandr Lukashenko, who is a Putin ally and has claimed that he taught the former World No. 1 how to play when she was a youngster.

Fans at the event. Photo: Allison Joseph/USTA

In the end, according to Allaster, the Wednesday night activity raised US$1.2 million and by the conclusion of the tournament, the USTA hopes to realize more than US$2 million to benefit Ukraine.

After teaming with John McEnroe and losing to Nadal and Świątek, Gauff explained the reason for her participation, “You guys know me. When it’s right I like to speak out.”

Świątek, the Women’s No. 1 who staged an exhibition in Krakow on July 23rd to provide aid, told the crowd, “For me, especially because Ukraine is right next to my country and because we as Poles are really united and helping, and I want to use every opportunity to show people that we all can be united.”

Stefanos Tsitsipas and Maria Sakkari enjoying their Doubles.
Photo: Allison Joseph/USTA

Zavatska, the 22-year-old from Lutsk, after teaming with Berrettini against Tsitsipas and Sakkari, added meaningful perspective saying, “…It means a lot to see so many supporting Ukraine. Today is a special day in Ukraine, the birthday of our country (Ukraine gained its independence 31 years ago). I just want to say that normally on this day all Ukrainian people are going in the street, having fun, watching the fireworks. Unfortunately, this year’s fireworks are not the same.”

May the time, in the none too distant future, come when the fireworks are celebratory…

Katarina Zavatska with her country’s flag. Photo: Mike Lawrence/USTA

(An aside – Azarenka has always been forthright in my dealings with her. She, just like the Russian players, is not a government policy maker. Perhaps, as some opinioned, letting her participate would have begun a lessening of the animosity that exists between the Ukrainians and the Russians/Belarusian tour performers. Others, even being aware of what could befall relatives of those who speak up, still felt that if you believe in something you have to be true to who/what you are…Further, it is important to remember that courage can’t be manufactured with the hope that it will remain resilient…)

Treacherous And Revealing…

Grand Slam Qualifyings, with 128 draws funneling down to 16 men and the same number of women earning spots in the Main Draws, regularly call for more than tennis skill to survive the three match gauntlet.

The August 24th to 26th US Open ordeal was filled with “Made it successes…” and “Didn’t achieve despair…” Those caught up in attempting to realize glory were young, “tweeners” and a number of players with “Once were…” pasts. Included in this group were Genie Bouchard of Canada, Gilles Simon of France, Fernando Verdasco of Spain and Yanina Wickmayer of Belgium who were able to “Reach back” and escape the first round…Verdasco actually was a Qualifying finalist. Sara Errani of Italy and Kristina Mladenovic of France lost their initial contests.

The Czech Republic topped the world “Country Combination Qualifying Count” (CCQC) with four players (a man and three women) “Achieving…” Next in the CCQC listing were China and France each with three performers moving into the Main Draw. There were also two players with “Really?…” designations. Alexander Ritchard played intercollegiate tennis at the University of Virginia as a student from Switzerland. Upon graduation in April 2018 he decided to represent the US but in February of this year he “found home…again” and returned to being Swiss…which was his Qualifying flag. Elina Avanesyan’s “Where she’s from…” is even more confusing. She was born in Pyatigorsk, Russia but, because of the current political situation, is a “country-less” Armenian who lives in Spain.

Elina Avanesyan in the final round of Qualifying. Photo: Peter Staples/USTA

For the US, there were unique stories relating to each of the two men and two women who played their way into the US Open.

Christopher Eubanks is a 6’7”, right-hander with, a surprise today, a one-hand backhand. He is 26 and comes from Atlanta, Georgia. As a youngster, he trained, a short distance from his home, at the South Fulton Tennis Center operated by Donald Sr. and Illona Young, the parents of former World No. 1 Junior, Donald Young Jr. (who when he wasn’t competing on the tour provided improvement suggestions).

Eubanks spent three years playing intercollegiate tennis at Georgia Tech before deciding to turn pro in 2017 instead of using his senior year of eligibility. He claimed a spot in the Main Draw defeating Raul Brancaccio of Italy, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4. With the victory, he will be making his fifth US Open Men’s Singles appearance.

Each of the remaining US competitors, because their rankings didn’t allow direct entry, needed USTA wild cards to participate in the Qualifying. Brandon Holt, who turned 24 in April, is the best known of the trio. He is the middle son of Tracy Austin Holt, who became the youngest US Open champion claiming the Women’s Singles title at 16 in 1979 and the youngest International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee when, at 29, she was honored in 1992.

Christopher Eubanks making it through Qualifying.
Photo: Georgia Tech Men’s Tennis

Holt played intercollegiate tennis at USC where he majored in business. As a youngster he was prone to ignore the advice his mother provided but now he admits, “I’ve gotten better at listening…” He pointed out that during the pandemic they hit every day and that now, prior to a match, she warms him up…and “never misses a shot… If she does, she gets furious.”

Last April, Holt began having agonizing pain in the back of his right hand. Doctors tried everything to relieve the discomfort. Nothing worked. Finally, a tumor that had burrowed into the bones and tendons was discovered. Dr. Steven Shin, a renown Orthopedic Hand Surgery Specialist with the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic in Los Angeles, performed the complex and delicate surgery.

With his career at stake, Holt was ecstatic that the growth was benign but he was not allowed to grip a tennis racquet for five months. Gradually he made his way back, in the beginning, using a miniature racquet to hit foam balls with his mother. Finally, in January 2022, he was pain-free and returned to competition.

His trek through recovery was a testament to his fortitude and the same can be said about the three three-set Qualifying matches he survived. In the last, he downed Dimitar Kuzmanov of Bulgaria 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.

Brandon Holt is congratulated by his mother Tracy Austin.
Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty

This has been quite a year for Catherine Harrison, the 28-year-old from Memphis, Tennessee. She made her Grand Slam debut at Roland Garros reaching the Women’s Doubles second round playing with Ulrikke Eikeri of Norway (who reached the Mixed Doubles final with Joran Vliegen of Belgium).

At The Championships, she played her first Grand Slam Qualifying; succeeded then defeated Arantxa Rus of the Netherlands 6-1, 6-4 before Ajla Tomljanović, the Australian living in Boca Raton, Florida, ended her Ladies’ major debut, in the second round, 6-2, 6-2. With Sabrina Santamaria, who is from Los Angeles and attended USC, she defeated Kaja Juvan and Tamara Zidanšek of Slovenia, 2-6, 6-4, 5-2, Retired, in Ladies’ Doubles. In their next match, Alicja Rosolska of Poland and Erin Routliffe, the Canadian who plays for New Zealand, escaped with a 6-7, 7-5, 7-6 victory.

When she began playing, Harrison was so small that she hit forehands and backhands two-handed…which she still does. She attended UCLA (USC is the school’s crosstown rival) and graduated with a degree in Anthropology. She moved on spending time coaching tennis while earning a Master of Science degree in Health Behavior & Education at the University of Florida.

Harrison’s progress through the Qualifying was “straight set ordinary…” In her last match, she was 6-4, 6-4 better than Eva Lys of Germany.

Ashlyn Kruger playing her second round of Qualifying.
Photo: Mike Lawrence/USTA

Ashlyn Krueger, who stands 6’1” and in May turned 18, comes from Highland Village Texas. In 2021, she was the US National Girls’ 18 Singles champion and with the title collected a US Open Women’s Singles wild card (and was edged, 7-5, 6-7, 6-3 in the first round by Qualifier Anna Karolína Schmiedlová of Slovakia). But she didn’t leave New York emptyhanded. In an All-US Junior Girls’ doubles final, she and Robin Montgomery, who was the Girls’ Singles titlist, defeated Reese Brantmeier and Elvina Kalieva 5-7, 6-3, 10-4. In her last Qualifying contest, Krueger defeated Lesley Pattinama Kerkhove of the Netherlands, 7-5, 6-3.

With three “warmup” matches serving as confidence builders it is never surprising when Qualifiers end up doing more than just Qualify…

Title photo by Mike Lawrence/USTA

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