Category Archives: Qualifiers

Dominic Thiem’s Qualifying Marathon

When Dominic Thiem beat Marinko Matosevic in Madrid qualifying this week, it was the seventh time this year he fought his way into a tour-level main draw.  Seven is an awful lot for one season–and it’s early May. Last season, Santiago Giraldo qualified more than any other player, doing so only six times.

In fact, Thiem could easily set the all-time record. Only 46 players have ever qualified for seven or more tour-level events in a season, and 29 of those have stopped at seven. 10 players have qualified eight times, including Flavio Cipolla in 2011, Teymuraz Gabashvili in 2007, and Alejandro Falla in 2007 and 2009. An even smaller group of seven players have reached nine main draws through qualifying, most recently Kevin Anderson in 2010.

No one has ever reached double digits, and Thiem has almost six months in which to close the gap.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Thiem’s run is that he has failed to qualify only once this year, in Acapulco. At most ATP events, qualifying requires winning two matches, and twice this year he’s needed to win three. It’s a level of consistency almost unheard of among young players, or players of any age at his level in the rankings. It’s comparable to reaching the quarterfinals or better at seven of eight consecutive particularly strong Challengers.

If the Austrian fails to set a new record, it probably won’t be because he’s not good enough–it’s more likely to end up that way because he’s too good. His ranking started the year at #139, and after his win over Stanislas Wawrinka yesterday, he’ll ascend to almost #60 next Monday. That isn’t good enough to make the main draw cut at most Masters 1000 events, but it will earn him direct entry into anything else.

Thiem has climbed so high not just because of his success in qualifying, but also because of his performance after qualifying. In six of the seven main draws he has reached the hard way, he won at least one match, including three against seeded players. That sets him apart from other recent qualifying warriors. For instance, in 2009 Falla qualified for eight main draws and won only two matches. In 2010 Anderson won five main draw matches in nine main draws as a qualifier.

While qualifying records are impressive and entertaining, it is Thiem’s consistency and his quality play in main draws that bode well for his future as a top player on tour. Guys like Cipolla and Falla have qualified so much because they manage to stick around in a certain tier of the rankings without ever advancing any higher, not because they were ever on the brink of stardom.

That’s why, if Thiem does qualify for ten main draws this year, it will likely be the last qualifying-related record he sets. Falla leads active players with 37 successful trips through qualifying in his career, and that’s a mark the Austrian will never threaten.


Filed under Qualifiers, Records

Five First-Round Men’s Qualifying Matches to Watch at the US Open

Why wait until next week to get excited about the US Open?  Qualifying rounds start tomorrow, and there is a ton of action all over the grounds as 128 men and 128 women fight for 16 spots in each main draw.  There’s more cash on the line than ever, so you can count on some very hard-fought contests for the right to stick around into next week.

1. Ivo Karlovic vs Mackenzie McDonald

You know Ivo.  Two weeks ago, you almost certainly didn’t know McDonald.  The UCLA commit’s pedestrian junior career didn’t prepare anyone for his victories over Nicolas Mahut and Steve Johnson in Cincinnati qualifying last week.  That’s right: The unranked 18-year-old made the main draw of last week’s Masters 1000 event, and the cannon-serving veteran did not.

I saw much of McDonald’s match against Johnson.  To the extent you can be a believer in a pint-sized player without any weapons, count me in.  He fought Johnson hard on every point, waiting until the older player made a mistake. That won’t work against most tour-level players, but it might do the trick against the Croatian.

They are third up on Court 11 today.

2. Jesse Huta Galung vs Florent Serra

Two years ago, Huta Galung qualified in Flushing and took a set from James Blake in the first round of main draw play.  It was something of a career highlight for the Dutchman, who has only won four main draw matches in his tour-level career.

Yet this year, he returns to New York on a tear.  He has a 29-7 record in Challengers this year, including wins in Cherbourg (as a 346th-ranked lucky loser), St. Brieuc, Scheveningen, and Tampere, along with a final in Meerbusch last week.  He broke into the top 100 for the first time with this week’s rankings, and he has almost no points to defend until Cherbourg comes along again at the end of next February.

I’ve long loved Huta Galung’s game–he’s a stylish player with plenty of variety who can move particularly well.  Even in a losing effort, he is enjoyable to watch.

His opener would have been on this list regardless of opponent, but Serra has the ability to turn this into one of the better matches of qualifying week–certainly one of the tougher tilts in the first round.  The 32-year-old is unlikely to recover the form that took him into the top 40 seven years ago, but remains a threat at the challenger level.

Look for this match on Wednesday’s schedule.

3. Evgeny Korolev vs Illya Marchenko

In contrast to the previous match, stylishness isn’t the word that comes to mind here.  Korolev is not just a slugger; he’s a ball-basher who has lost his way.  He broke into the top 100 as an 18-year-old, peaking inside the top 50, and had a double-digit ranking as recently as three years ago.  At the age of 25, he should be heading toward a new peak, but instead is languishing in Challengers, losing to … well, just about everybody.

Injuries have repeatedly derailed his progress, and since he has retired in two of his last three matches, it wouldn’t shock anyone if he didn’t complete this match, either.  But on a good day, he has an uncanny ability to smack groundstrokes to within inches of the baseline.  Though it it’s never pretty, I’m always impressed.

Marchenko has a more well-rounded game, and despite never cracking the top 60, has the physical potential to return to that range.  His qualifying match against Christian Harrison in Washington a few weeks ago was one of the better displays I saw at that event.  But it was typical Illya.  He was the superior player, except on crucial points.  Marchenko’s last six losses have been three-setters, yet only against Harrison did he push the final set past 6-4.

These guys play third on Court 4 today.

4. Cedrik Marcel Stebe vs Malek Jaziri

(Hey, it’s my list. If you don’t like my choices, make your own list!)

Stebe dominated the 2011 Challenger tour, then kept his ranking just high enough throughout 2012 to earn a direct entry into last year’s US Open, where he beat Viktor Troicki in the first round.  Two weeks later he beat Lleyton Hewitt in Davis Cup, and it’s been all downhill from there.  Aside from the final at the Tallahassee Challenger in the spring, there’s little sign of the guy who charged into the top 100 barely out of his teens.

The 22-year-old lefty is too passive to have a natural home on hard courts, though he has registered some big wins on the surface, such as the ’11 Challenger Tour finals and that Troicki upset.  That makes Jaziri an ideal opponent for him.  The 29-year-old Tunisian has played a bit more on hard courts this summer, showing up at a couple of North American challengers and playing qualifying in Washington, but he’s a counterpunching dirtballer at heart.

It could make for some ugly tennis, or it could generate some entertaining scampering around the back of the court.  They’ll play tomorrow.

5. Mitchell Krueger vs Lucas Pouille

It wouldn’t be a qualifying preview without some of the youngest players in the draw.  With so many of the fringey Americans wildcarded into the main draw, US fans need to look deeper for local boys, and Krueger is a good place to start.  The 19-year-old had a single ranking point when he got a qualifying wild card last year (and won a round); he has now edged into the top 500.  While he hasn’t made a strong impression on his first trip around the North American Challenger circuit, he has scored two top-300 wins.

Pouille, also 19, is a bit more advanced, having won 10 matches at the Challenger level and above since the beginning of this year.  Many view him as a big part of the future of French tennis, and with a ranking on the cusp of the top 200, he should be heavily favored here.

But the outcome isn’t what matters here; neither player is likely to reach the main draw.  In a qualifying field full of guys 10 years older, these two are unquestionably on the way up.  They’ll be on the Wednesday schedule.

A few notes:

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ATP Finalists in Qualifying Draws

Earlier this week, twitterer Double_Faute noted that 13 former ATP finalists were among the 128 men in the Australian Open qualifying draw.  Since the term “finalist” evokes names like James Blake and Tommy Haas, that sounds like quite the minefield for other qualifiers to navigate.

As it turns out, though, 13 is exactly what we should expect.  Since 2007, the average qualifying draw at a Grand Slam event has included 13.4 former finalists.  Of course, Blake and Haas aren’t typical.  The usual finalist-turned-qualifier is more likely to have a record like that of Jerome Haehnel or Wayne Odesnik.

If you missed Odesnik’s crazy week at the 2009 US Clay Courts, I don’t blame you.  The discovery here isn’t that qualifying draws are so strong, its that so many players have reached an ATP final at some point along the way.  The top four may have a stranglehold on the game’s highest honors, but like spots in the rest of the top ten, finalists at ATP berths seem awfully easy to come by.

Some records

There were plenty of former champions (or finalists, anyway) who hit hard times in the spring and summer of 2007.  The ’07 Wimbledon qualifying draw featured 19 former ATP finalists, while qualies at Roland Garros included 23.  To give you a flavor of what that meant for the week of qualifying matches, here’s the complete list of former finalists in that draw:

Davide Sanguinetti, Albert Portas, Bohdan Ulihrach, Adrian Voinea, Ivo Minar, Gilles Muller, Ricardo Mello, Rainer Schuettler, Santiago Ventura, Ramon Delgado, Alex Calatrava, Andrei Pavel, Wesley Moodie, Harel Levy, Wayne Arthurs, Fernando Vicente, Christophe Rochus, Younes El Aynaoui, Jerome Haehnel, Mariano Zabaleta, Michel Kratochvil, George Bastl, Kenneth Carlsen

Yep, I had forgotten about most of those guys, too.

Of the last 24 slams–my records of qualie draws only go back to 2007–every one has had at least 7 former finalists in qualifying.  All but five have had at least 10.  The large numbers in 2007 may have been due in part to the wider array of ATP events in 1998 and before, but by 1999, the number of ATP events had dwindled to 71, just six more than in 2012.  So the effect is likely minimal, and we might find more former finalists in slam qualifying draws if we were able to look another 10 years back.

Anyway, in the time span we do have to work with, the number of former finalists in slam qualie draws isn’t going down.  Last year, those draws at Wimbledon and the French both had 16 former finalists.

The next wave

A question that qualifying-watchers might find more interesting is, how many men in these draws go on to reach ATP finals?  We’d all like to catch the next del Potro or Raonic on court 14, so how many future finalists are there?

The 2007 French continues to impress and amaze, with 22 men in the qualifying draw who went on to play in an ATP final.  There were certainly some guys worth watching that week in Paris:

Horacio Zeballos, Sergiy Stakhovsky, Pablo Andujar, Jeremy Chardy, Robin Haase, Lukasz Kubot, Mischa Zverev, Rajeev Ram, Michael Berrer, Martin Klizan, Frederico Gil, Frank Dancevic, Alexandr Dolgopolov, Lukas Lacko, Viktor Troicki, Marcel Granollers, Dudi Sela, Wayne Odesnik, Fabio Fognini, Raemon Sluiter, Marin Cilic, Santiago Giraldo

(Yes, Zverev reached a final–after qualifying for the Metz event in 2010.  This post has taken an unusually long time to research and write because of the number of times I’ve felt the need to check.  I’m looking at you, Federico Gil.)

The 2007 Australian Open qualifying draw also featured 22 future finalists, and US Open qualies that year included 21.  Of course, many of those names overlap.

Here’s where the six years of data holds us back–I have no idea whether 22 is a historically high number.  Perhaps it’s typical once players’ careers have run their course.  Glancing at the full list of the 2007 Roland Garros qualifying draw, it does appear that we’ve seen all the finalists we’ll see, but of course the same doesn’t apply to qualies from 2009 or 2010.

Remarkably, though, we’ve already had two finalists from the 2012 US Open qualifying draw: Grega Zemlja and Roberto Bautista Agut.

Keep all of this in mind when you next watch a qualifying match.  The tennis might be messy and the players you’re watching may never be famous, but in a few years, you may see them again in the finals of your neighborhood ATP 250.

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