By E.J. Crawford and Amanda Korba
This year’s US Open became truly "open" in 2010 with the introduction of the US Open National Playoffs, with the men’s and women’s champions earning a wild card into the 2010 US Open Qualifying Tournament.
But the US Open National Playoffs are about more than crowning a winner. They are a celebration of tennis, both recreational and professional, with more than 1,200 players nationwide competing in the 16 Sectional Qualifying Tournaments. The result was some wonderful tennis and host of memorable competitors and characters, all playing with a single goal of realizing a singular dream—to play in the US Open.
Here is a look at just a few of their stories:
The Professional: Jeff Tarango
Jeff Tarango was a steady fixture in the Top 100 during the 1990s as well as an accomplished doubles player, climbing as high as No. 10 in the world in doubles. He reached the third round in all four Grand Slams in singles, peaking at No. 42 in 1992, was the doubles runner-up at Roland Garros in 1999 with partner Goran Ivanisivec and participated in the 2000 Olympic Games.
This year, 10 years after he last competed in the US Open in singles—and seven years since he last competed in doubles—Tarango took one more run at Flushing Meadows by playing in the Southern California Section Qualifying Tournament of the US Open National Playoffs.
"I think it’s tennis’ answer to Tin Cup," Tarango says of the National Playoffs, referring to the movie about a club pro who qualifies and nearly wins golf’s U.S. Open. "It’s the U.S.’s effort to keep something open for that diamond in the rough. That’s what America is all about. And having kids believe they have a chance no matter what the odds are, I think it’s really great and a really fun way to promote the game."
Now 41, Tarango has remained active in tennis since officially retiring in 2003. He works as a coach, does some broadcast work for the BBC and serves on a number of USTA committees. In 2008, he played doubles with two young Americans he had been tutoring—Ryan Thacher and Edward Kelly—winning the doubles title with Kelly at a Futures event on the USTA Pro Circuit, and a year later he won a round in qualifying at the Olympus US Open Series event in Indianapolis.
Tarango would fall short of a return to the US Open at the Southern California sectional qualifier—he lost to former NCAA singles champion and current Philippines Davis Cup player Cecil Mamiit in the semifinals—but says he achieved his main goal simply by playing.
"I love tennis, it’s what I’ve always done," he says. "It’s nice to win, don’t get me wrong, but I just love getting out there and competing and staying involved in the sport. And qualifying would be a really fun way to do that. I mean, you win 12 matches and there you are in The Show. A lot of people might just put it on their calendar because they think, hey, this could be my year to qualify for the US Open.
"I mean, it’s terrific—how could I not support it?"
For a Good Cause: David Spellman
Life with Crohn’s disease is not easy, so David Spellman lives his with one motto: Never give up. In April, at the Eastern Sectional Qualifying Tournament in Flushing, N.Y., Spellman brought his motto and his tennis game to the US Open National Playoffs.
By competing in the USTA Eastern sectional qualifier, Spellman, 43, hoped to set an example for children who might get discouraged because of the disease, all while competing for his charity.
"I don’t let my disease take over my life," says Spellman, who entered the US Open National Playoffs ranked No. 3 in the USTA Eastern Men’s 40s. "You have to keep living each day and doing the things you enjoy, tennis being one of them."
Spellman was diagnosed with Crohn’s, which causes inflammation of the digestive tract, at age 8. A few years later he fell ill, and his parents were inspired to create an organization for children and their families who were afflicted with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis—Reach Out for Youth.
Through the ups and downs of many surgeries, Spellman has proved that anyone can achieve their goals, regardless of the obstacles. He played in the US Open National Playoffs in part to raise awareness about Crohn’s disease and also to serve as an inspiration to those who suffer with the disease. He also remains active in Reach Out for Youth, raising money for the organization through the sports he loves—ice hockey, which he played in college, and tennis—by sending out a monthly newsletter to family, friends and the organization’s supporters providing updates on the latest activities and soliciting donations.
"I raised over $14,000 taking part in a hockey event, so I hope to raise quite a bit for this, too," Spellman, who lost in the third round to eventual runner-up Cliff Nguyen, said during the Eastern qualifier. "I think this tournament is such a great opportunity for me to use my game to help my organization."
For more information on Reach Out for Youth, go to www.reachoutforyouth.org.
A Match Made for Tennis: Ionut Hurduc and Marcela Rodezno
Ionut Hurduc and Marcela Rodezno are a match made for tennis. They grew up in very different parts of the world—he in Romania, she in El Salvador—but share a love for the sport and each other.
After flourishing as junior players in their respective home countries, Hurduc and Rodezno came to South Carolina State University to play collegiately, each competing as the top singles players for the school. Soon, the two began dating, and they have been together ever since.
Upon graduation, Hurduc, now 28, and Rodezno, 25, moved to Connecticut, where they serve as teaching pros at Intensity Fitness and Tennis Club in Norwalk. Their latest joint endeavor—competing in the USTA New England Sectional Qualifying Tournament—nearly landed them in the men’s and women’s draws of the 2010 US Open Qualifying Tournament.
"We went to the US Open for the first time last year," Hurduc said before the New England qualifier. "It was incredible—and will be even better if one of us is competing in it this year. Or both of us."
The couple gave it a good run in New England. Hurduc advanced to the semifinals, and Rodezno reached the quarters. Despite the setbacks, the couple say they plan to compete in local USTA tournaments as they adjust to their new life in the Northeast, hoping to develop their games and meet new people.
"We have fun playing together and help each other," Rodezno said after she and Hurduc swept the singles titles at the Stamford Open in Connecticut. "It is fun to be here competing together."
Finding His Way Back to the Game: Todd Walker
Todd Walker always had a knack for hitting the ball. As a youngster growing up in Bossier City, La., he transitioned from baseball in the spring to tennis in the summer and back again as the seasons changed, eventually settling—wisely, as it turns out—on a career in baseball.
In all, Walker would spend 12 years in Major League Baseball, racking up more than 1,300 hits, 100 home runs, 500 RBIs and 600 runs scored while playing second base for the s Minnesota Twins, Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox and others.
On June 21 at the Arlington Tennis Center in Arlington, Texas, Walker returned to his youth, transitioning from the baseball diamond back to the tennis court and competing in the US Open National Playoffs Texas Sectional Qualifying Tournament.
"I grew up as a kid playing tennis before baseball kind of took over my life," says Walker, 37. "I stopped after my sophomore year in high school and didn’t pick up a racquet again until about three years ago. But my wife played a lot while I was playing baseball and plays at our local club in Shreveport, [La.], so I started playing with her and fell in love with it."
Walker fell in the opening round of the Texas qualifier to Aaron Chaffee, a Top 50 junior in the Texas section. But while Walker didn’t come away with a tournament title, as a former professional athlete, he says he welcomed the competition nonetheless.
"Generally, if I enter something or I’m going to work toward something, I feel like I’m going to have a chance to win," says Walker. "This is not the case here. But I thought, hey, I’m going to be in Dallas so it’ll be fun to play at least one match and see how it goes from there."
The NJTL Connection: Michelle Gbelama
Michelle Gbelama grew into tennis as a member of the National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) network’s after-school program in Trenton, N.J., rising from a beginner to one of the most accomplished players in the history of Drew University.
But with her college career coming to a close in May, Gbelama decided to make her next tennis challenge her biggest yet: Winning the US Open National Playoffs Middle States Sectional Qualifying Tournament to earn a shot at the 2010 US Open.
As a member of the Trenton NJTL program, Gbelama embraced the responsibility of a being a role model—both on and off the court—returning after her playing days to serve as an instructor for the NJTL’s summer tennis program.
"My number one priority is to get the best education and create a better life for myself," says Gbelama. "Working for the NJTL program has been a privilege. As a participant, I started off with no skills at all and ended up the No. 1 women’s player for my school team. The program has truly helped me mentally, physically and financially. In this program, I have learned to efficiently apply my communication skills, conflict resolution skills and have gained confidence to teach tennis."
At Drew, a Division II program, Gbelama put together a sterling four-year career. She was a three-time All-Landmark Conference selection in both singles and doubles, and was voted the team’s Most Valuable Player by her teammates following her sophomore and junior seasons.
In the Middle States qualifier, she would fall in three sets in the round of 16, bringing an end to her US Open dreams—but not before providing a thrill for a new generation of tennis players just getting started at the Trenton NJTL.
Overcoming the Odds: Olivier Sajous
Haiti’s Olivier Sajous has had a roller coaster of a year. Newly professional, he started 2010 by qualifying for the USTA Pro Circuit Futures event in Plantation, Fla., where Sajous has resided since age 17. However, shortly after qualifying, Sajous’ native country of Haiti was struck by a devastating earthquake. His family was fine, but some friends were buried alive and his town—including Haiti’s Bellevue Tennis Club, where Sajous played in tournaments as a junior—was in shambles.
"It didn’t hit me until a week after the earthquake happened," Sajous told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "I just didn’t want to be on the court. I felt like crying on the court."
Even though he is still coping, Sajous, 23, who also competes for Haiti’s Davis Cup team, is not letting anything interfere with his dreams of making it big. He will have his first big chance in July. Sajous captured the men’s title at the US Open National Playoffs USTA Florida Sectional Qualifying Tournament to advance to the US Open National Playoffs – Men’s Championships, which will be held this summer at the same venue as the first Olympus US Open Series event, in Atlanta. A victory there would earn Sajous a wild card into the 2010 US Open Qualifying Tournament held August 24-27 at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, and a shot at qualifying for the main draw of the US Open.
"It feels good, and I’m very excited to go to Atlanta," Sajous said after winning the sectional qualifying tournament. "I don’t want to be cocky, but I am really aiming high with this. I think I’m going to do very well [at the national event]. It would mean so much to me to qualify."
Sajous grew up in Petionville, Haiti, a hillside district of Port-au-Prince, where poverty and crime are all-too-common. At one point, his mother and sister were kidnapped in return to money—something that Sajous said was a business in Haiti. With his finances running low and not many players available for practice, Sajous decided to make the move to the United States to pursue his dream of becoming a professional tennis player.
Sajous attended Florida Atlantic University, where he became a two-time All-American, and then transferred to the University of Texas. After one year at Texas, he decided to go pro and has since gained a ranking—No. 1114—that will only continue to climb. This year he has qualified for five of the six USTA Pro Circuits he has entered and won a pre-qualifying event for the ATP World Tour tournament in Delray Beach, Fla.
With all of the trials and tribulations that Sajous has had early this year, his game and outlook are improving daily—and he is determined not to let the earthquake stand in the way of making his dreams come true.
"I like [the US Open National Playoffs Qualifying concept] because it gives an opportunity for everyone to play," Sajous says. "I like the slogan, ‘Dream Big,’ because it’s true. You have to dream big, and I like it."