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Open to All

By Stephen Tignor

When you watch the US Open each year, do you ever imagine yourself on court in Arthur Ashe Stadium, running, sweating and swinging a racquet in front of 23,000 raucous fans? The rest of us can relate: It’s a dream that virtually all tennis players have had at some point in their lives. This year, the USTA has given two of them a chance to make it come true.

For the first time, the doors of this country’s Grand Slam have been thrown open to the public. The inaugural US Open National Playoffs will allow anyone age 14 or over a chance to earn a spot in the US Open qualifying tournament at Flushing Meadows in August. The competition to earn that ticket to Flushing will run from April through June at 256-draw tournaments held throughout the USTA’s 17 sections. The winners of those events will head for the Men’s and Women’s National Playoffs, which will be held at the same venue as an Olympus US Open Series tournament in July or August. From there, it’s on to the big show for two lucky—and very good—tennis players. When the USTA says anyone can play, it really does mean anyone. There are no restrictions on nationality or playing level. Even touring pros are welcome.

“This should really get players of all levels motivated,” says John Callen, Executive Director of the USTA’s Southern Section, which will be holding its qualifying event in June at Melanie Oudin’s home base, the Racquet Club of the South in Norcross,
Ga. “College kids, top juniors, teaching pros, real pros, everyone who picks up a racquet has something to shoot for. They’re going to feel more connected to the Open than ever.”

And that’s exactly the point. The National Playoffs were created as a way to expand the Open beyond the two weeks in New York and give individual sections a way to connect their players to the famous names in Ashe Stadium.

“We wanted to give more people an opportunity to see and feel what makes the US Open such a special event,” says Harlan Stone, the USTA’s Chief Business and Marketing Officer. Stone, who joined the USTA in February 2009, was instrumental in making the National Playoffs a reality. The idea, which was the brainchild of Bill Oakes, marketing director for the USTA’s Southern Section, had been batted around for a few years. But it needed the support of all divisions within the organization to get off the ground.

“We had been asking ourselves for a while, ‘How can we make the Open truly open?’” Stone says. “Everyone here, from the professional side, to Pat McEnroe in Player Development, to the sections, everyone loves this idea.”

Indeed, 16 of the USTA’s 17 sections will hold qualifying events. (USTA Caribbean is the lone exception). USTA Hawaii Pacific will stage the first, beginning April 9, and USTA Texas the last, in late June. Players are only allowed to enter one of these events, but they can do it in any section—it does not have to be their home section.

“Part of the fun of this,” Stone says, “is that there’s a strategy to it. You might live in California, but you might think your best chance is to try Intermountain. You don’t have to stay home. It will be interesting to see where the migration of players goes.”

With that in mind, it’s likely that some sections will have bigger draws than others. “I would guess that in some places the limit of 256 will be reached, but that in others it won’t,” Stone says. “But that’s just one more thing to factor in when you choose where you think you’ll have the best chance of success.”

Stone admits that there will probably need to be changes and improvements to the format in the future and, for his part, Callen would love to see it held in every state at some point, not just in each section. But for this year officials believed that using the sectional infrastructure and capping the draws at 256 struck a balance between giving as many players access as possible while keeping it logistically manageable for organizers.

“At some point, you run out of courts, but when you multiply 256 by 16, it’s still a huge number,” Stone says. “It’s a huge undertaking, and it’s only the USTA’s existing structure, with the sections, that made it feasible to run it all over the country.”

Still, while he expects that the two players who make it to Flushing Meadows will likely be lower-level professionals, Stone doesn’t consider that the most important element of the Playoffs. “It’s not about the winners, it’s about the stories of people trying their best to make it, of battling in matches, of making comebacks, of improving your game and experiencing serious competitive tennis.”

In other words, the National Playoffs is a no-brainer at all levels. It brings together every aspect and element of American tennis. Touring pros may face teaching pros. College players will play juniors. People will meet other players from all over the country. “It really runs the gamut of the sport,” Stone says. Even if you can’t make it in New York, it’s the journey that counts, right? Now any of us can make that journey by joining Serena Williams, Andy Roddick and hundreds of our fellow tennis lovers on the road to the US Open.
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