NEW YORK — Because he’s a player who has spent more time watching Roger Federer on TV than trying to beat him, it’s safe to say Rhyne Williams will not win the U.S. Open this year.
But to say the 21-year-old’s trip to Flushing Meadows has been less than a rousing success — well, that wouldn’t be quite right, either.
While Federer, Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams and all those other big names get their chance to make history next week, it’s players such as Rhyne Williams and 17-year-old Samantha Crawford who truly put the “Open” in the U.S. Open this week.
They, along with 485th-ranked former NCAA champion Bradley Klahn, are among those who won their third qualifying matches Friday to make it into the main draw. They grinded out the wins on the same courts some of the greats will play on starting Monday. They did it not to the cheers of thousands but in front of the hundreds who got in for free this week to watch the warm-up act for the last Grand Slam tournament of the year.
Nothing small-time about it to these players, though.
“I’m still shaking,” said Crawford, ranked 394th, about 15 minutes after her 6-3, 1-6, 6-4 win over Eleni Daniilidou of Greece.
Williams, ranked 283rd coming into the week, shared the exact same sentiment after his 6-3, 6-2 victory over Peter Gojowczyk of Germany.
“I’m still shaking,” Williams said. “It’s incredible. I’ve dreamed my whole life about playing here in the main draw. I’ve finally done it. Hopefully, I’ll have many more years left here.”
Williams was the NCAA runner-up in 2011 while playing for Tennessee and, after some success over the following months, decided to turn pro. His mother is Michelle Williams, a former pro who, as a tennis-loving little girl, inspired her father, Mike DePalmer, to reach out to a friend and start a tennis school.
The school is now known as the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy.
“I knew I had a good shot at being a pro,” Williams said. “It’s in the family. It’s in my blood.”
Even with great bloodlines, no thriving tennis career is preordained. In search of his first big breakthrough as a pro, Williams got it on a steamy, 85-degree day on Court 17 in front of about 200 fans. His next match will be early next week in his first Grand Slam tournament. His opponent will be determined late Friday night.
“I’ve never played a best-of-5 match before,” he said. “That’s very new for me. But I’ve been around the level. I’ve hit balls with guys in the top 10 and top 100 plenty of times. I’m used to the way they play.”
Williams is among the 32 players — 16 men and 16 women — who will make it through qualifying and find themselves in the main draw early next week. Two years ago, Klahn got a wild card into the main draw after winning the NCAA title at Stanford. He took Sam Querrey to four sets in the opening round. This year, he had to win three times in qualifying simply to get back to the same point.
A priceless experience? Of course. But nobody at this level will tell you it’s not about the money. By winning the three matches, qualifiers are guaranteed at least the $23,000 that goes to a first-round loser in the main draw. Easily the biggest payday for Williams, a player who did pick up a win at a lower-tier tournament in Spain earlier this year — first-place prize money: $1,300......