BENGALURU: Nirupama Sanjeev nailed the 2020 US Open’s resolution to call play in August, without qualifying fields for the men’s and women’s competitions, as a dispiriting exercise.
The California-based pro, who was ranked around the 120 mark on the WTA charts for a fair chunk of her career, knows all too well the treacherous quick sands of the qualifying component, where she has fumbled in the final hurdle multiple times.
Nirupama, who reached a career-high No. 115 in the summer of 2001, observed that the 128-player qualifying draw was a character-building, confidence-boosting outing that the sport would do well to persevere with, especially on the bigger stages.
On Wednesday, the USTA announced that it was going ahead with the August 31 to September 13 Grand Slam in a two-tournament bubble in New York, albeit with some severe cuts to the player field. The major is to be preceded by the Western and Southern Open, which will be played from August 22 to 28.
Nirupama, who in her best years on the WTA Tour fell in the final qualifying rounds at the US Open and Wimbledon in 1999 and 2001, is presently coaching in the United States.
“I was totally disappointed when I heard the news that there weren’t going to be qualies,” she said. “I was thinking they could’ve played the 128-player qualifying draw for the men’s and women’s instead of the Western and Southern Open which is the week before. That’s what I would’ve done, it would’ve maintained the balance of the tournament.”
She, however, applauded the USTA’s initiative of going ahead with the tournament in the midst of a raging pandemic that has brought the planet to a stop. “Cancelling is the easiest thing to do, all you have to do is press a button,” she said, “but to press ahead, trying to make it happen, is a task. It’s good to see them want to get on with it.”
Nirupama, who never made the singles main draw of a major but has wins over players of the calibre of former world No. 22 Tathiana Garbin, Croat Mirjana Lucic-Baroni and then world No. 24, Japan’s Mana Endo, said: “To be fair, the US Open has never given step-motherly treatment to the qualifying competition. Whereas for Wimbledon, the qualifying draw is played at Roehampton, which means a qualifier doesn’t get to go to Wimbledon at all unless he or she makes the main draw. That way, the Open, like the other Slams, has been good.”
Nirupama noted that the qualifying competition at the majors was different from those of other tournaments, even comparing it to player fields at $50,000 or $100,000 events.
“In these draws, the players are of a similar level. At Challengers, for example, you might play a world No. 400, but here, a world No. 120 plays a world No. 150. The matches are close, and the challenge is mountainous. Also, these days, since there is a breather between the qualifying competition and the main draw, the main draw players have to worry about the qualifiers, who’ve already acquainted themselves with the conditions.”
Nirupama, who shuttles between Tampa in Florida, where she’s the tennis director at a country club, and her California home where she runs a tennis academy, said she feels the disappointment of players who won’t make the 120-player cut for the Open. Most notable among them are the Indian duo of Sumit Nagal (ranked 127) and 132nd-ranked Prajnesh Gunneswaran.
“I’m sure there will be a few pull-outs which could benefit both Nagal and Gunneswaran,” she said. “Everything is a little up in the air even though the announcement has been made. You don’t know how things will pan out. But I am hopeful for the Indians.”