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:

One thought on “Five First-Round Men’s Qualifying Matches to Watch at the US Open”

  1. “To the extent you can be a believer in a pint-sized player without any weapons, count me in.”
    I bet he’s not as pint-sized as Velotti. Or even Schwartzman.

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