Fans flock to Flushing Meadows for last Grand Slam of the year • No Israeli players in main draw
Published: AUGUST 24, 2023 03:30
The grounds of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, New York, are surprisingly bustling and alive a full week before the US Open Tennis Championships even gets under way.
Fans are taking selfies with players and getting autographs from the likes of Russian-Israeli Atslan Karatsev, and they are watching some of the world’s almost-best players in action including Eugenie Bouchard, Kevin Anderson and Sara Errani.
True tennis fans and thousands of curious New Yorkers looking for a way to entertain their children in the final weeks of the summer know an important US Open secret – that the pre-tournament week of August 22-27 is exciting, family friendly and perhaps most importantly free to attend (though there is plenty of items on which to spend money)!
Welcome to the US Open Qualifying Tournament and Fan Week! Both kicked off on Tuesday and provide a glimpse of the players, food and venue which will keep fans entertained for nearly three weeks.
The US Open main draw, which officially kicks off August 28 and runs until September 10, is the final Grand Slam tennis event of the year following the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon.
Fan Week and the qualies
Fan Week kicked off on Tuesday with the first round of the qualifying tournament. A hungry cast of 128 men and women who didn’t quite make the cut for the main draw of the US Open battle it out for 32 spots in the main draw (16 men, 16 women). All they need to do is win three matches and remain standing on Friday.
During the week, fans can move between 13 courts and check out play while taking needed breaks to sample often pricey food and drinks (beer: $14.50; sparkling wine: $19; coffee: $7.25) and load up on similarly expensive merchandise (hats: starting at $38; t-shirts: $38 or $48). They can also interact with stilts walkers, learn to dance salsa with Ballet Hispanico, and spin the wheel for fabulous prizes from Emirates and other vendors.
The tennis and non-tennis activities extend into the evening. On Tuesday night, a free exhibition showcased tennis greats from days past, including Kim Cjisters, Tommy Haas, Caroline Wozniacki and James Blake.
On Wednesday, “Stars of the Open” featured exhibition matches with current top players in support of the Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund. Top-ranked American Jessica Pegula, 2022 semifinalist Francis Tiafoe, Christopher Eubanks, Matteo Berretini and defending US Open champ Carlos Alcaraz joined Ukraine’s best known player, Elina Svitolina, for a special evening – all for a nominal cost of $25 to $50 with proceeds going to Ukraine relief efforts.
Foodies can pay $183 to benefit the USTA foundation and sample dozens of food and drink options, including caprese from Eataly, classic New England lobster roll from Josh Capon’s Fly Fish, Greek salad and lamb gyro from King Souvlaki and toasted Cuban sandwiches from David Burke’s Mojito. They can also sample the tournament signature drink, a “Honey Deuce” cocktail.
On Friday night, a free concert with Grammy-nominated singer, songwriter and bilingual composer Sebastián Yatra will take place, followed by Saturday’s Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day, where children get to sample tennis through games, activities and entertainment, including pop duo Crash Adams and K-pop artist AleXa, as well as Disney Channel’s Issac Ryan Brown and Danielle Jalade.
For those who came to see tennis, the practice courts are packed with pros preparing for the tournament. Practice times are posted and some high profile players including Iga Swiatek, Carlos Alcarez, Novak Djokovic, Coco Gauff and Ben Shelton making appearances.
What’s new and exciting this year?
The US Open officially kicks off on Monday with the first round of the men’s and women’s main draw. The current favorites to win the US Open singles championships are Alcaraz and Swiatek, though the return of the always-colorful and often controversial Novak Djokovic is drawing attention.
At a recent pre-tournament media session with USTA Chairman of the Board and President Brian Hainline (who also serves as the chief medical officer for the NCAA), Lew Sherr, chief executive officer and executive director of the USTA, and Stacey Allaster, chief of professional tennis the US Open tournament director, the three captured the uniqueness of the US Open.
“I can’t wait for Novak being back here on Arthur Ashe Stadium<’ exclaimed Allaster. “We’ve missed him. His fans have missed him. Novak, his record is speaking for itself. He’s chasing every record in the book. We’ll have this amazing opportunity to watch history unfold as he performs on court.”
The tournament will feature three American men and women in the top 15 including Taylor Fritz, Tiafoe and Tommy Paul. On women’s side, Pegula is No. 3, Gauff is No. 7 and Madison Keys is No. 15. Other top-ranked players with names which may still be unfamiliar to casual fans, include Caspar Ruud of Norway (#7) and Holger Rune of Denmark (#5)
Hainline explained what, in addition to top players, makes the tournament special.
“First and foremost, the US Open takes place in the great city of New York, where we have the best fans, the most passionate fans, and the most energy of any sporting event in the entire world. The US Open also takes place in the borough of Queens, right here in Flushing Meadows. The borough of Queens is where there are more languages spoken than anywhere else in the world, and if you’re a foodie, there are more choices for different kinds of food than anywhere else on this planet.”
The three noted that this year marks 50 years where the US Open was the first sport in the world to offer equal prize money to men and women. In addition, The US Open is the first Grand Slam to hold wheelchair tennis as a competitive event.
“Last year we were the first Grand Slam to host junior wheelchair tennis. This year we’re the first Grand Slam to double the size of the quad wheelchair draw, so quad wheelchair tennis and open wheelchair tennis are on a par with each other,” Hainline added.
Where are the Israelis?
It is no secret that Israel has been underrepresented on the big stages of tennis in recent years. Long in the past are days when Shahar Peer, Julia Glushko, Dudi Sela, Andy Ram, Yoni Erlich represented Israel at Grand Slam tennis events. Not too many years ago, Israeli juniors like Yshai Oliel, Or Ram Harel, Leria Patiuk and Bar Botzer similarly represented Israel at Grand Slam events. Developing players at the top levels of tennis is costly and requires funding and dedication.
Many Israeli juniors have chosen to play college tennis in the United States. This list includes such players as Jonathan Baron (UNC Wilmington), Shavit Kimchi (Duke), Yair Sarouk (University of Alabama), Ran Amar (University of the Pacific), Nicole Khirin (University of Texas), Guy Finkelstein (University of Southern Indiana), and Itay Feigin (New Mexico State University).
Israeli tennis legend, Erlich, remains optimistic about the future of Israel tennis. He joined Israel Tennis & Education Centers (ITEC) six months ago as Director of the High-Performance Program where he is responsible for identifying talent from the entire country and for developing competitive tennis players from all backgrounds.
While Erlich proudly notes that the junior scene in Israel is “on the rise” and adds, “I believe that within five to seven years, Israel will produce a world champion-caliber player and attain results on par with that,” he acknowledges that “we are not there yet.”
“I have found my biggest challenge is to make the next generation of professional players – starting with age six or seven. In the last few months, my focus has been on how to rebuild – coaches, players and the program.
It is very good and challenging. We have had no great players in the last 20-25 years – I need to acknowledge that we have not top players while focusing on rebuilding.
“I am working to build the next generation so that by the time the 6-to-10-year-olds are 13 to 16 they will be super competitive and Israel will have a good base.”
Erlich’s old friend and doubles partner, Ram, reports that he too is “very involved” with ITEC, he speaks with Erlich every day and is “helping Yoni with the future of Israel tennis.”
Last summer, prior to the US Open, Eyal Taoz, director of Strategy and Projects at Israel Tennis and Education Centers, said: “No one made it this year to the US Open but we have juniors ranked around 200 in the world or so. They are making nice progress and getting results.”
He was particularly excited about the prospects of Ron Ellouck, Ofek Simanov, Volvo Basilevsky, Mika Buchnik and Karin Altori.
This year, two Israeli juniors, including one who Taoz mentioned, will participate in the girls’ qualifying tournament.Buchnik, 16, is currently the 43rd ranked junior in the world. Liam Oved, 18, who currently lives and trains in Belgium, will represent Israel at the US Open girls qualifiers. She is currently No. 75 in the world.
Ram, who hopes to visit the US Open this year, has known Buchnik since she was four years old.
Other former Israeli professional tennis players scheduled to attend the US Open include Sela, who will be accompanying Buchnik, and Glushko, a long time friend and part of the coaching team of Australian Priscilla Hon.A diverse delegation of ITEC ambassadors – perhaps destined to represent Israel on the world stage in the future –recently participated in tennis exhibitions across the US. The ambassadors include a Ukrainian immigrant, an Israeli Arab, a player who is hearing impaired and a member of the girls’ empowerment program. The delegation recently returned from the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, where they participated in Building Bridges Through Tennis Program, a multicultural experience between ITEC and TeamFame Youth Development Program.
Other Jewish players
Some lucky Jewish players, scheduled to play in the “qualies” moved right into the main draw when others, including Israel-born Denis Shapovalov had to withdraw. They include Diego Schwartzman, No. 116, of Argentina, who made his first trip to Israel last September to play in the Tel Aviv Watergen Open and Madeline Brengle, #97.
Karatsev, ranked 76th, lived in Israel as a child and speaks Hebrew; he currently plays for Russia. Sixteen-year-old Valerie Glozman, the daughter of a Ukrainian Jewish father and a Taiwanese mother, is in the womens’ qualifiers for the second year in a row.