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u.s. open

The U.S. Open Fun Starts Earlier (and Is More Free) Than You Think

On subway-station walls across the city to promote the U.S. Open, various elite tennis players stare down on New York commuters in frighteningly aggressive celebration. These well-known warriors announce August 30 to be the first day of the final Grand Slam in the tennis calendar. Don't believe them. Mark August 24 down as a date to remember.

A week before the official kickoff to the U.S. Open main draw, dozens of journeymen of the sport — who will never grace a poster advertising anything — will undergo several days of intense competition just to win a coveted spot in the first round of the Open proper. These are the qualifying rounds, a tournament unto itself, and they have daily drama of career-breaking outcomes. Because they're never televised, the qualifying rounds are one of the most underappreciated components of the game.

Even though they're completely free and open to the public, only a few hundred people or so regularly make their way to the massive Billie Jean King Center in Flushing Meadows to see them. And it's a damn shame.

This year has a particularly enticing draw. Look only to several weeks ago, at Wimbledon, when spectators began to collectively turn their gaze away from the typical crowd-pleasing players on Center Court and look out (far out) to Court 18.

Word spread that an exhilarating qualifier, Nicolas Mahut, was unleashing a dogged attack against the nineteenth seed, John Isner. Mahut's ranking was a comparatively paltry 148, making Isner a seeming shoo-in. Yet, it took Isner eleven historic hours (and 138 games in the deciding set) to finally dismiss him. Although Mahut became known as the unfortunate man who lost the longest tennis match of all time, the entire tennis community was engrossed; Roger Federer, Andy Roddick, the Williams sisters, and Rafael Nadal all waxed poetic during post-match press conferences about the strength of both players, while Andy Murray interrupted an interview with the BBC to watch the battle's conclusion at match point. Murray later stated, via Twitter of course, that the epic three-day marathon "will never, ever be matched again."

And look who's here, qualifying in Flushing this year: Nicolas Mahut, who will once again need to slay at least four players just to make it to the first round of a Slam. He wasn't gifted a wild card like many people had hoped, and it would be unfortunate if New York couldn't provide at least some fraction of the support and admiration that Mahut had tenaciously earned on Court 18 at Wimbledon. Despite being a freebie, the talent in the qualifying rounds is still caviar in quality, with a striking lack of public attention.

This year features some delectable talent other than Mahut. Former world No. 4 Jelena Dokic has suffered from personal issues, most notably thanks to her abusive father and former coach, who's currently in jail for threatening to launch a missile at the car of an Australian ambassador. Dokic holds the open-era record for being the lowest-ranked player to defeat the top seed at a Grand Slam when — as a qualifier — she upset Martina Hingis at Wimbledon in 1999. There are many others; it's the best class of qualifiers in years.

At any given moment, regardless of the name on the scoreboard, the qualifying rounds have the potential to move spectators to goose bumps in 100-degree heat — just like the tournament itself, but gratis. This year, perhaps more so than ever, the best seat in the house is free.

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Photo: GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images