Bottom Seeder

Photo: William Mebane

Ryler DeHeart is the lowest-ranked men’s player at this year’s U.S. Open. He didn’t want to dig into his savings to pay for a hotel room in New York. It’s way too expensive. Not all players at the tournament are endorsement-bedecked brands like Agassi and Federer. Players like DeHeart hop around the country and use their meager winnings, if any, for gas money and fast food. The goal is to boost their rankings, pick up corporate sponsorship, survive. “How much cash is in my wallet right now, you wanna see?” he asks. “Zero, man. I got zero. But I got a couple credit cards.” He’s crashing on a pullout in the grungy hotel room a college pal splits with three other investment-bank trainees. “I’m ranked 700 right now, so obviously it’s not like one in a million for me, but it’s still—it’s like a lottery-ticket kind of thing.”

At 22, DeHeart feels like he’s won already. He was ranked as the nation’s top college player at one point last year while at the University of Illinois. He’s one of nine players who earned a wild-card birth in the Open. “There’s so many guys in worse shape than I am. I mean, you hear stories like Patrick Rafter sleeping in, like, a telephone booth. I think it makes you tougher. I don’t mind that some other guys are staying in nicer hotels and eating better dinners and stuff, ’cause, I mean, it doesn’t really matter that much. It just matters how you hit the ball.”

His journey here started after graduation this summer. He drives to tournaments in a ’93 Honda Accord that has no A/C. He’s slept on cement floors, dines on Egg McMuffins, and has pulled off some major upsets, like toppling the top singles and doubles seeds in an Illinois tournament this July.

“I got $1,200, I think, to win singles. You win here [at the U.S. Open] it’s, like, $1.2 million, so it’s a little different.” He needs to win three matches to qualify; lose once, he’s gone. “But even if I lose I get $3,000. That’s twice as much or more than anything I’ve made this whole summer, so—not bad.” He lost 6-2, 7-5, to Rainer Eitzinger, an Austrian ranked 193rd, in the first round. Next: How a Naked Gay Party Saved a Kid’s Theatre

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Bottom Seeder