Rohan Bopanna during a match against Leander Paes and Reyes Varela at Tata Open Maharashtra 2019 of the ATP 250 tournament at Shree Shiv Chhatrapati Sports Complex, in Pune.(PTI)
Rohan Bopanna during a match against Leander Paes and Reyes Varela at Tata Open Maharashtra 2019 of the ATP 250 tournament at Shree Shiv Chhatrapati Sports Complex, in Pune.(PTI)

Indian players question US Open decision to axe qualifying, reduce doubles draw

Tales like Nagal’s, however, will not be possible this year at the Flushing Meadows. The United States Tennis Association (USTA) on Wednesday announced that the 2020 US Open will be held from August 31 in New York.
Mumbai | By Rutvick Mehta
UPDATED ON JUN 18, 2020 07:48 PM IST

Indian players question US Open decision to axe qualifying, reduce doubles draw

Rutvick Mehta

rutvick.mehta@htlive.com

Mumbai: The 2019 US Open was one of the most memorable tournaments in Sumit Nagal’s blossoming professional tennis career so far. A first round meeting at the hallowed Arthur Ashe Stadium with the legendary Roger Federer, which Nagal earned after winning all three qualifying rounds, put the young Indian in sudden spotlight.

Tales like Nagal’s, however, will not be possible this year at the Flushing Meadows. The United States Tennis Association (USTA) on Wednesday announced that the 2020 US Open will be held from August 31 in New York. There are riders aplenty, of course, like no spectators and a range of stringent restrictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

But perhaps most controversial is the USTA’s decision to do away with qualifying rounds completely, thereby depriving lower ranked players a chance to fight for an entry in the main draw besides pocketing handsome prize money and valuable ranking points. The doubles draws has also been trimmed from 64 teams to 32, while mixed doubles axed.

“It just doesn’t feel like a Grand Slam,” doubles specialist Divij Sharan, India’s second-highest ranked player at world No. 56, said. “The doubles draw has been halved so some players who would have been eligible to play a Slam now can’t compete. This would mean they won’t have the opportunity to earn ranking points whereas the people who play US Open can. It will cause disparities in the ranking system.”

Rohan Bopanna, the 2010 US Open men’s doubles finalist and currently India’s highest ranked player at world No. 37, felt the organisers could have held the qualifiers instead of having the ATP Cincinnati Open precede the Grand Slam in New York. “They have also reduced the doubles draw, and will consider only doubles ranking for entry. It is unfair to deny the chance to earn points for the players because of restricted draws, as it affects them through the season,” Bopanna said.

Last year, three Indians battled in the US Open qualifying rounds comprising 128 men and women players each—Nagal, Ramkumar Ramanathan and Ankita Raina, while Prajnesh Gunneswaran got a direct main draw ticket. With many top 100 players apprehensive about competing in this year’s tournament in the current situation with multiple pull outs likely, world No. 127 Nagal and the 132nd-ranked Prajnesh hope to sneak into the main draw of 128 players. The same, though, isn’t the case with Raina, India’s top women player at world No 163, who is likely to bear the brunt of having no qualifiers.

“For players like me ranked between 100 to 200, the qualifiers was an opportunity to make more (ranking) points and prize money, which could have given me good financial support to travel for the rest of the year,” Raina, who earned $18,000 as prize money for her second round exit at the US Open qualifiers last year, said. “Tennis has never been fair for players in that bracket in terms of prize money distribution, and this pandemic has only highlighted the disparity.”

The 22-year-old Nagal, though in a much better position for the US Open, is aware that his participation in the Grand Slam depends on other players’ choice of participation as well as wild card entries. “I will get in hopefully—it’s more leaning towards me getting in than not. But you never know what happens in the end,” he said.

It’s precisely why even he can’t fathom the elimination of qualifying rounds. “To not play qualifiers is, well, meh. You play the whole year to compete in Grand Slams, not in the Challengers or any other events. This year, we have already missed out on Wimbledon. Things aren’t the best, so the least you can do is give your players a chance to play for what they want to play,” Nagal said.

Prajnesh, who played in the main draw of all four Majors last year, termed it “tricky” to go ahead with the tournament. “Because of the fact that they are holding it without qualifying, and there are ranking points as well. I don’t think that’s fair to players who can’t compete. It only increases the gap between players in the top 100 and the ones outside. It’s also bad for players in the top 100 who can’t travel. Not everyone will necessarily want to take the risk of travelling in these conditions,” he said.

Nagal, however, is not averse to flying to New York should he make the cut, despite the unprecedented regulations for which many top players have expressed displeasure. Those include, among other things, a bubble setup with movement restricted to the hotel and courts, limited player entourages, regular tests and strict social distancing norms inside the locker rooms.

“If I get in, I would love to play and will be going. The rules and restrictions will be tough and a little annoying, but I would rather have a chance to compete in a tournament than just sit at home and practice. Many sports have begun again, so why not tennis?” he said.

Sharan, currently in Manchester, said it’s not fair to expect players who are not comfortable travelling to make the tough choice of participating or not. “Some players may not be able to travel due to restrictions on leaving their country and the quarantine restrictions on return to their countries. So players who can’t play because of smaller draws and no qualifiers, those who choose not to travel due to safety fears and those who can’t travel due to their country’s restrictions will all lose out on the opportunity to play a Grand Slam,” he said.

His 2018 Asian Games doubles winning partner Bopanna too has a question regarding the travel. “We have to see the international travel being revived, including from India. Ideally, I would definitely be willing to participate in the Grand Slams but it all depends on the restrictions, rules and what quarantine measures will be taken for us,” he said.

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