Wimbledon 2019: The beauty of qualifying that allows surprises, opportunities and comebacks

What is it about Wimbledon that sets it apart from other Grand Slams? Barring a handful of grass court specialists, Wimbledon has given many a chance to come out of proverbial 'nowhere' to make their mark, or in the case of some qualifiers, attempt to mount a comeback to former glories. This Wimbledon, particularly on the women's side, we have seen both.

 Wimbledon 2019: The beauty of qualifying that allows surprises, opportunities and comebacks

Cori Gauff of the U.S. celebrates winning her third round match against Slovenia's Polona Hercog. Reuters

For one, qualifying rounds are a great way to ensure that Grand Slams aren’t saturated with players who are already at the top level of tennis. With income inequalities and the massive expenditures associated with professional tennis, there are already enough reasons holding younger, more junior players back.

At Wimbledon this year, the qualifiers have come out of seemingly nowhere and then some. But perhaps none has captured the imagination as much as 15-year-old Cori “Coco” Gauff. By coming through the qualifiers, she became the youngest player to qualify for the main draw at Wimbledon in the Open Era.

For qualifiers, it could be, as it is in the case of Kaja Juvan and Gauff, a chance to prove themselves early. For others, it could be about making their comeback on an unforgiving, quickly moving tour where new talents are unearthed and make their presence felt quickly. Such was the case for Belgian Yanina Wickmayer. Once the 12th-ranked player, Wickmayer, now ranked 95th after a back injury sidelined her, made it through to the second round with a win over Sweden’s Rebecca Peterson.

As a qualifier, you have something to prove. Whether you’re taking the big stage in the earliest part of your career or you’re mounting a comeback from injuries, or a plain old slide down the rankings, qualifying is your chance to grab the opportunity to share the stage - and potentially defeat the big guns. Or if you’re like the teenagers currently on the WTA circuit, show everyone just what you’re made of.

And Wimbledon is a strange beast. In an era where everyone’s playing defensive baseline tennis, that pure big serve is what stands big here, and if you’ve got speed and power - which don’t necessarily always translate well on the clay - Wimbledon has you covered.

Perhaps it is also the added prestige of it being the oldest Grand Slam, that for some qualifiers gives them an even greater push to succeed. As women’s tennis moves forward - and quickly, so many older players who aren’t at the absolute top have to push to succeed, and coming through qualifying gives them the chance to prolong their careers, to give themselves that one last push that may just well be the beginning of a second coming in their professional sporting careers.

After all, some of the greatest have made their biggest starts out of qualifiers - not the very least among them a certain multiple Grand Slam champion named John McEnroe. He started Wimbledon in 1977 at a rank of 264, aged 18, and would eventually finish the tournament in the semi-finals, putting up four sets against the eight-time majors winner Jimmy Connors, and ending at World No 71.

Tennis isn’t just a lonely sport; it is monetarily skewed and expensive, and often, those at the bottom or just starting out often peter out - or are forced to step aside as the sport gets increasingly more expensive. For so many qualifiers: among them Britons Alex Ward and Katie Boulter, that can mean the difference between brand new equipment and slightly old ones, or the ability to travel and train with a coach.

And for young talent that is just waiting to be nurtured, good, strong early coaching is key. For Gauff, whose parents sold their home to move to Florida so she could train, money may not have been as much of an issue as it was for so many others on the circuit. But her parents, both professional athletes, perhaps know the pitfalls of early struggles better than few others will.

Only weeks ago, Gauff was relatively unknown; she may have won the 2018 junior title at Roland Garros, but not all juniors strike it as big. Last week, before her dream run at SW19, she was playing on one of Wimbledon’s many outside courts, hoping for her shot at glory on Centre Court.

This week, she has been called the "next big reckoning", has taken out a series of opponents, and showed both skill and an on-court maturity beyond her years. This week, she received a sponsorship from the pasta manufacturers Barilla, whose other famous client is… Roger Federer.

A number of tennis players - among them Saketh Myneni and Yuki Bhambri, of how secure finances mean the difference between being able to focus on your game and having to worry about ‘everything else’. Indeed, not having to worry about things off the court can mean being able to play the kind of match Gauff pulled off against Polona Hercog last week, saving two match points to make it to the final 16.

But there are other stories. There is the story of 18-year-old Juvan, for whom the transition from the juniors to the seniors has not been as smooth as she would have liked. Despite having won the Orange Bowl title, and being a former World No. 5 in the girls’ singles, the 2000-born Slovenian has not particularly been able to replicate her successes.

This time around, Juvan put up a spirited fight - and gave seven-time Wimbledon champion Serena Williams quite the scare in the second round. Only the week before, Juvan almost lost to Valentini Grammatikopoulou of Greece in the first round of qualifying.

Yet another qualifying success came in the form of American Lauren Davis. The 25-year-old, who made waves on the court but in recent years has not had the results she would like to see, said she was “ready to call it quits into getting into Wimbledon.”

Davis was responsible for the ouster of defending champion Angelique Kerber from the tournament.

For many talents across the spectrum of age, fitness, and the stage of their careers, good qualifying runs have made the biggest difference in their careers. For the WTA this year, however, their teenage qualifiers have pushed even further on something the French Open drove home only months ago: there is fresh new talent waiting in the wings and ready to take the stage.

As for the fans, who doesn’t love an underdog? And there really is no better underdog than a young teen with the kind of talent you see only a few times in a generation.

Updated Date: Jul 08, 2019 17:34:02 IST