Easy route to French Open main draw
Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!
The ear-piercing was the only impediment on a perfect South Florida day. Sunshine, tropical foliage complete with palm trees, well-kept green clay tennis courts and manicured fairways and greens at the golf course -- that was all the eye could see at the upscale Boca West Country Club community in Boca Raton, Fla.
That is except for Donald Young, who was standing behind a car in the parking lot and taking out his frustrations on his tennis racket. The assault on the now-mangled racket was an expression of fury at what could possibly be his best French Open opportunity of the year gone by.
The Eiffel Tower and Roland Garros remained an ocean away, and there's not a hint of a European red clay court in sight. But last week, Young and a number of other American players were in Florida jockeying for a slot in the French Open main draw.
Propitious occasions like this one don't come around all that often. So the 19-year-old Young, the former No. 1 junior in the world, knew he just blew another chance having lost his French Open wild-card playoff quarterfinal match to Jesse Levine.
In a cooperative exchange agreement between the U.S. Open, French Open and Australian Open -- traditional Wimbledon has yet to play ball -- the three Grand Slams offer a wild card to one man and one woman from the other two countries.
The French award their exchanged wild cards internally, selecting the players they believe are most worthy. The United States Tennis Association opted for a different approach to handing out these wild-card gifts by granting deserving players the opportunity to compete in a wild-card playoff for admittance into the year's second Grand Slam.
"We have some flexibility in how we pick the players for this," said Patrick McEnroe, the dean of professional tennis for the USTA, who watched John Isner snatch the coveted wild card in a best-of-five, straight-sets win over Levine.
"Obviously, the up-and-coming players [are given this chance], but it also could be an older player who might be coming back from an injury," McEnroe said. "We have a whole bunch of criteria such as ranking and who we think has overall potential. It's a group process within our staff. We want to keep it to a manageable level."
Last year, the USTA held a round-robin event to award the wild cards. Afterward, it was determined that in the future it would be more equitable to hold a knockout tournament.
"Its purpose is to send the message, which is you have to earn your way," McEnroe said. "I always feel if you can come through the qualies, win matches, earn your way into a big tournament, that gives you a lot more confidence in the short term, and the long term, as a player because you earned it."
The No. 114-ranked Isner has the golden touch when it comes to this opportunity. He also won the main draw berth for this year's Australian Open -- he lost to Dominik Hrbaty in the first round in Melbourne.
"It's kind of special that you have to earn your way in without having to win three matches over there," Isner said. "You can just win three matches here in the States."
Looking ahead to the final, win or lose, the No. 127-ranked Levine threw his support behind the USTA's decision to make the players compete for the wild card.
"I think this is better because anything could happen on any given day," Levine said. "You know, not having a playoff, then it kind of gets into politics. A lot of people could get mad and there could be people who don't get along with their federation. I think this is the fairest way and it seems to be working pretty well."
In the women's competition, University of Florida-bound Lauren Embree, 18, came through the all-teen field of hopefuls to win her first appearance in a Grand Slam main draw.
"I'm so excited," said the No. 641-ranked Embree, who posted a straight-sets victory over Nicole Gibbs in the final. "Everyone, of course, comes here wanting to win it, but I wasn't expecting to win this whole thing. It's very stress-relieving. To go all the way to Paris and know I'm playing in the main draw is great. I think I've earned my spot."
Madison Keys, a 14-year-old contender, had quite the stellar audience on hand when she played her first-round match, one she forfeited to Embree early in the third set because of an intestinal ailment.
Standing up in the corner of the temporary bleachers was golfing great Greg Norman, whose wife, Chris Evert, sat below him. Keys, who just won her first career WTA Tour-level match a few weeks ago as a wild-card recipient at the Ponte Vedra Beach tournament, is probably the most notable prodigy to hail from Evert's Tennis Academy, located just down Glades Road from Boca West.
"Madison's got all the shots," Evert said. "She's got power, she's got everything. And she's just young, she's emotional. She is lacking in experience and that's the only thing holding her back right now. I've never seen a 14-year-old that has everything like she does.
"This is a great experience for her. It would almost have been a little too much if she had won this to qualify for the [French] main draw. She hasn't even played the juniors yet. Let's do baby steps. It's probably better she didn't qualify but she's way ahead of her age."
Sloane Stephens, 16, who now receives assistance from the USTA and trains at its Carson, Calif., facility, was playing in her first Grand Slam wild-card playoff.
"It's a good format, it's the right way to do it," said Stephens, who eventually lost to Gibbs in the semifinals. "I'm going anyway because I'm going to play the juniors. But it would be great to go a week early and play in the women's. It would be amazing and so much fun."
Stephens' mother, Sybil Smith, believes her daughter is ready to compete at all levels of the game, so was supportive of her daughter vying for the French Open wild card.
"This is great because it gives all the girls that possibility," Smith said. "It gives them that vision of I can do it, they [the USTA] think I can do it and they believe in me. They just have to have a little faith in themselves and they can step out. Everyone keeps telling me this is not a sprint, it's a marathon, so when it happens, if it happens, I'll be here to support her."
For now, the possibility turned to reality for Isner and Embree, who can include the French Open main draw pass in their packed suitcases for a trip to Paris.
Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.