Qualifiers put the 'Open' in US Open

Because he's a player who has spent more time watching Roger Federer on TV than trying to beat him, it's safe to say Rhyne Williams will not win the U.S. Open this year.

But to say the 21-year-old's trip to Flushing Meadows has been less than a rousing success — well, that wouldn't be quite right, either.

While Federer, Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams and all those other big names get their chance to make history next week, it's players such as Rhyne Williams and 17-year-old Samantha Crawford who truly put the "Open" in the U.S. Open this week.

They, along with 485th-ranked former NCAA champion Bradley Klahn, are among those who won their third qualifying matches Friday to make it into the main draw. They grinded out the wins on the same courts some of the greats will play on starting Monday. They did it not to the cheers of thousands but in front of the hundreds who got in for free this week to watch the warm-up act for the last Grand Slam tournament of the year.

Nothing small-time about it to these players, though.

"I'm still shaking," said Crawford, ranked 394th, about 15 minutes after her 6-3, 1-6, 6-4 win over Eleni Daniilidou of Greece.

Williams, ranked 283rd, shared the exact same sentiment shortly after his 6-3, 6-2 victory over Peter Gojowczyk of Germany.

"I'm still shaking," Williams said. "It's incredible. I've dreamed my whole life about playing here in the main draw. I've finally done it. Hopefully, I'll have many more years left here."

He'll have a daunting task in his official U.S. Open debut, however — a meeting with 20th-seeded Andy Roddick, the 2003 champion and fan favorite who plays the majority of his matches under lights, and on the show courts at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

"I expected to be able to compete with everyone I play here," Williams said, hours before finding out he had drawn Roddick in the first round. "I feel like I belong out here. I just expect to be able to hold my own."

Williams was the NCAA runner-up in 2011 while playing for Tennessee and, after some success over the following months, decided to turn pro. His mother is Michelle Williams, a former pro who, as a tennis-loving little girl, inspired her father, Mike DePalmer, to reach out to a friend and start a tennis school.

The school is now known as the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy.

"I knew I had a good shot at being a pro," Williams said. "It's in the family. It's in my blood."

Even with great bloodlines, no thriving tennis career is preordained. In search of his first big breakthrough as a pro, Williams got it on a steamy, 85-degree day on Court 17 in front of about 200 fans. It set him up for a whole new type of challenge, which includes more than simply the daunting prospect of playing Roddick.

"I've never played a best-of-5 match before," Williams said. "That's very new for me. But I've been around the level. I've hit balls with guys in the top 10 and top 100 plenty of times. I'm used to the way they play."

Williams is among the 32 players — 16 men and 16 women — who made it through qualifying and now find themselves in the main draw. Two years ago, Klahn got a wild card into the main draw after winning the NCAA title at Stanford. He took Sam Querrey to four sets in the opening round. This year, he had to win three times in qualifying simply to get back to the same point. He'll play Austria's Jurgen Melzer in the first round.

A priceless experience? Of course. But nobody at this level will tell you it's not about the money. By winning the three matches, qualifiers are guaranteed at least the $23,000 that goes to a first-round loser in the main draw. Easily the biggest payday for Williams, a player who picked up a title at a lower-tier tournament in Spain earlier this year — first-place prize money: $1,300.

"I guess I can look at it as probably close to two years' rent," he said. "That helps a lot."

The furthest a qualifier has ever advanced in the U.S. Open is the quarterfinals, most recently by Gilles Muller in 2008. Anna Kournikova made the fourth round as a qualifier in 1996.

So, the obvious question: Could something like this happen to your buddy at the club?

Technically, yes.

While the bulk of the spots in qualifying typically go to players ranked somewhere between 105 and 250, the USTA reserves a few wild cards, often given to young, up-and-coming players such as Williams and Crawford.

But in keeping with the spirit of what an "Open" tournament really is, the USTA started a national playoff in 2010, with players competing for one of the wild cards into the qualifying draw. Unlike golf's U.S. Open, which requires most players to have a certain handicap to sign up for qualifying, all you need in tennis is to be at least 14, have the $108 entry fee and a way to get to one of the 13 cities where the opening rounds of the tournament are held every spring. Bode Miller has tried. Chris Evert tried to make it in mixed doubles last year.

Not surprisingly, this year's spots went to a couple of seasoned players — Alexandra Mueller and Clement Reix, each of whom has extensive experience in pro tennis.

Neither made it past the first round. Still, the way they earned their trips to Flushing Meadows adds at least a small sense of democracy to a sport dominated by a handful of the same names year after year.

"It reminds you that it is a very interesting sport," Williams said. "Anyone can beat anyone in this tournament."

Crawford will get her chance, too. She opens against Britain's Laura Robson.

A native of Atlanta, Crawford practices at the USTA facility in Florida. She was awarded one of the federation's nine wild-card spots into women's qualifying, in part because she has vaulted nearly 600 spots in the rankings since the end of last year.

"When I was younger, I saw Maria Sharapova win Wimbledon when she was 17," Crawford said. "I always wanted to play like her."

How about playing against her?

"I haven't really thought about that much," Crawford said. "It's crazy, really."