Wimbledon Qualifiers: A short distance from Center Court, players dream of reaching the main draw

It’s Wimbledon — the third grand slam tournament of the calendar year — but the venue and the competitors are not well known to most. At this tennis club, the crowds are smaller, the cheers quieter, and the courts closer together than at the All England Club three miles away.

While the Wimbledon main draw may not start until next week, for more than 250 players the journey to get there has already begun.

The four-day qualification tournament in the London district of Roehampton could be a golden ticket to the main stage of Wimbledon — a place where some players have dreamed of competing their entire careers.

“And actually, where we’re staying is right next to the gates at Wimbledon. Every day I’m very close — I see it, but I haven’t actually been through the gates in 10 years, so obviously it’s going to be amazing -that’s amazing. to be there again.”

Before Monday, Krueger had never won a match in Wimbledon qualifiers — affectionately known as “qualies.” But a 6-1 6-4 victory over Britain’s Luca Pow saw the 28-year-old take a small but significant step towards the main draw.

“I’ve played a lot of close matches in the early rounds, but I’ve never really gotten over the hump,” Krueger continued. “The fact that I was able to close to out is really big. I’m pumped to keep my grass court season going.”

Qualifying perks

Most players qualify for the grand slam by their ranking position, but up to eight slots in each draw are reserved for wild cards — decided by tournament organizers — and 16 for qualifiers, ie say, those ranked well outside the top 100 have an unlikely shot at grand slam glory.

Until last year, no qualifier had won a grand slam title. But Emma Raducanu’s win over Layla Fernandez in the US Open final spawned one of tennis’ most famous storylines as the 18-year-old went without dropping a set during the tournament.

Even progress through qualification does not necessarily mean deed. Players must win all three of their matches, or hope to earn a spot as the “lucky loser” after a late withdrawal from the main draw.

“There’s always some nerves, especially for a slam, but I think the good thing about coming into qualifying is you kind of get the crowd behind you,” said Krueger, who qualified for the main draw first. of a grand slam at the 2018 US Open.

“You’ll have three tough fights under your belt, while the others are coming in for nothing. If you can handle it physically, it’s definitely an advantage to qualify.”

Success in qualifying can also be a big payday for the lower ranks.

Men’s and women’s singles qualifiers have a combined prize fund of £3,648,000 (approximately $4,465,000) — a 26% increase on 2021 — and just getting into the first round of the main draw is enough to secure a fee of £ 50,000 (approximately $61,000).

‘Dream come true’

In this year’s Wimbledon qualifying, some courts were equipped with temporary stands, while in others, spectators were able to take viewing position meters from the action, creating an intimate atmosphere for the players.

Adjusting to playing conditions can take time — especially for those with limited experience on grass courts. Alexander Ritschard of Switzerland, ranked No. 192 in the world, is competing in his second grass-court tournament.

“It’s really different. I’m not used to it,” Ritschard tells CNN Sport after his 4-6 6-1 6-2 victory against Britain’s Stuart Parker. “But it was definitely a fun surface with bounces that I haven’t seen before. I felt like I didn’t have as much control of the ball as I usually do on other courts.

“I was also surprised that despite being fast, it was also quite slow,” he added. “I can’t get out yet — I’m working on it.”

Ritschard was playing a forehand in the first round of Wimbledon qualifying.

Ritschard has never played in the main draw of a grand slam, but he came close at this year’s French Open when he lost in the third round of qualifying. A step up to Wimbledon, he said, would be “very special.”

“That would be a dream come true, for sure,” he said. “Growing up, you always talk about Wimbledon as a kid.

“I also want to play at the main site — that’s great. Those courts are beautiful… The last time I was there, I think I was eight years old, as a fan to come and watch. I I don’t even remember what it looked like.”

Ranking points

Some players competing in qualifying have already attended the main stage of Wimbledon. Ukrainian Daria Snigur won the women’s singles title on Center Court three years ago and is now bidding to fight for her first senior grand slam.

“I love the grass court,” he told CNN Sport after winning his opening qualifying match. “This is my favorite place … and grass is my favorite surface. Of course, I want to play in the main draw.”

Snigur plays in Roehampton with the Ukrainian flag pinned to his tennis kit and thinks of his homeland close to his heart.

Russian and Belarusian players were banned from Wimbledon this year — a move that proved divisive among players — and the ATP and WTA Tours responded by stripping the tournament of all ranking points.

Snigur is fully behind Wimbledon’s decision to exclude Russians and Belarusians, which he says is “very important” for him as a Ukrainian: “For me, it doesn’t matter — with points or without points,” he added.

Snigur defeated Suzan Lamens in her opening qualifying match in Roehampton.

The removal of ranking points from this year’s Wimbledon has not deterred players from competing in the tournament, which includes nine of the top 10 players in the women’s rankings and seven of the top 10 in the men’s. The four absentees are due to injury and the exclusion of Russian and Belarusian players.

The tournament has the added incentive of extra prize money — the total purse is just over £40 million ($49 million), a 15.2% increase on last year — but the prestige of competing at Wimbledon is also appealing — as those playing in the qualifying well know.

For some, just stepping onto the tournament turf is the realization of years-long dreams.

“Wimbledon being Wimbledon, it’s always going to be special no matter what happens,” Krueger said. “Playing in the main set of Wimbledon is everyone’s goal — it doesn’t matter if there are points or not.”