With players barely recovered from the off-season, it’s already time for those clustered outside the top 100 to go hell for leather in Australian Open qualifying for a big cheque, increased profile, precious ranking points and just a chance to be noticed.
For the past couple of years the Australian Open’s You Tube Channel has broadcast the qualifying rounds, with an understandable emphasis on the home players – but it’s a great service nonetheless, that is a gentle reminder why this Slam is regarded as perhaps the most progressive.
After withdrawals and the surprise re-emergence of the glass fragile Brian Baker (we can but hope he survives the flight) Italy’s Luca Vanni is the top seed.
A quick word on one man who won’t be appearing, Mikhail Youzhny. Despite two recent Challenger titles he’s opted to skip the qualifiers in search of more points in Bangkok to make the top 100 again. It’s the first time he’ll be absent from a Slam since the 2008 US Open, even though his form suggests he might have made it.
FOUR TO FOCUS ON
The teeming ecosystem of qualifying always offers a healthy mix of potential stars and hardy perennials who aren’t quite blooming as they once were, and if the draw is kind they get thrown together. But here are four names who might offer some interest en route.
Michael Berrer (GER) – the German, a former top 50 player, said he planned to quit at the end of 2015. But he started off by beating Rafael Nadal and has now decided to give 2016 a whirl, which is quite impressive given he turns 36 in July. Age is no barrier to success these days, and he’s among the qualifying seeds.
Taylor Fritz (USA) – the current US Open boys champion, 18-year-old Fritz has been easing through Challenger draws in style since his success at Flushing Meadows. He’s picked up three titles, most recently last week in Australia at Happy Valley and has beaten experienced players like Dustin Brown and Dudi Sela in finals..A potential second round meeting with Berrer lies in wait.
Vincent Millot (FRA) – the purveyor of one of my favourite screams of joy at Wimbledon qualifying, Millot seems to have a refreshingly philosophical take on his status as a Challenger perennial. At 5’8″ it’s hard to bring too much physicality to the court. But he’s qualified here twice, and two years ago got as far as a second round meeting with Andy Murray, as well as being a former winner of the Challenger opener in Noumea. His first round draw, against fellow French player David Guez, is not bad either.
Bradley Mousley (AUS) – Mousley won the junior doubles here twice in a row in 2013 and 2014, with different partners, before his career was abruptly halted in 2014 after a positive drug test for ecstasy lead to a 12 month suspension. With a ranking of 520, Tennis Australia have not held his past against him, with a wild card into this draw. He opens up with a match against Denys Molchanov.
These are not all the attractions of course. Fans of older hands can enjoy Alejando Falla, Radek Stepanek, Tim Smyczek and Dustin Brown all chasing Slam places.
And if you ever wanted to doubt the toughness of the quest to transfer from good juniors to the adult game, there are eight former Junior Slam winners hidden among the 128 players, including two from 2007.