Blake Strode earned a place in this week's U.S. Open qualifying draw through an innovative national playoff system. (Susan Mullane/USTA)
Blake Strode has something most scholars would kill for: an acceptance letter to Harvard Law School.
He also has something most tennis players would kill for: an opportunity to make the main draw of the U.S. Open.
Starting today, Strode, a two-time SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year who graduated from the University of Arkansas with a 3.98 GPA, will compete for a spot in the 128-player main draw alongside hopeful professionals ranked just outside the Top 100. His first-round opponent is Alex Bogdanovic of Great Britain.
For the first time, the USTA gave anyone 14 or older a chance to qualify for a Grand Slam that’s become more “open” than ever before. The winners of 16 men’s and women’s sectional qualifying tournaments held around the country from April through June advanced to July’s National Playoffs in Atlanta, where Strode navigated the draw to earn a place in this week’s qualies at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
He was also an NCAA semifinalist his senior year and decided to try and earn a living on the pro tour. Strode asked Harvard if to hold his place open for a year while he played low level qualifiers, and tried to build up his ranking enough to turn the game he loves into a career.
Harvard granted his request, and in February they agreed to defer his acceptance again. Every victory gives Strode a little more incentive to keep borrowing time.
Against Cecil Mamiit in the men’s championship of the U.S. Open National Playoffs last month in Atlanta, Strode took control of a third-set tiebreak to lock down the 2-6, 6-4, 7-6(1) victory and the qualifying berth. But even if he doesn’t make it past the first round -- even if he can’t afford to keep chasing the dream for another year -- Strode has something that most at the lower echelons of pro tennis do not: options.
By winning that breaker over Mamiit, Strode gave himself a precious opportunity to earn points to boost his ranking, which in turn would help him qualify for better tournaments. When you’re a player on the fringe trying to become relevant, every victory helps. And for Strode to continue chasing his dream, tiebreaks in qualifiers have a lot riding on them.
An All-American at Arkansas, Strode had been in similar competitive situations before, but with the weight of an entire team on his shoulders. “You play with a lot of pressure in college, especially when matches come down to the line,” Strode said. “If a dual match is tied at 3-all and the whole team outcome is riding on you, there’s really no pressure like that in tennis, and so getting used to dealing with that really makes it a little more manageable when you’re just playing for yourself.” U.S. Open Qualifying Tournament: Men's Draw [USOpen.org]