Bryan Armen Graham
Sunday August 29th, 2010

Irina Falconi

U.S. Open qualifier Irina Falconi grew up in New York City and learned the game on the public courts at Inwood Hill Park in Washington Heights. (USTA)

Of the 15 American women who entered the U.S. Open qualifying tournament, just one earned a place in the main draw. And she's a local.

Meet Irina Falconi, a 20-year-old native of New York City who learned the game on the public courts at Inwood Hill Park in Washington Heights. With Saturday's 6-3, 6-1 victory over Stephanie Dubois of Canada, the 20-year-old secured a first-round date Monday against No. 19 seed Flavia Pennetta on Court 11.

On Sunday's practice day at the National Tennis Center, Falconi recalled hitting with the Inwood Hill Park regulars from the age of 4. She credits her self-described unorthodox style to the variety of styles they played. They also coined her nickname: the Crown Jewel.

"They always said, 'You're really talented and you're going to make it.' I was young and I obviously wanted it very badly," Falconi said. "And just a few months ago they told me, 'You're our crown jewel for sure.'"

Since moving to Jupiter, Fla., at 14 to focus on her tennis, she's made it back "once or twice" -- including a one-and-done appearance in last year's qualies -- but returned to the park where it all started after Saturday's milestone victory. "Just for the atmosphere," she confessed.

"I was just with friends and I wanted to show them where I grew up," Falconi said. "I'm always going to have a soft spot for it in my heart."

An All-American as a sophomore at Georgia Tech, Falconi was the top seed in May's NCAA championships but lost in the quarterfinals to Chelsey Gullickson, the University of Georgia product who earned a wild-card invite to the main draw and faces No. 1 seed Caroline Wozniacki in the opening round.

Falconi turned pro shortly after the college season, enjoying success at USTA pro circuit events and climbing to No. 385 in the rankings. Her coach Jeff Wilson was the first to learn she'd been given a wild-card invite to the qualifying tournament, an announcement that caught her off guard. "I was praying for it," she said. Three wins later, Falconi is poised to play her first main-draw match at a Grand Slam tournament. "I'm just going to go in there knowing that it's going to be a war," Falconi said. "I'm ready for whatever comes."

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