NEW YORK -- You may have never heard of Rabbi
For the first time, the United States Tennis Association is giving anyone 14 or older a chance to qualify for a Grand Slam that's become more "open" than ever before. The first of 16 men's and women's sectional qualifying tournaments kicked off Sunday at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, N.Y. The winners advance to the National Playoffs in July, where the champion will be granted a wild card to the U.S. Open Qualifying Tournament in August. They'll compete for a spot in the 128-player main draw alongside hopeful professionals ranked just outside the Top 100.
That's why Ackerman, 40, made the short drive from Long Island early Sunday morning: for a chance to play for a chance to play for a chance to play in one of the world's oldest and most prestigious sporting events.
Ackerman, who grew up in the Bronx but lives in Cedarhurst, took up tennis at 7 and played for Lehman College. He's taught the sport over the years at Cunningham Park in Queens -- when he's not leading the Jewish programs at the Woodmere Rehabilitation and Health Care Center -- but the observant Jew is unable to play competitively since most age-group tournaments occur on Saturdays.
When Ackerman learned the USTA's new playoff venture presented no immediate conflict with the Sabbath, ponying up the $125 entry fee was a no-brainer.
"It's always been a big dream of mine to compete on this level and on this stage," Ackerman said. "As they say, you've got to dream big."
The U.S. Open calls itself the world's best-attended sporting event, with a record 721,059 fans paying their way onto the grounds in 2009. The kickoff Sunday brought out just a couple hundred players, family members and tournament officials. The scene was quiet, save for the faint hum of music from Flushing Meadows Corona Park and the occasional LaGuardia-bound plane in descent. But just because the turnout couldn't recreate traditional U.S. Open atmosphere, the play was no less intense, the emotions no less authentic. Most came from the Northeast -- with 40 entrants from Long Island alone -- but several trekked from destinations as scattered as Virginia, Ohio, Georgia and Florida. High-level juniors played against seniors, seven-day-a-week savants went against weekend warriors, and moonlighters mixed with moonballers on the outer courts in the shadow of Arthur Ashe Stadium.
The romantic underpinnings of the concept have attracted several notables to the fray. Olympic gold medalist
Some of the familiar names at Sunday's Eastern Sectional included
None of the players were seeded, and the random nature of a blind draw resulted in some intriguing matchups. Local juniors
The match of the day was a showdown between the oldest player in the men's draw and one of the youngest -- think
The players came from a wide variety of backgrounds and experience levels.
Nordstrom, who stayed at a Marriott by LaGuardia airport due to his 8 a.m. start time, lost to talented 15-year-old junior
"This is a bucket list thing: See the Pope, go the Olympics, play at the U.S. Open," Nordstrom continued. "It's a fantasy."
The most vocal crowd support was reserved for Ackerman, who stepped on Court 8 around noon behind two dozen friends and family members toting handmade posters and mylar balloons. His opponent was 15-year-old
The raw talent of Ravoory was evident as soon as play began, but Ackerman's cagey serve-and-volley game made for a competitive, back-and-forth match. Clever shotmaking and a paucity of errors helped the rabbi stake a permanent lead in the second set.
When Ackerman capped the 6-4, 6-4 victory with an emphatic winner, his cheering section poured onto the court as a USTA camera crew captured the moment. Chants of "We want Roger!" served notice to a certain five-time U.S. Open champion.
"I did a lot of praying in the morning," Ackerman said. "My final goal is eventually to stand on the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium."
He's no more than 20 matches away.