This week, I went on one of my favourite summer outings: to the Wimbledon qualifying event at Roehampton, tucked down a leafy lane that leads to the National Tennis Centre. This event is a bargain at £15 per ticket. It’s quiet, has several small stadiums and hosts some amazing players. Take your deckchair and your picnic and you can camp right on top of your chosen court. It’s all incredibly civilised, as though from a bygone era. There’s a food court with a large seating area and, incredibly, virtually no queues.
This year, as always, the event featured a number of former top 10 players, which even included previous Grand Slam winners and finalists. There was Sophia Kenin, the young American who won the Australian Open and was runner-up in the French Open in 2020. There was Eugenie Bouchard, a former Wimbledon finalist. There was also the Belgian player, Yanina Wickmayer, former US Open semi-finalist and world no 12, who scraped through in three sets in her final match and now faces the young Russian player, Anna Blinkova, in the tournament proper next week.
Other stars who weren’t able to make it through into the main draw included the Japanese player, Taro Daniel, with £3 million+ career earnings, as well as the American Coco Vandeweghe, a former no 9 with over £8 million career earnings. The former top 20 Ukrainian player, Dayana Yastremska, folded with nerves against the 18 year old Swiss, Celine Naef.
Playing to a smattering of spectators in a qualifying tournament in a leafy backwater might be great for us, but it must feel somewhat humiliating when you’ve tasted the heights of playing on a stadium court at a Grand Slam. It’s a very far cry from Wimbledon.
So how come, one may well ask, are these players not straight into the main draw? It’s usually due to injuries, as a result of which their ranking has plummeted to an extent that they can no longer get into draws at the major events. Take the Taiwanese former Grand Slam quarter-finalist and world no 23, Hsieh Su-wei, for example. An intriguingly unorthodox and crafty player, she is now down to a ranking of 954, having been out of the game for nearly two years.
They may have been out of the game for other reasons. It could be a long break after pregnancy or just a much-needed rest away from the tour.
In the case of the former top 10 French player, Lucas Pouille, he was out of the game not just with injury but also a long bout of depression, a common theme these days amongst players, and has a current ranking of 386 as a result.
He retired injured in his final match at Roehampton. It’s back to the drawing board and those lower-tiered challenger events to try and claw his way back up again.
Only 16 players, in each of the male and female events, qualify for Wimbledon. Those players are considered to be dangerous as they have already won three tough matches on the grass and they are frequently an unknown quantity. They also have little to lose. Remember how carefree Emma Raducanu was when she came through qualifying matches to win the US Open in 2022? No-one had heard of her and there was little pressure. After that, everything changed for her.
In some cases, Wimbledon reserves the right to dole out Wild Cards. These let players directly into the main draw who wouldn’t otherwise qualify but would be compelling spectator attractions. They could be British players who wouldn’t have a hope of making it into a main draw, for instance. Or they could be 43 year old Venus Williams, a former world no 1 and five times Wimbledon singles winner, but now with a ranking of 554.
The qualifying tournament is not a typical tournament and it does feel slightly odd. There is no trophy. But if a player makes it through three matches, they’re into the Championships and a guaranteed £55,000, even if they lose in the first round. That’s on top of the glory of playing in that most revered of the Grand Slams.
But there is still hope for those who make it through their first two matches and fail at that 3rd round hurdle. If a player drops out of the first round of the Championship proper, there is a system of Lucky Losers whereby the highest-seeded players who failed in the final qualifying round go through as replacements.
The final day at Roehampton is the Thursday and it’s really worth going to witness the huge emotions of those who make it through. You’d think some of them had won the Grand Slam itself. It’s fantastic drama.
And apart from watching all those former big names, it’s a chance to spot some of the upcoming youngsters. I saw Coco Gauff there in 2019 when she was just 15. Still unknown, she qualified and got all the way to the fourth round of Wimbledon, beating Venus Williams on the way in a sensational Centre Court battle. This time, I saw the Russian 16 year old, Mirra Andreeva, who is now being touted as the next Coco. When she got through on Thursday, she fell to her knees in disbelief. She wasn’t the only one to have an extreme reaction to getting through the ordeal. Some were whooping with delight, some were crying uncontrollably.
Next year’s qualifying event is already in my diary. Forget those packed crowds, stratospheric showcourt prices and absurdly expensive Wimbledon strawberries. For great tennis and human drama, Roehampton is the place to be.