Anhelina Kalinina thought she had hit the jackpot just by playing in the United States Open.
When tennis officials first announced the initial field of 128 total players in the men’s and women’s singles draws, Kalinina did not make the cut.
But then, players kept dropping out, mostly because they did not want to deal with the dangers of the coronavirus pandemic and the hassles of traveling, including being confined to a Long Island hotel for several weeks. Players in the U.S. Open had to agree to a lengthy set of restrictions as the tournament’s organizers attempted to create a so-called bubble, an environment that would be mostly self-contained to help prevent the spread of the virus.
Kalinina, who lives in Kyiv, Ukraine, kept climbing up the list of alternates.
Then, a little more than a week before the tournament, she got in. She flew 5,000 miles, landed in New York last Monday and began practicing the next day. By Thursday, her luck had turned.
She drew the No. 1 seed, Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic, as her first-round opponent. Their match lasted 62 minutes, with Pliskova winning 6-4, 6-0.
“A little tough to go out and play the top seed in my first match,” said Kalinina, who struggled to find hitting partners over the past five months in Ukraine.
Damir Dzumhur’s luck was nearly as bad. After more than two weeks in New York, the Bosnian’s stay was cut short after the world No. 1 Novak Djokovic sent him out in straight sets in the first round on Monday.
“My friends were telling me how lucky I was to be in New York,” Dzumhur said after his loss. “I keep telling them, ‘Don’t be jealous.’”
The health crisis has wreaked havoc on sports and life in countless ways. At the U.S. Open, it is making tough first-round matchups and quick exits feel especially cruel. In normal years, a tournament entry, even for those who do not last very long, comes with a free room at a Midtown Manhattan hotel and a chance to enjoy the city’s nightlife and shopping during any downtime.
But this year, for most participants, an entry has meant at least two weeks at a hotel in the middle of parking lot in Uniondale on Long Island and few extracurricular options other than arcades and cafe areas at the hotel or the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
Dzumhur traveled from Belgrade and spent 16 days in the bubble. He lost in the second round in the Western & Southern Open, which preceded the U.S. Open and was held on the same site.
His U.S. Open run ended in one hour, 58 minutes. For three total matches in New York, Dzumhur will have ultimately spent two-plus weeks in relative seclusion and traveled 9,000 miles in the air.
That sort of Grand Slam experience is getting old for Dzumhur, ranked 109th in the world. His last three Grand Slam tournaments he drew Roger Federer, then Stan Wawrinka and Djokovic in the first round. Three champions right off the bat — the tennis equivalent of being dealt a 16 at the blackjack table.
Dzumhur said he has no regrets about this trip, though. During his time in the bubble he burned through nearly all five seasons of “Breaking Bad,” which he enjoyed, and got to be back at work, an opportunity not lost on many tennis players who have been without their primary source of income since March.
He had his chances, too, against Djokovic, missing a handful of break points in the second set before Djokovic pulled away to win 6-1, 6-4, 6-1.
“I don’t mind playing Nole,” Dzumhur said, using the nickname of his good friend, Djokovic, “but maybe next time I can get him in a third or a fourth round.”
Ironically, Dzumhur probably came into this tournament as well prepared as any other journeyman following the long layoff. Belgrade, where he lives, is a hotbed of tennis talent. He hit often with the gaggle of pros who live or spend time in and around the city — Viktor Troicki, Filip Krajinovic, and occasionally Djokovic — at a club owned by a friend. Even though the club was closed to the public, the friend opened it for the local professionals so they could stay in shape.
That wasn’t the case for Kalinina. Kyiv is not a tennis hotbed.
“We have no players,” Kalinina said.
She hit just two or three times between March and June, and spent July and August trying to get back into shape without any truly competitive matches. Then Monday she was walking into Arthur Ashe Stadium and looking at Pliskova on the other side of the net.
Other than the blowout loss — Pliskova hit 26 winners to Kalinina’s seven — Kalinina said the trip was fairly painless. Getting into the country was stress free, thanks to the invitation letters that the United States Tennis Association was able to provide all foreign players, and she got a match in with a very, very good player, giving her a nice read on how much work she has to do as rescheduled clay court tournaments in Europe get underway later this month.
“If I did not do this then I would not have started until the middle of September,” Kalinina said. “At least here I had something.”