Huge kudos to the organizers of the Delray Beach Open for managing to move up the dates of their event some six weeks.
With the Australian Open postponed three weeks and running right into the south Florida ATP 250 tournament’s scheduled dates, it was push up – or perish.
And they pulled it off, as the qualifying began Tuesday.
Florida is … well, it’s a pretty significant COVID-19 hotspot in the U.S. And even some 70 per cent of the snowbirds from Canada are staying home this winter.
But from the purely mercenary perspective of holding a sporting event, it’s a friendly place.
Over 50,000 new positive cases were announced for Florida just in the first four days of the new year. But the tournament is being allowed to welcome fans to the event, albeit in a reduced capacity.
Late player defections hurt the event
Some of the players in the original field, which was comparable to previous years despite all the challenges, apparently didn’t feel quite the same way about it.
Andy Murray, a good draw who received a wild card and has spent a lot of time in the south Florida area over his career, gave the wild card back.
(As it turned out, he would have gotten straight in with his ranking of No. 122).
Country Dan Evans had already withdrawn.
Murray cited the challenges of travelling, and the risks of contracting the virus ahead of the Australian swing.
After that, Canadians Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil also took a pass.
Kei Nishikori, who already had the virus last summer, pulled out because he wasn’t yet ready physically to begin his season.
The Americans remain in Delray
Some 10 of the 24 main-draw entrants (before the qualifiers were placed) are American – more than 40 per cent of the total.
The top seed is the Chile’s Christian Garin, pretty unknown to American tennis fans.
But John Isner, Sam Querrey, Tommy Paul and Frances Tiafoe are seeded.
Ryan Harrison received a wild card.
Early high hopes dashed somewhat
Early on, in that way tournament owners have of promoting their event, Marc Baron told Sports Business Journal that they would have the best field they’ve ever had, easily.
But reality got in the way.
The entry cutoff at the deadline was at No. 101, about on par with other years. The No. 8 seed would have been No. 41, Nishikori.
But having Nishikori and Murray, two proven champions, was an upgrade.
The qualifying cutoff was low (No. 287), in large part because the vast majority of the players ranked between 100-250 would head to Doha to play the Australian Open qualifying.
(Losing in the first round of the AO qualies is worth $25,000 AUD; you’d have to make the Delray Beach singles final to earn that much).
By the time the draws went up, the last player into the main draw was Bjorn Fratangelo at No. 274.
The qualifying cutoff dropped to No. 380, with an additional two alternates: Benjamin Lock (No. 439) and Gonzalo Escobar No. 435).
(Crazy stat: Donald Young, ranked No. 323, isn’t even seeded in the qualifying).
Choosing Delray over the AO
On the plus side, there were several players who, once they squeezed into the Delray Beach main draw, bypassed the Australian Open qualifying for the opportunity closer to home.
One was Ivo Karlovic who, at No. 147, was going to be in tough in the qualifying at he’s about to turn 42.
But it will break a streak of 17 consecutive appearances in Melbourne, even if Karlovic’s career record there is a modest 16-17.
He made the fourth round once, and the third round on four other occasions.
Another is Daniel Elahi Galan, a Colombian currently at a career-best No. 115 who qualified at the Australian Open last January.
It was his first Grand Slam main draw; he lost a heartbreaker to Canadian/Chilean Alejandro Tabilo in the first round, 6-4 in the fifth set, in an electric atmosphere with a South American flavour.
He went on to qualify at Roland Garros, and beat Cameron Norrie and Tennys Sandgren before losing to Novak Djokovic in the third round.
There is still a small chance Galan could make it straight into the AO main draw with his ranking. But there would have to be a lot of withdrawals from the Doha qualifying between now and the start on Sunday.
Rising Korda choses Delray
Sebastian Korda, 20, is the 2018 Australian Open junior boys’ champion.
At No. 119, three off his career best, he’s a fair few withdrawals from entering the 2021 Australian Open main draw on his own.
But he opted to play the Delray Beach tournament instead.
(At last check, there was still one men’s singles wild card available. But we have no information about Korda getting it).
Noah Rubin, currently ranked No. 250, would only be a few spots out of the qualifying with five days to go.
But Rubin, who received a wild card into the singles draw, didn’t enter the AO qualies.
Draxl the only Canadian
With the withdrawal of both Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil, the only Canadian in the tournament is University of Kentucky player Liam Draxl.
Draxl, 19, won a “Survivor” event in November, with the prize a wild card into the qualifying.
His 2018 Australian Open junior doubles partner Zane Khan also received a wild card.
Draxl plays Goncalo Oliveira of Portugal, ranked No. 289, in the first round Tuesday. The Canadian played just one pro event in 2020, a $15K ITF in Fayetteville, Arkansas in November.