June 24, 2015 / 4:07 PM / 2 years ago

Wimbledon qualifying no place for the faint-hearted

Austin Krajicek of the U.S. returns the ball to Belgium's Yannick Mertens during their singles match during the Wimbledon Tennis Championships qualifying rounds at the Bank of England Sports Centre in Roehampton, southwest London, Britain June 23, 2015. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett

LONDON (Reuters) - Red-faced from exertion, a pony-tailed tennis player with a German accent gestured angrily at her coach before marching through the door marked “Prize Money” into a green Portakabin.

Her hopes of playing at Wimbledon dashed for another year, she had not even made it to the All England Club.

The closest she had got to the hallowed lawns was a grass court three miles away, in Roehampton: the traditional venue for the qualifying tournament.

Each year, the leafy suburb host 96 women and 128 men seeking a main spot draw at the world’s most prestigious tennis tournament.

For most, the road is a dead end, even if the 3,625 pounds ($5,692.70) for those who perish in the first round of qualifying offers a crumb of comfort.

But for 16 men and 12 women who survive three rounds, a chance to share the stage with the likes of Roger Federer and Serena Williams awaits.

On Monday they would vault into a heady world, where even a first-round loss is worth 29,000 pounds ($45,541.60).

No wonder the 16 immaculate Roehampton grass courts, lined up in claustrophobic rows with barely a couple of racquet lengths between them, resembled a tennis battleground this week.

This is the dog-eat-dog world of professional tennis.

Anonymous, aspiring young players, former stars, injury returnees and journeymen and women collide. Reputations count for little.

Stern-faced coaches give pep talks to nervous hopefuls, tempers fray and tears flow and, unlike the big Tour events, there is nowhere to hide.

FAMILY BONDS

Even family bonds are strained. Just ask former French Open semi-finalist Juergen Melzer who knocked out kid brother Gerald in the first round.

“It was not fun at all,” the veteran Melzer, who has fallen outside the top 100 after a shoulder injury, said.

“The worst tennis day of my life and I hope we will never play each other again.”

Niceties were left at home as Portugal’s Michelle Larcher de Brito, who memorably and deafeningly screamed her way past Maria Sharapova at Wimbledon two years ago, beat Belgium’s Ysaline Bonaventure 12-10 in a deciding set.

It had been a bad-tempered affair, and Bonaventure had squandered four match points.

De Brito’s grunting threatened to drown out the sound of the jumbo jets approaching Heathrow, while Bonaventure let rip after losing, screaming something best not translated after a frosty handshake.

The circus of qualifying seems a closely guarded secret for those in the know, the tennis fanatics who know their Govortsovas from their Panovas and their Yangs from their Zhangs.

What’s more, admission is free and you never struggle to get a good vantage point.

“You’ve got the grass courts, the umpires, the ball girls, it’s just like Wimbledon without the hassle,” Josephine Thomas, who has been going to the qualifying tournament with her husband for eight years, said.

“We like to drink in the atmosphere. Then I‘m happy to watch Wimbledon on TV for two weeks.”

There were plenty of diehards already sitting in their fold-up camping chairs, packed lunches open, on the grassy banks overlooking Court 14 on Tuesday where American Ryan Harrison, one of the better-known players in action, was losing his cool during defeat by Argentina’s Guido Andreozzi.

On an adjacent court Japan’s Kimiko Date-Krumm, now 44, succumbed to Belarus’s Olga Govortsova, losing 6-4 7-6 in the first round, before packing up her kit and walking forlornly towards the sanctuary of the players’ lounge -- her family trailing a safe distance behind.

Former world number four Date-Krumm reached the Wimbledon semi-finals in 1996 and is near the end of her tennis odyssey.

For others though, the journey is just beginning.

Britain’s 16-year-old Katie Swann received plenty of support during her impressive win against Slovakian ninth seed Kristina Kucova -- a player ranked 700-odd places higher in the rankings.

“It’s an amazing experience,” Swann said. “The seniors are willing to fight until it’s all over. I want to have more opportunities like this and keep learning.”

Two more wins and Swann will stride through the All England Club gates on Monday, knowing she survived a week in the tennis jungle.

($1 = 0.6368 pounds)

Reporting by Martyn Herman

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