Qualifying a nasty business, but rewards are unassailable

PARIS -- A multitude of perks await those who join the top 100 tennis players on the planet. But beyond prize money and unadulterated adulation -- including free tennis balls -- there is this most precious commodity: a standing invitation to the Grand Slam tournaments.

For a player outside of the top 100, playing in one of the world's majors is rare event, a privilege that ranks above almost anything the sport can give. If you are a native of the country that hosts the event -- a favored up-and-coming American, say, at the U.S. Open -- you might be able to cadge a wild card. But usually, the only way into the main draw is the qualifying tournament.

Played out the week before the main event, they are the Shadow Slams, complete with their own subculture of seeds, wild cards -- and drama. It is a nasty business for the 150 or so players trying to crack the top 100. The emotions of the third and final qualifying match are painfully visible -- at least three rackets were broken Friday in the heat of a third set -- for the rewards are enormous: Precious rankings points, the key to advancement, and cold, mercenary cash.

This year, here at Roland Garros, two young Americans, Scoville Jenkins and Bethanie Mattek, successfully navigated this shark tank of a qualifying tournament. By contrast, the U.S. went 0-for-the French last year.

"If you watch any of the qualies matches," Mattek said on Wednesday, "it's kind of a dogfight out there. Everyone's trying to make some money, get some points and make their mark on the tennis world."

As a result, Mattek and Jenkins are likely to emerge from the French Open with the highest rankings of their careers.

"If you're in that third set, and you start thinking about the ranking points, thinking about all that money, you're going to fold," Jenkins said. "You just try not to think about it.

"You have to play like every shot is your last shot."

Jenkins, a 21-year-old from Atlanta, had played in four previous Grand Slams, the past four U.S. Opens, because of wild-card gifts from the USTA. Due to the (bad) luck of the draw, Jenkins lost matches there to Andy Roddick, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Jonas Bjorkman. When he won his first two matches in the qualifiers this year, in the crucible of a second-set tiebreaker, Jenkins was on the threshold of making it on his own in a match against Spanish veteran Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo.

After getting thrashed in the second-set tiebreaker 7-1, Jenkins was down a break but rallied to win 9-7 in the third. The taut match went 2 hours and 40 minutes.

"It felt great," Jenkins said. "I'll remember that for a long, long time."

Jenkins earned 20 rankings points and a check for 14,290 Euros -- roughly $22,400 -- for securing a place in the first round. Those 20 points will lift Jenkins roughly 20 spots in the ATP rankings, up to around No. 192, ahead of Tobias Kamke of Germany and Austria's Andreas Haider-Maurer.

"It's an accomplishment," Jenkins said. "It's always good to go up."

Jenkins faced veteran clay-courter Luis Horna on Wednesday, who lost in the third round of qualifying but got into the draw when Jo-Wilfried Tsonga withdrew with a knee injury. This was the same Luis Horna, who once beat Roger Federer here.

Jenkins split the first two sets with the wily Peruvian, but wound up losing, 6-4, 5-7, 6-3, 6-0. At the end, Jenkins said, a triceps strain left him unable to lift his right arm.

James Blake, the No. 7 seed, noticed Jenkins for the first time at the 2005 U.S. Open.

"To qualify here is pretty impressive," Blake said after winning his first-round match. "I gave him the trivia of who was the last American to qualify and he got it right. That was me in 2005, so I was proud to be part of a trivia question. He's got a lot of upside with how big he serves and how well he moves.

"I wouldn't exactly expect clay to be his best surface, but it's impressive that he fights as hard as he does. I know he's down a break in the third set in the qualifying match, and to come through and play that well, it was a good feeling for him, I'm sure."

Mattek, a 23-year-old who lives in Miami but is moving to Scottsdale, Ariz., is known more for her fashion flair than her actual tennis. She appeared at Wimbledon in a biker-influenced outfit and last year rolled out a gold lame Wonder Woman-like number at the U.S. Open. On Wednesday, she was wearing an all-black ensemble that was fairly restrained by her tastes. She wore a black dress, cut low off the left shoulder, a black visor and wristband.

"It did start to become [all] about my clothes," Mattek said. "I want to be known for my tennis."

She had one previous appearance in the main draw here, a one-and-out affair in 2006, and failed to qualify in 2004, 2005 and 2007. This time Mattek won her last two matches in the third set easily, against Margit Ruutel of Estonia and Ukraine's Oxana Lyubtsova. That earned her roughly $22,400 and 33 rankings points. Currently at No. 106, she should emerge with something in the low 90s, ahead of Stephanie Dubois of Canada and Germany's Angelique Kerber. Her best previous ranking was last summer at No. 95.

Mattek won her first-round match Wednesday over Madison Brengle, a promising 18-year-old from Dover, Del., 6-3, 2-6, 6-4. Afterward, Mattek credited her qualifying run with the victory.

"I think that a huge thing to do with it," Mattek said. "I really took advantage of the fact I played three matches prior to that. I felt pretty good coming in."

And going out, too.

This was only Mattek's third Grand Slam match win in 14 tries after breaking through last year with wins at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open -- again over Brengle.

Mattek has been playing well since last month's Amelia Island tournament. She parted with coach Jason Fransen and now travels alone.

"It was really about me figuring stuff out," she said.

The second-round money -- an additional 9,470 Euros (nearly $15,000) -- will come in handy.

"Honestly," she said, rolling her eyes, "I need to keep winning just to pay my cell phone bill."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.