Taking the tough road to the U.S. Open

FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. -- Mihaela Buzarnescu of Romania doesn't usually get nervous before tennis matches anymore. She's a veteran of the ITF tournament circuit, but a fracture in her spine and five months of rehabilitation meant that the stakes were higher when she prepared for her first-round match in the U.S. Open qualifying tournament on Tuesday, and her nerves were buzzing.

"It's really tough and it's a lot of pressure," Buzarnescu, 23, said. "Before my match I was totally emotional."

You may have never heard of Buzarnescu, or most of the women in the 128-player qualifying draw to the U.S. Open. They range from the newest of professional tennis players to junior champions to some decently prominent players from the past.

The qualifying tournament continues through Friday, with $1 million in prize money. In 1981, Barbara Escude reached the quarterfinal of the main draw at the U.S Open. In 1996, 15-year-old Anna Kournikova reached the Round of 16.

Starting Tuesday, they were doing their best to win three straight matches, leading to one of 16 spots in the women's main draw.

The four qualifying tournaments leading to the Grand Slam events each year are the plums for competitive young players waiting in the wings to earn enough points to qualify for regular WTA Tour events. Buzarnescu said that at some early circuit events, players were fighting for every point, trying to press every advantage in order to earn a spot in the U.S. Open qualifying tournament, an event that isn't on most fans' tennis calendar.

But for up-and-comers, reaching the qualifier can attract notice from sponsors and bring money from a home country's federation.

"It's much different because it's a Grand Slam and it's the highest-level tournament," said Tatjana Malek of Germany. "It's really hard because you have to focus, you can get nervous because it's a big stage."

Malek won her match on Court 11, defeating Madison Brengle 6-1, 1-6, 6-3. The grounds were full of visitors to the Billie Jean King USTA National Tennis Center Tuesday morning, who come for the free admission and stay for the overpriced ice cream.

Buzarnescu was so focused on her win over American Lauren Albanese that she didn't notice the earthquake in the first set.

"What?" Buzarnescu said when she heard about it. She then joked, "That's why I lost the first set."

She was surrounded by a Romanian contingent, as one of the benefits for any foreign player in New York is a pocket of fans from her home country, and signed hats and programs for them, wearing a red-strapped backpack that carried her tennis gear.

Buzarnescu is just here for the qualifier, and admits as she signs that her return flight leaves Sunday, the day before the main draw begins.

"Why?" asked a fellow Romanian. "You'll still be playing!"

Perhaps the next tennis phenom will be propelled into the spotlight this week. Perhaps it will be someone like Buzarnescu or Malek, someone who can wrestle her nerves while soaking up New York and dealing with the occasional earthquake.

"The best thing about New York is I love it," Buzarnescu said. "The worst this is the traffic."

It already sounds like she belongs.

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