Australia's Thanasi Kokkinakis prepares to serve during his match at the Wimbledon qualifying tournament
London (AFP) - Pristine grass courts and trademark white kit – Wimbledon starts a week early for 256 players battling it out in the qualifying tournament in southwest London.
The men’s event, including a clutch of veterans and young hopefuls, got under way in breezy, sunny conditions in Roehampton on Monday.
A total of 128 players are chasing 16 slots in the main draw at the All England Club, hoping to join 104 men who have qualified via their ranking, and eight wild cards.
France's Lucas Pouille is a former top-10 player
The women’s qualifying competition, structured the same way, starts on Tuesday, featuring former Wimbledon finalist Vera Zvonareva as one of the hopefuls.
To secure a place at Wimbledon, which starts next week, players must win all three of their knockout matches at Roehampton.
John McEnroe, who won three Wimbledon singles titles, famously reached the semi-finals at the Grand Slam in 1977 as an 18-year-old qualifier.
The qualifiers are played on 18 lush green courts, watched by groups of die-hard fans sitting in the small stands or lounging on grassy banks.
While final preparations take place for Wimbledon at the All England Club, just a few miles across town, Roehampton gives fans a tantalising taste of what is to come, right down to the purple and white petunias and the muted applause.
Players take part in the Wimbledon qualifying tournament in Roehampton in west London
In the first round of matches on Monday, Japan’s Taro Daniel, seeded fourth, made short work of Argentine veteran Marco Trungelliti, winning his first match in any category of Wimbledon – either qualifying or the main draw – in straight sets.
Daniel has a career-high singles ranking of 64 but can boast wins against Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.
The 30-year-old believes the level at qualifying tournaments has improved.
Umpires oversee matches during the Wimbledon qualifying tennis tournament in Roehampton
“You do have to set your standards a little bit lower, not have too-high expectations because it’s almost like playing another tournament before a Slam,” he told AFP.
“There are so many young players here now that I’ve not seen too much of but these guys are always ready to jump into the top 100 any time, if not next month, then next year.”
- Olympic dream -
Frenchman Lucas Pouille, a former top 10 player who has slipped to a lowly ranking of 386 in the world, toughed out his opener against Zdenek Kolar in three sets.
The 29-year-old, who reached the second round at last month’s French Open after qualifying, has spoken of his battle with alcoholism and depression following an elbow injury.
South Korea's Chung Hyeon in action at the Wimbledon qualifying tournament
“In the past few years it was really difficult to accept the fact that I had to play qualifying, that I was not any more where I was before my injury but now it’s quite clear in my head that that’s my level at the moment,” he said.
Pouille, whose aim is to get back into the top 100 by the end of the season and qualify for next year’s Paris Olympics, said qualifying tournaments were tough.
“There is not much difference between a guy who is ranked 60 and someone who is ranked 150 – the consistency is the difference but the level is quite similar,” he said.
Switzerland's Dominic Stricker is ranked 117th in the world
South Korea’s Chung Hyeon, the inaugural Next Gen ATP Finals champion in 2017, said he was happy to spend time on court after an injury-plagued few years.
The 27-year-old, speaking after beating Dimitar Kuzmanov, said there were benefits and drawbacks from having to qualify for majors.
“There’s a lot of good players so we have to play much harder and three matches in a few days,” he said. “If you get the wins you get more confidence, so some good, some bad.”
Young Swiss player Dominic Stricker, the 10th seed in Roehampton, impressed in beating the experienced American Steve Johnson in straight sets.
The 20-year-old takes inspiration from retired compatriot Roger Federer, who won Wimbledon eight times.
“Everyone looks up to him on grass,” said Stricker. “What he has done on that surface is just amazing. I’ve watched a lot of his matches and it’s a big inspiration.”
But it was a miserable day for Australian second seed Thanasi Kokkinakis, who reached the third round at last month’s French Open.
The 27-year-old lost 7-5, 6-4 to young Swiss player Leandro Riedi, declining a request to speak to media after he crashed out.