Aug. 21, 2015
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
– Michael Kay should have been spending this weekend settling in, having made it through his first week of fall semester classes.
Instead, he’ll be in New Haven, Conn., with what he hopes is a not-so-quick return flight to Atlanta. Kay certainly is not complaining.
The sophomore from Alpharetta, Ga., will be trying to make a dream become reality, as he’ll be one of 16 players participating in the U.S. Open National Playoffs, being held this week in New Haven. Kay, the Southern Runner-up, plays his first match against 31-year-old Tony Larson of Long Prairie, Minnesota, the Northern Runner-up, who played collegiately at St. Cloud State University. A win would pit Kay against either top-seeded Matija Pecotic of Croatia, the Middle States Winner, or Florida Winner Terrell Whitehurst, of Florida State.
Regardless of how long Kay’s road goes, the trip is an unexpected, and quite welcome, detour.
“I’m excited just to go get some good matches and definitely even more excited with the fact that it’s involved with the U.S. Open,” said Kay. “I grew up watching it on TV and dreaming of playing there. If winning four matches can give me a ticket to New York, that would be incredible. I’m super-excited just thinking about it.”
The Championships are part of the Connecticut Open and provides the winner a wild card entry into the U.S. Open Qualifying Tournament next week at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, N.Y., site of the U.S. Open.
This opportunity was serendipitous for Kay, who just missed qualifying on his own, finishing as the runner-up in June’s U.S. Open National Playoffs Southern Sectional Qualifying tournament. That 6-1, 6-4 loss to top-seeded Jesse Witten, appeared to keep him on the outside, especially with such a limited field. Getting into the playoff would be a long shot and require some help.
“You definitely can’t bank on it, especially with only 16 players,” Kay said. “Usually, the round of 16 you won’t have any players pulling out. If it was a tournament with like a 128 draw you probably would expect somebody would.”
“I didn’t know that I was the first alternate,” he added. “I didn’t know until they called me and said, ‘Hey, you were the first alternate. You’re in the tournament now.’”
That call came about three weeks ago, when Kay was on his way to practice with his dad. He would go on to have one of his most spirited practices he can remember. He has redemption on his mind, following his 7-5, 6-3 loss in the BB&T Atlanta Open qualifier.
“Especially getting in as an alternate and it kind of coming as a surprise, I feel really lucky to get the opportunity. It’s definitely kind of a mulligan,” he said. “When I got into the Final Four of the BB&T, the pre-qualifying, I was very disappointed. I didn’t go out and play my very best. Trent Bryde played well and he wound up qualifying, so, obviously, he’s a very good player, but I felt like I didn’t play my best. I was disappointed that I’d let my biggest opportunity of the summer slip. So now having another huge opportunity that I didn’t really know was coming is awesome.”
Kay bounced back from the BB&T, reaching the fourth round of the ITA National Collegiate Summer Championships in Indiana, before falling to good friend and eventual tournament champion Korey Lovett (Alabama), while also getting to the finals in doubles with Kentucky’s Trey Yates. Michael believes that he’s playing some of his best tennis and is determined to make the most of this found opportunity.
“I feel like I’m playing just a little smarter. I’ve been talking a lot with Coach Kenny [Thorne] and Coach Derek [Schwandt] about playing at the next level,” he said. “We were watching players, and I was hitting with some of the guys over at the BB&T, and we’ve been talking a lot about what it takes to get to the next level mentally and how you play smarter and how you can go out and win matches more consistently. I feel like I’m doing pretty good with that.”
Unlike with most Georgia Tech student-athletes, Kay actually welcomed the idea of balancing classes with competition.
“During BB&T, I didn’t have a lot else going on. The week leading up to it I was just practicing and thinking a lot about the match, over-thinking, really, what a big opportunity it was,” he recalled. “When I got out there, I kind of freaked out a little bit to be honest. This time, with getting ready for school and finally being back together with all the guys on the team, hitting with them every day and just having more going on, I feel relaxed when I think about [the U.S. Open National Championships]. I’m excited but relaxed at the same time.
“I think school can be a good kind of distraction to not thinking too much about it,” he added. “I’ve always found when I go to tournaments, it’s good to do other things and go see things. if I over-think things that can be a negative. And school’s not too busy right now. It will get to a point where it will be tough to balance tennis and school at the same time but right now it’s pretty low-key, just the first week.”
Kay has never been to New York, something he hopes to change this weekend, although he’d prefer to his first trip to be to Queens, not Manhattan.
“If I were to lose, I think I’d try and go see a couple of things with my mom, which would be good, because I’ve never been to New York,” he said. ”My flight out is after the tournament’s over. So hopefully I won’t have time, because hopefully I’ll be playing down in New Haven.”
Kay sees the Championships as a plus down the road once he returns to Atlanta for the fall season.
“I’ve played a lot of matches and won the majority of them this summer,” he said. “So it’s definitely exciting, after this tournament going into the fall and then going into the season, I feel like I’ve got a really good first step going into all that by playing all these matches.”
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