By Harvey Fialkov
Not everyone could be a Carlos Alcaraz, the teenage phenom from Spain, who at 18 has already cracked the Top 10 after winning Rio and Barcelona, two ATP 500 events, and the Miami Open Masters 1000 tournament last month.
Most 18 to 20-somethings are toiling in the minor leagues of tennis, traversing the globe on a shoestring budget in search of valuable ranking points that would allow them direct entry into ATP events and Grand Slams where the big money is.
Most never make it in a highly competitive sport that hasn’t seen an American win a Grand Slam since Andy Roddick captured the US Open in 2003 at 21. So why even attempt to qualify at this week’s Mardy Fish Children’s Foundation Tennis Championships at The Boulevard Village and Tennis Club, an $15,000 ITF World Tennis Tour Pro Circuit event?
Not every player set their goal to be No. 1 in the world or win majors. They simply love the game and relish playing for their country.
“This is my first full season on Tour and I love it,’’ said Jesse Armando Flores Knowles after defeating Abraham Asaba of Ghana, 6-3, 6-3 in qualifying to make it into the 32-main singles draw which begins on Wednesday. “I love the travel; I love the whole lifestyle, meeting new people, seeing the cultures. It’s the best part of the job.”
Flores, ranked 1080 in singles, is a native of Canada who switched his nationality to his parents’ native country of Costa Rica after high school graduation partly to take advantage of the federation’s ongoing financial support. The Canadians are loaded with Top 50 players, such as 16th-ranked Denis Shapovalov, who Flores claims he’s 3-3 against when they were juniors.
“I was four years older but even then, you could see Denis had the ‘it’ factor,’’ Flores said.
Flores’ dreams don’t necessarily include winning the US Open but rather to represent his country in Davis Cup and the 2024 Olympics. He has already done the former, wearing his country’s flag colors (blue, white and red) in a Davis Cup tie against Bulgaria, a 4-1 loss in March 2020.
“In order to get into the Group 3 of Davis Cup I had to play 12 matches, singles and doubles, in six days,’’ said Flores, who lost two tight singles matches to Bulgarians ranked 537 or lower; but did win his doubles match.
“That was the greatest weekend of my life representing Costa Rica at home, especially the doubles match which I won on match point (12-10) in the third-set tiebreaker with a diving lob winner. I was five feet off the ground. My dream of playing in the Olympics is alive and it goes without saying that’s the highest honor for any athlete.”
Flores is also an unofficial Floridian, spending summers from 14-17 training at camps run by renowned coach Nick Saviano at Veltri Tennis Center in Plantation. He played college tennis at the University of Miami, finishing in the top 20 in doubles with a win over No. 1 Wake Forest.
Flores lives in Fort Lauderdale and trains with his coach Levar Harper-Griffith, who grew up with Mardy Fish and Andy Roddick in Boca Raton. In fact, Harper-Griffith, once ranked 224 in singles and 184th in doubles, played doubles with both and won a first-round doubles match with Roddick at the 1999 US Open. Flores patterns his serve and forehand after Roddick, the last American to be ranked No. 1.
Asaba, 24, who played for Virginia Tech and is currently No. 1 in Ghana, not a hotbed for tennis pros, also played Davis Cup and is ranked a respectable 718 in doubles, having won the ITF Orange Park Futures doubles title last week with Sekou Bangoura, the runner-up here in singles and doubles in 2019.
Slim Hamza, assistant pro at The Moorings, who’s playing in Tuesday night’s featured doubles match, also had the patriotic honor of playing Davis Cup for Tunisia.
Blaise Bicknell, 20, who made it into the 32-player singles draw with a 5-0 win over xxx, who retired with a forearm injury, is a proud No. 1 from Kingston, Jamaica, where the most well-known tennis player was Dustin Brown, 37, who was ranked 64th in 2016.
The blonde-haired Jamaican, ranked 1076, had the thrill of representing Jamaica — more known for track stars than tennis stars — in a recent Davis Cup tie against Greece, where more than 1,000 fans were screaming for his opponent, Petros Tsitsipas, the younger brother of world No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas. However, Bicknell prevailed 6-3, 7-5 over the 808th-ranked Greek, before losing his next singles match to Thanos Aristotelis, 6-4. 6-4, as Greece won 4-1.
“We surprised everyone on the first day coming out with 2-0 lead,’’ Bicknell said. “It was extremely loud. There’s nothing like playing for your country.”
Bicknell, who did get into the Junior US Open, a few years ago, is hoping to win the year-ending Slam, but for now, he will proudly play for Jamaican pride.
“I’m the No. 1 player in my country so I have something to prove,’’ said Bicknell, who won a national championship with Florida last year before transferring to Tennessee.