What Am I Talking About?
Okay, so they lost second round; a poor result by modern sports standards. But this story isn’t about Roger Federer or Nick Kyrgios, the type of players we judge against the greatest in history; this story is about Rob Galloway and Nathaniel Lammons, the type of players we should celebrate for making their own history. So let me tell you how Rob and Nathaniel’s second round loss at this year’s US Open is worth your time (hint, it’s because of their first round win). Rob and Nathaniel had no intention of even being in New York City during the US Open, let alone getting into the Main Draw and earning a win; this was supposed to be a week off from the hectic lifestyle of tennis’ minor leagues, not one of the craziest weeks of their lives.
This summer alone, on their own dime, Rob and Nathaniel, graduates of Wofford and SMU, have played in Kazakhstan, Italy, Great Britain, Slovakia, Canada, California, Sweden, Netherlands, Finland, Poland and Slovenia on the Futures and Challenger Tour. When their combined world ranking of #145 left them 8 spots out of the main draw of the US Open, the steep Manhattan hotel prices made it too much of an investment to stick around and see if a spot would open up. “We’re doubles guys,” Rob told me on my podcast after their second round loss, “we’re mostly losing money, breaking even is the goal.” So Nathaniel went home to Dallas to relax, and Rob went to the US Open as a practice partner because he could crash at his friend’s apartment.
Before Serena Williams’ epic meltdown in the Women’s Singles Final, the story of this year’s Open was the brutal heat that baked the courts of Flushing Meadows. Six men were forced to retire due to heat illness in the first two days, which meant six doubles teams had to withdraw from the tournament, putting Rob and Nathaniel only two spots away from getting in. Sensing opportunity, Rob told me, “I immediately got on the phone (to Nathaniel) saying, ‘dude, get your butt up here, we might get in.’” Needing only two more teams to withdraw for them to be in the US Open, Nathaniel got on a flight to New York, “I saw that we really did have a chance, and then it was an easy decision for me to book that flight up here”, Nathaniel said. With both of them in New York and one spot out of the tournament, they were just one more retirement away from main draw. Cue the Steve Johnson versus Dominic Thiem match being played late Tuesday afternoon on Grandstand.
A fan of Steve’s, Rob was courtside watching when Steve rolled his ankle. “You never want to see someone get hurt, but I thought, ‘there’s no way he can play doubles tomorrow with that ankle.’” At the US Open, the alternate list resets each day and the highest ranked team to sign in becomes #1; so if Johnson waited until Wednesday morning to pull out, there was a chance a team may show up with a higher ranking and take Rob and Nathaniel’s spot. So Rob approached Johnson’s coach, “I just told him that if Steve can’t play, can he just pull out tonight so that two Americans can take his spot in the doubles draw?” After walking away, still unsure of what Steve was going to do, Rob said, “within 30 minutes Steve pulled out, and we were officially in the US Open Main Draw.” Rob and Nathaniel had about 18 hours to get ready for their Grand Slam debut. “It was pretty much panic time when we found out we were officially in,” they both said, laughing as they described the moment.
All main draw players get a per diem stipend from the tournament, “so since we knew there was some change coming our way, we got our own hotel room in Manhattan” Nathaniel said. “If we’re going to play the US Open, we’re gonna do it as professionally as we can”, Rob chimed in. So they grabbed their bags from their buddy’s apartment, and booked a room; Nathaniel told me, “I’m really glad Stevie pulled out when he did, because I would’ve spent that night on the couch if we weren’t already in.” Tuesday night was full of stringing for Nathaniel, because he didn’t want to risk the unknown tension of the official US Open stringers; he hadn’t bothered to get a racket strung on site because, remember, actually playing this year’s US Open was never part of their plan.
The men’s game is deep; we’ve learned it time and again this year when Tennys Sandgren, #96 in the world, beat 3-time Grand Slam Champion, and former world #3, Stan Wawrinka and Dominic Thiem, world #7, in consecutive matches at the Australian Open; or when world #72, Marco Cecchinato beat #8 David Goffin and 14- time Grand Slam Champion Novak Djokovic at the French Open; and a big upset that didn’t get enough coverage, Italian, world #81, Matteo Berrettini beat Jack Sock, world #8, first round at Wimbledon. Now we can add Rob and Nathaniel to the list of guys who get no attention, but have proven they can hang on the biggest stages.
Every tournament on the ATP World Tour gives out a certain number of “Wild Cards”: Wild Cards give players outside the necessary ranking threshold automatic entrance into the tournament. At the US Open, Wild Cards are typically given to American players the USTA thinks will do well, or are at least deserving of the opportunity. Fringe players pray for Wild Cards because they offer some guaranteed prize money and a shot at a ton of ranking points, as well as the experience of playing in the main draw. So when Rob and Nathaniel were slated to play Kevin King and Reilly Opelka, who the USTA granted a Wild Card over them, the stage was set for a grudge match. “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a little extra motivation playing a Wild Card, since we weren’t able to get one ourselves,” Nathaniel admitted, even though he’s in the same Fantasy Football league as King, and they are friends. Playing your friends is normal in tennis though, and McEnroe said it best, “If you like him, take him to lunch”, and that’s exactly what Rob and Nathaniel did. They steam-rolled through the match, 6-2, 6-2. With family, friends, and girlfriends making the trip to Flushing to see the match, “It’s a memory we’ll always remember together. It was really my best moment in tennis,” Rob gushed.
Financially, it was far and away their best moment on court. That first round win, a check for $28,000 to split, more than doubled their total prize money for the year. “Yeah, I mean, of course we saw how much we made…now we can play all the right tournaments, eat the right foods, we can just be more professional,” Rob and Nathaniel said. Rob, a smart guy all around, said, “I want to save and invest some of it, but I also want to invest it in myself, you know?” And that right there is the mentality minor league tennis players often have; stuck wondering whether they should save some money or reinvest it into their playing; tell me another sport where some of the best in the world can barely stay afloat. Before dealing with the logistics of their next career move though, they had to prepare for former Grand Slam Champions, Marcel Granollers and Ivan Dodig in the second round.
On paper there aren’t often bigger mismatches than this second round encounter; Rob and Nathaniel were playing their first Grand Slam, while Granollers and Dodig hold 26 ATP Titles and 1 Grand Slam Title between them. “How many times do you think they’ve been escorted to the court?” Nathaniel asked Rob as they walked to their match from the locker room. “We’re out here smiling ear to ear, and this is just a regular day to them.” Nathaniel told me. The happy-go-lucky mindset wore off as soon as the umpire called the score though, then it was time to compete. Serving at 4-4, 40-love in the first set, Rob and Nathaniel looked to be in good position to take the first set; but a couple points quickly slipped through their fingers and they dropped the set 6-4. Unperturbed, they fought their way into a second set tiebreaker, “It was crazy. A couple U-S-A chants broke out, it was awesome,” Rob remembers. They eventually lost that tiebreaker, and the match by the score of 6-4, 7-6, but they chalked it up as a monumental win.
Their run at the Open could be called luck, but as Michael Scott said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Rob and Nathaniel took their shot at playing the Open by signing in as alternates when no team ranked higher was willing to see it through. They have both been winning, and working their way up through the minor leagues for years; there’s nothing lucky about that. I was with Rob in Heraklion, Greece when we were both ranked in the thousands in the world, and he’s the only one from that whole tournament who’s won a round at a Grand Slam. Rob has come a long way from the times when he would “jokingly apply for jobs at night after matches” and now he’s finding some serious footing at the top of the game. “When I won a Futures, that was the best day of my life. Then it was the same when I won a Challenger. And now the joy is the same after this week, just a different level. You’ve gotta stay in the mindset of ‘how amazing is this?’ and be happy doing what you’re doing,” Rob told me at the end of the podcast. For now, with their remarkable US Open experience behind them, they’re both in Chicago playing a Challenger, with different partners, hoping to continue their climb to the top of the ATP Doubles Tour.