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Williams is among the 32 players _ 16 men and 16 women _ who made it through qualifying and now find themselves in the main draw. Two years ago, Klahn got a wild card into the main draw after winning the NCAA title at Stanford. He took Sam Querrey to four sets in the opening round. This year, he had to win three times in qualifying simply to get back to the same point. He’ll play Austria’s Jurgen Melzer in the first round.

A priceless experience? Of course. But nobody at this level will tell you it’s not about the money. By winning the three matches, qualifiers are guaranteed at least the $23,000 that goes to a first-round loser in the main draw. Easily the biggest payday for Williams, a player who picked up a title at a lower-tier tournament in Spain earlier this year _ first-place prize money: $1,300.

“I guess I can look at it as probably close to two years’ rent,” he said. “That helps a lot.”

The furthest a qualifier has ever advanced in the U.S. Open is the quarterfinals, most recently by Gilles Muller in 2008. Anna Kournikova made the fourth round as a qualifier in 1996.

So, the obvious question: Could something like this happen to your buddy at the club?

Technically, yes.

While the bulk of the spots in qualifying typically go to players ranked somewhere between 105 and 250, the USTA reserves a few wild cards, often given to young, up-and-coming players such as Williams and Crawford.

But in keeping with the spirit of what an “Open” tournament really is, the USTA started a national playoff in 2010, with players competing for one of the wild cards into the qualifying draw. Unlike golf’s U.S. Open, which requires most players to have a certain handicap to sign up for qualifying, all you need in tennis is to be at least 14, have the $108 entry fee and a way to get to one of the 13 cities where the opening rounds of the tournament are held every spring. Bode Miller has tried. Chris Evert tried to make it in mixed doubles last year.

Not surprisingly, this year’s spots went to a couple of seasoned players _ Alexandra Mueller and Clement Reix, each of whom has extensive experience in pro tennis.

Neither made it past the first round. Still, the way they earned their trips to Flushing Meadows adds at least a small sense of democracy to a sport dominated by a handful of the same names year after year.

“It reminds you that it is a very interesting sport,” Williams said. “Anyone can beat anyone in this tournament.”

Crawford will get her chance, too. She opens against Britain’s Laura Robson.

A native of Atlanta, Crawford practices at the USTA facility in Florida. She was awarded one of the federation’s nine wild-card spots into women’s qualifying, in part because she has vaulted nearly 600 spots in the rankings since the end of last year.

“When I was younger, I saw Maria Sharapova win Wimbledon when she was 17,” Crawford said. “I always wanted to play like her.”

How about playing against her?

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