- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 2, 2006

It’s safe to call Jan-Michael Gambill the luckiest guy at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic.

After losing in the final round of qualifying Sunday, Gambill received notice Monday night he would have the opportunity to fill in for the injured Andy Roddick as the tournament’s “lucky loser.”

The second-seeded Roddick withdrew late Monday night because of a strained muscle on his left side — a minor inconvenience for the No. 10 player in the world, who has amassed nearly $10 million in prize money during his career.

For Gambill, the opportunity not only means he actually could earn some prize money and even more valuable ATP points, but it also gives new hope to a once promising career that has been marred by devastating setbacks.

“I found out when I was in the hotel last night,” Gambill said. “It is a good opportunity. It is the first time I have ever in my entire career gotten a lucky loser.”

After turning pro in 1995, Gambill slowly climbed the rankings, reaching a career high No. 14 in the world in June 2001. Gambill remained a fixture in the top 100 until January 2005 when injuries slowed him down. He eventually was forced out of competition after shredding tendons in his right shoulder — a crushing blow to a player who prides himself on serves that clock more than 130 mph.

For the next eight months, Gambill couldn’t bare to watch tennis.

Finally healthy, Gambill has competed in just one tournament this year. He retired in the first round and earned just $520 for his effort. But Roddick’s strained muscle gave Gambill a free ticket to his second main draw of the year.

“I had to earn it all, so I know what it takes to do that,” Gambill said. “When I first came out, I toughed it out in the qualifiers for almost a year before I broke through. It’s a little weird coming to a tournament where I was on the poster before as one of the guys promoting the tournament and now I’m a qualifier. It doesn’t matter. I don’t have that big of an ego. I just like playing tennis and doing it my way and having fun with it, so that’s what I’m going to go do. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out.”

Gambill said he hopes his stint as a qualifier will end soon, but he recognizes the challenges facing the often overlooked qualifiers.

Nathan Healey, the No. 1 seed in the Legg Mason qualifying draw, had to travel from a tournament outside of Montreal to reach Washington in time for his match. He made it by just 30 minutes and was promptly bounced out of the tournament by Sadik Kadir 4-6, 7-6 (5), 4-6.

“I got three hours of sleep, I played for three hours yesterday and I lost after having five match points,” Healey said sarcastically about his life as a qualifier. “What else? … Oh yeah, my back is hurt, and my shoulder is busted.”

Although qualifiers must win three matches in two days for the right to face a highly ranked player in the main draw, the qualifiers at the Legg Mason are not going away easily.

Three of the four qualifiers who advanced to the main draw won their first-round matches. Ryan Sweeting, Andrea Stoppini and Phillip King all picked up their first career ATP victories. Those wins are important to the development of their game, but they also mean large paydays. The three victorious qualifiers at the Legg Mason have earned, on average, $12,940 in prize money this year.

A victory in the Legg Mason nets a qualifying player $5,225.

“The thing with qualifying is you just never know,” said King, who fell to Tim Henman 7-6 (3), 3-6, 5-7. “Even the best players, it’s not a guarantee they are going to win every time.”

While Gambill can appreciate the cost of traveling to tournaments and paying for coaches and equipment, he has earned more than $3.5 million throughout his career. So he said his decision to attempt a comeback is because of his love for the game, not his bank account.

“It’s just really fun for me to be on the court right now,” Gambill said. “I’ve had a lot of off time, and it’s been hard. But I had a lot of time to reflect, and I told myself that when I came back I just wanted to enjoy my time on the court.”

With a second chance in the Legg Mason gift-wrapped for him, Gambill now will face Janko Tipsarevic in the second round today.

Tipsarevic won their only meeting in Scottsdale, Ariz., last year 6-4, 6-2.

“It’s a match that I feel that if I play well, I have a shot at it,” Gambill said.

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