For most first years, mid-August was a time of last-minute shopping trips, frenzied packing and mixed emotions.

Sam Martinelli ’21, however, found herself emerging from the tunnel at the Connecticut Tennis Center alongside two of tennis’s most iconic figures in front of a crowd of thousands. Not only did the Yale women’s tennis team’s blue-chip recruit play in a duo of mixed doubles exhibition matches with retired professionals Mats Wilander and Martina Navratilova, but she also competed in the singles qualifying tournament of the Connecticut Open as a wild card against the No. 72-ranked player in the world.

“It was an honor to play alongside such amazing and talented people,” Martinelli said. “It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Walking out on the stadium, I couldn’t believe that there were that many people there. I was really nervous at first, but the energy of the crowd helped to make me feel more at ease.”

Martinelli’s unique opportunity arose when Anne Worcester, the Connecticut Open’s tournament director, offered a wild card qualifying spot to a player on the Yale’s women’s tennis roster during lunch with head coach Danielle McNamara. The Connecticut Open, regarded as the final tune up tournament before the U.S. Open, is a Women’s Tennis Association “premier event” that features a 30-woman main singles draw, a 16-team doubles draw and 48-player qualifying singles draw.

The cutoff for this year’s main singles draw was a world ranking of 38. On the qualifying side, 42 of the 48 entries were determined by WTA rankings, with this year’s cutoff standing at No. 90 in the world. However, Worcester and her staff reserve the right to award six wild card entries to players of their choice.

In years past, the Connecticut Open has given the spots to young, American talents looking to make a name for themselves on the tour. This year, one of the six spots went to Martinelli.

“It’s great for our program to get that big dose of exposure and publicity in the local area and also on the recruiting trail,” McNamara said.

While for Martinelli the experience may have been singular, Worcester’s wild card offer will become an annual tradition moving forward, according to the tournament director, and McNamara will determine which of her players to send to the Connecticut Open. Worcester described this opportunity as a potential recruiting draw for McNamara, as Yale will be the only Ivy League school that can offer a spot in a WTA qualifying tournament.

The Connecticut Open-Yale relationship has been a corollary of the tournament’s long run in New Haven. Beyond this latest team effort, the Connecticut Open partners with over a dozen Yale offices and departments annually to put together its opening ceremony, push forward marketing efforts and showcase events in tennis and other fields.

“It is probably the best example of a mutually beneficial partnership with an institution anywhere on the global WTA tour,” Worcester said. “I talk about it all the time, and I have other tournaments from all over the world asking me to share about our practices.”

In her WTA qualifying debate, Martinelli faced Magda Linette of Poland, who was ranked No. 84 at the time, in an opening qualifying round match. Linette won in straight sets, 6–2, 6–1, and proceeded to earn a spot in the main draw after two more triumphs in the qualifying rounds.

The 25-year-old then upset No. 43 Roberta Vinci, who in 2015 beat Serena Williams to make the finals of the U.S. Open. Linette’s incredible run ended when she was knocked out in the Round of 16, but her string of wins boosted her 12 rungs in the WTA rankings.

Playing against Linette was an eye-opening experience for Martinelli, who has ambitions to play tennis professionally after college.

“Playing this tournament definitely made me realize what a different level the professional players operate on as opposed to junior players,” Martinelli said. “It made me realize I would definitely have commit fully to compete at that level, but that it is also not impossible for me to one day reach that goal.”

Martinelli said that nerves caused her to overthink the match and that she felt she could have narrowed the score if she played more strategically.

While the first year is no stranger to high-pressure situations — at points she was ranked as the No. 1 women’s tennis player in Colorado and was named the 2016 Intermountain Nevada Junior Player of the Year — the Connecticut Open was a notch up from anything she had previously experienced.

“For all of our young American wild cards, it’s not just a chance to play,” Worcester said. “It’s a chance to experience everything that goes into a professional tennis tournament.”

Although Martinelli lost her match, she was also able to participate in two exhibition doubles matches on Opening Night that were extremely popular with the heavily Yale-affiliated crowd. First, she teamed up with Sweden’s Wilander, an eight-time Grand Slam champion in singles and doubles, before joining Navratilova, a Czech-American player who has 49 of her own Grand Slams to her name, against two men’s Yale tennis alums in Jeff Dawson ’09 and Marc Powers ’13.

The Connecticut Open celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2017.

Won | @won_jung_ 

Steven | @srome97