Sitting in the lobby of a Midtown Manhattan hotel, Peter Polansky was struggling with the attention generated by his record-setting year at the Grand Slam events.
“I had to turn notifications off for Twitter,” he said. “It was kind of annoying, actually. I can see now how the celebs have it.”
Polansky was joking, of course; even he knows he is still more of a curiosity than a celebrity, despite his year of remarkable resilience. Four times this year Polansky lost in the final round of qualifying for a Grand Slam event, and four times he was able to enter anyway, drawn to a replace a late-withdrawing player.
He thus completed the first calendar-year Grand Slam of being a lucky loser. Not that he wanted any part of the feat.
“You don’t want to take that risk of losing in qualies — it doesn’t make any sense,” Polansky said. “You always want to get through on your own.”
Assuming he does not become United States Open champion, Polansky, 30, will have been eliminated from a Grand Slam singles draw eight times this year, double what most players manage.
“It’s not the best accomplishment,” he said. “But it’s something that I think is super fun. I don’t think it will ever happen again.
“I feel like I could be a question on ‘Jeopardy!’ or something.”
There was more to Polansky’s feat than just luck or losing, however. This year, he also had to manage a run of relentlessly middling performances: results that were good enough to be one of the highest seeds in qualifying, but not good enough to grant him direct entry into the draw.
Four times he advanced through two qualifying rounds, which are some of the most pressure-packed weeks of the year, only to lose in the third. And each time that happened, Polansky needed a player to withdraw, and for his ranking to be high enough to secure a spot in the lucky loser draw.
So when he lost in his final qualifying match once again on Friday, falling by 7-5, 1-6, 6-3 to Donald Young, the stage was set for Polansky to complete his regrettable but remarkable sweep.
“Beating Donald Young yesterday, I would take that over this ‘record,’” Polansky said Saturday, making quotation marks with his fingers. “But at the same time, I was thinking, Wow, this could be a fourth lucky loser in a row at a Slam, it was something that’s unheard-of. It was kind of a fun thought to have in the back of my mind, but I was never planning on anything like that.”
Polansky hung around for five hours after his loss to Young, awaiting his fate. Pablo Cuevas had pulled out of the main draw on Thursday to open up one lucky loser spot, and when Jared Donaldson pulled out on Friday afternoon — after Polansky lost — there was suddenly a second.
Polansky rushed to the referee’s office after the final qualifying match had ended to witness the determination of the lucky loser order, knowing he would need to be drawn into one of the first two spots. Tournament officials, aware of what was at stake, let Polansky pull the chips himself.
He picked his own, No. 2, first; next came 1 (Lorenzo Sonego), then 3 (Ruben Bemelmans), then 4 (Nicolas Mahut). Bemelmans made it into the main draw on Monday, after Guillermo Garcia-Lopez.
History made, Polansky walked out of the referee’s office with his arms held high, and mimicked a mic drop. To celebrate his apparent invincibility, Polansky tweeted an image of Heath Ledger as the unkillable Joker from “The Dark Knight,” adding the caption “LL-SLAM COMPLETE.”
While some fellow players cheered his feat, other users on Twitter chided him for appearing to revel in repeated failure.
“Some people are like, ‘This is shameful, why are you proud of losing?’” Polansky said. “Some people take it too seriously.”
Though the lucky loser Grand Slam remains incredibly unlikely, Polansky might have found the perfect conditions for it this year. Seeking to cut down on first-round retirements by injured players at Grand Slam tournaments, tennis officials instituted a new rule on a trial basis this year that offered injured players half of their first-round prize money if they withdrew before their first match.
Last season, there were only a total of five lucky loser spots available for men at the four Grand Slam events; this year, there have been 20, including the four occupied by Polansky. Two other men, the Italians Sonego and Simone Bolelli, have been lucky losers at majors twice this year.
Polansky’s luck did have its limits, however: once he secured a spot in the U.S. Open main draw, he was placed into the toughest possible open spot for a qualifier in this year’s draw, facing fourth-seeded Alexander Zverev in the first round. But having already lost once here, Polansky said that he has nothing to lose when they meet Tuesday afternoon.
“You’re playing with casino money once you get in as a lucky loser,” said Polansky, who has in fact earned an extra $100,000 through his lucky loser appearances this year.
Polansky has shown resilience before this run of unexpected bonuses. A dozen years ago, he had to come back from a serious injury sustained after sleepwalking out of a third-story window, an accident that nearly ended his career.
His next goal is to be directly accepted on the strength of his ranking into the next Grand Slam event, the 2019 Australian Open.
In an odds-defying career, that is one thing he has never done.