Nearly a decade ago, Punch Maleka packed his bags and hopped on a plane to the United States to pursue his tennis dreams. With only $10 in his pocket and dragging a couple of racquets along the way, the native of South Africa handed all of his cash to the shuttle driver and found housing with a friend. Slowly, he began checking goals off his long list.
Now a standout local player and coach, Maleka has a chance to finally cross one more goal off that list when he competes this weekend in the US Open National Playoffs, which run Aug. 17-20 in New Haven, Conn. Winners in the men’s and women’s draw move into the qualifying draw of the US Open, where the grand prize – a spot in the US Open main draw – is up for grabs.
Maleka is one of three players with local ties competing in the tournament, including Philadelphia native Anna Mamalat and Abington native Alexandra Mueller. Mamalat, 18, will be a freshman at Texas A&M this fall, while Mueller, who turned pro at 15, continues her journey as a young professional player.
Maleka and Mamalat earned their chance to play by winning the USTA Middle States Sectional Qualifying Tournament, while Mueller won the USTA Midwest qualifier.
“Playing at the US Open is a dream for any tennis player,” said Maleka, who resides in King of Prussia and coaches a number of junior players in the Philadelphia area. “I have this vision of playing against [Rafael] Nadal at night, on center court. You have to aim high because you never know. Anything is possible.”
While Maleka has been coaching and playing at some of the highest levels for many years, Mamalat is just beginning to realize her potential on the tennis court. A highly-recruited junior player for many years in the Middle States Section, she’ll be matched against players who may be college graduates or former touring pros.
Still, Mamalat’s confidence doesn’t mimic that of the standard 18-year-old player.
“It’s fun to play and compete,” she said. “This is the type of thing I look forward to doing as a tennis player.”
All three could be trouble for opponents in Connecticut. Mueller won the National Playoffs crown in 2010, and Mamalat provides a unique challenge as she hits both a two-handed backhand and forehand – something that creates unique spin and hasn’t been experienced by many players. In fact, the last two female champions advanced through the Middle States qualifier.
Maleka, meanwhile, is a little more mysterious.
“I’ve got some tricks up my sleeve,” he said with a smile. “I think I’ll surprise some guys.”
Play begins Friday and will run through Sunday at the Connecticut Tennis Center at Yale.
The mixed doubles tournament will then take place Aug. 22-25, with Pittsburgh natives Ron Mercer and Stephanie Smith representing Middle States. The winner of the mixed doubles tournament moves directly into the main draw of the US Open.