For tennis pro Jacqueline Cako, U.S. Open lacks glamor

In a three-room Airbnb in Long Island City, 21 minutes by car from the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, three men bustled about a one-person kitchen Wednesday morning, stringing rackets, preparing breakfast, and reserving a practice court for the 222nd-ranked female tennis player in the world on her 26th birthday.

"This is huge," Jacqueline Cako said. "Up until this point in the year we haven't made any money."

For tennis professionals not named Serena Williams, the U.S. Open and the purses it awards just for qualification represent an opportunity to bankroll a full schedule's worth of future tournament appearances around the world.

"If there's one of these every week I could play, that'd be great," Cako said, "but that's not reality."

Through nine months, Cako has won more than $37,000 playing tennis in 2017, qualifying on her own ranking to compete in the singles draw at the U.S. Open for the first time in her career (she previously qualified in mixed doubles and doubles).

"I feel like I belong here," Cako said. "I've beat a lot of these people. I've had a few top-100 wins this year."

Cako wanted to be an Olympic gymnast, but her parents thought her height might better suit their daughter to tennis. Still too young for basketball, 8-year-old Jacqueline enrolled in tennis lessons.

"I didn't like it very much," Cako said.

Then she started competing.

"By the time I was 11, I was like, I want to play pro-tennis," Cako said. "I want to be on TV. I want to do this for a long time."

Cako climbed the junior rankings, playing her first pro tournament at 16 and receiving her first Women's Tennis Association ranking.

"Before I went to college, I was 369," she said.

Cako graduated from Arizona State University a year early and set out by herself on the national pro circuit.

"It's just very lonely out there," she said.

Host families from local tennis clubs provide free lodging, food, and company at many of the 30 or so tournaments Cako and so many others play every year.

"You're playing in places in the middle of nowhere," she said, "like Dothan, Alabama ... It was cheaper to go to the next tournament than go home."

Everywhere she travels -- the U.S. Open very much included -- Cako must budget for her every decision.

"We couldn't book the Airbnb for super long because we didn't know if I'd still be here the next week," she said. "So I've moved three times this tournament."

With a suite bearing his name at the Carlyle Hotel, it seems unlikely Roger Federer also spent the last week moving between Airbnbs.

Cako lost her first singles match at this Open but also qualified in doubles. Making the tournament means the U.S. Tennis Association now sends a car to pick her up.

"It's pretty exciting not having to take the subway," Cako said.