Can Andy Roddick rediscover the form that has made him the top American player for the last decade and build momentum going into the U.S. Open?
Can Greensboro’s John Isner draw strength from the local support and claim his second ATP World Tour victory of the year?
Can rising young stars Bernard Tomic and Ryan Harrison continue their growth and challenge for the first titles of their careers?
Who else from an extremely deep and talented field will get on a roll and make a run to become the Winston-Salem Open’s first champion?
Those are the biggest story lines going into the inaugural Winston-Salem Open, which will get under way with qualifying Saturday at the new Wake Forest tennis complex, followed by the start of the 48-player Main Draw on Sunday.
ESPN tennis analyst Darren Cahill has been kind enough to preview the tournament for winstonsalemopen.com, and he thinks that Winston-Salem tennis fans are in for a week-long treat.
"Obviously Andy will be the sentimental favorite, but anyone can win that tournament," said Cahill, who will team with Brad Gilbert on ESPN2's telecasts of the tournament. "You have guys like John Isner who play their best tennis on hardcourts, and any number of players are capable of winning. I think it’s an incredibly competitive field, and I think Winston-Salem is in for a great week of tennis."
All told, 11 of the top 44 players in the latest South African Airways ATP rankings are in the field.
Roddick, of course, has been the top-ranked American for years until being overtaken by Mardy Fish earlier this year. He has 30 career ATP singles titles, including the 2003 US Open. He’s long been a Winston-Salem favorite, playing in the Flow Motors Invitational as a teenager and then leading the U.S. Davis Cup team three times at Joel Coliseum.
But Roddick has been troubled by injuries much of the year. First came shoulder problems that forced him to miss much of the clay-court season, and earlier this summer he suffered a strained abdomen. That has dropped him to No. 15 in the latest rankings.
When Roddick lost to Philipp Kohlschreiber in the first round in Cincinnati Monday night, it marked the first time he had played a competitive match since the U.S.’s Davis Cup loss to Spain in early July. He has not won a match since the second round at Wimbledon, when he beat Victor Hanescu.
All that means Roddick will be super-motivated in Winston-Salem, according to Cahill.
"He needs some matches," Cahill said. "He’s had a frustrating year with some injuries. This is one of those years I’m sure he wishes he could start over again and be healthy so he could put together some consistent tournament weeks.
"I think Winston-Salem is going to be critically important to him to get some matches going into the Open. So I think you’ll see the best of Andy there. He’ll need to put back-to-back matches there to build up his confidence and find his tennis legs, which I think we saw were lacking in the third set against Kohlschreiber. He played great tennis for a set and a half and I think he got a little tired, because you can be in shape but once you get into a match situation again it’s a different feeling. So he needs to get his tennis legs, and it’s going to be an important tournament for him.
"Under normal circumstances, if he had a couple of good tournaments in Canada and Cincinnati and got a bunch of matches, Winston-Salem would not be a priority. But it is a priority for him now. That’s why I think Winston-Salem should be excited, because you know you’re going to get the very best out of Andy."
Isner has moved back up in the rankings to No. 27, on the strength of a solid summer. He won on grass at Newport last month and then advanced to the finals in Atlanta before losing in three sets to Fish.
"It’s a great tournament for John, and great for the people there," Cahill said. "He’s a helluva nice guy, fun to watch play. Not many guys of his height and stature can execute the way he does. I always enjoy watching John play. When he plays his tennis and is healthy and feeling good and cracking his forehand and obviously serves the way that he can serve, he’s always difficult for anybody to beat. That’s why nobody likes to play him."
The youngsters, 18-year old Tomic and 19-year-old Harrison, are bona fide stars of the future and they come to Winston-Salem looking to continue their climb up the rankings. Tomic, who advanced to the Wimbledon quarterfinals, is currently ranked No. 61. Harrison, who advanced to semifinals in Atlanta and Los Angeles for the first time in his career, is No. 78. Both were well out of the Top 100 when the year began.
"I think these two kids are stars of the future and are at the top of the next generation coming through, along with (Milos) Raonic," Cahill said. "You’ve seen glimpses with Harrison making the quarterfinals at Atlanta and Los Angeles, and Tomic making the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. This is a great opportunity for them with a strong field, and also an opportunity for them to continue to build their ranking. I expect to see bigger and better things from those two guys for a long time."
Others in the field include No. 18 Jurgen Melzer, No. 22 Alexandr Dolgopolov, No. 31 Nikolay Davydenko, No. 35 Kevin Anderson, No. 39 Juan Monaco, No. 40 Marcos Baghdatis, No. 41 Tommy Robredo, No. 42 Sergei Stakhovsky and No. 44 Dimitry Tursunov.
Cahill puts them all in the category of having legitimate chances to win the tournament.
"Those players are all quality tennis players," Cahill said. "They’re all capable on any given day of beating anyone. So I expect a tournament that’s incredibly competitive. It should be a great week of tennis. Being a first-time tournament is going to make it special, and having such a strong field the week before the US Open is a huge bonus."
Also in the field are long-time greats James Blake and Lleyton Hewitt.
Blake has long been a favorite of Winston-Salem tennis fans because of past appearances here as a member of the U.S. Davis Cup team. He had a perfect 6-0 record in singles in U.S. victories over India (2001), Spain (2007) and France (2008) at Joel Coliseum. He owns 10 ATP World Tour singles titles and comes into the tournament at No. 84 in the latest rankings.
Hewitt owns 28 singles titles, including the 2001 US Open and Wimbledon in 2002. Going into this year he had won at least one tournament in each of the last 12 years, which gives him the longest current streak among active players. He has been hampered by injuries much of the year and that has dropped his ranking to No. 165, but he’s fit again and looking forward to next week.