By John Delong
The 2012 Winston-Salem Open is wide open.
With three Top 10 players in the fold – No. 6 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, No. 7 Tomas Berdych and No. 10 John Isner, the defending champion – there is star power at the top. But with 21 others in the field who rank in the Top 50 in the current ATP rankings, this could literally be anyone’s tournament.
Nineteen players in the 48-player Main Draw have won ATP World Tour singles titles during their careers.
Leif Shiras, who will handle commentary for the Tennis Channel’s coverage of the Winston-Salem Open this year, was gracious enough to handicap the field for www.winstonsalemopen.com.
"That’s an impressive field," Shiras said. "That is arguably the strongest 250 event of the year, for sure. To get three of the top 10 currently and 23 of the top 50, that’s an excellent field."
Shiras worked last year’s inaugural tournament for both the Tennis Channel and CBS, and he gives credit to tournament director Bill Oakes for creating a fun environment at the Wake Forest Tennis Complex ... and to the tennis fans of Winston-Salem for embracing the event.
"I think Bill Oakes has done a marvelous job," Shiras said. "I think he’s put together a really nice venue. I like that it lies in the shadow of the football stadium. I think there’s a real feel, a real charm to the event and I sense that the community has really taken to it.
"Winston-Salem has always been a good tennis town, as evidenced by the multiple Davis Cups. I think a perfect storm is happening there as far as the players wanting to be there and the community wanting them and good tennis. So it’s a great lead-in to the US Open."
Tsonga will be the tournament’s top seed, and will be a huge fan favorite because of his flair and personality. He reached the semifinals at Wimbledon earlier this year and recently teammed with Michael Llodra to win a silver medal in the London Olympics. Tsonga owns eight career ATP World Tour titles, including one at Doha earlier this year.
"Tsonga has been having a really good season," Shiras said. "He’s the kind of charismatic, athletic entertainer who brings a lot to the tennis court. He recently had kind of an unfortunate accident in Toronto where he was running on the street and ran into a fire hydrant and it put a gash in his leg that needed stitches to close, and as a result he had to pull out of Cincinnati. I think he’s trying to gear to Winston-Salem as a way to tune up for what he missed in Cincinnati, so it could be a fairly significant week for him to see how he responds to healing his injury. It could go a long way in shaping up his US Open."
Berdych will be the tournament’s No. 2 seed, and has finally found consistency in his game as a Top Ten player for the last two years. He went to the semifinals at Roland Garros and then the finals at Wimbledon in 2010, and has remained a Top 10 player since. He owns seven career titles.
"Tomas is one of the cleanest ball strikers we have on tour," Shiras said. "He’s made inroads in the majors and is one of those guys who you put on a short list behind Andy Murray to be the next guy to break through and win a Slam. I mean, he’s been that good. He’s been to the finals at Wimbledon and the semifinals at Roland Garros, so this is a guy that has been very, very close, and now this year he’s having an equally successful year. It looks like he’s going to be a top eight player for the year-end championship. So this is a guy who is a force to be reckoned with and there’s no doubt he will make an impression in Winston-Salem."
Isner, a Greensboro native, will have the crowd behind him as he did last year in beating Andy Roddick in the semifinals and Julien Benneteau in the finals. No. 28 in the world when he came to Winston-Salem last year, Isner has shot up the rankings and has been as high as No. 9 this spring. He recently won the fourth ATP World Tour title of his career as he successfully defended at Newport. Isner also reached the quarterfinals at the Olympics.
"John has always had remarkable talents with his serve and his forehand, and for a big man the ability to move pretty well," Shiras said. "He’s still a player in development, I think he still has a way to go before he plays his best tennis, and he’s already a top 10 player. He’s a guy who can improve his ability to defend at the net, a guy who can improve his ability to transition better and make inroads in the middle of the court where you can dominate play. With the kinds of weapons he brings to the court, the most significant thing for him now is his belief. I think John honestly feels he’s a top 10 player, and that’s a challenge for players to accept they’re one of the top players in the world
"He’s a nice guy, he’s very humble. He’s one of the nicest guys we have on tour. But I think he also needs to understand there’s an expectation he can be this good and I think he’s starting to say, ‘You know what, I am that good."I still feel he’s young in terms of his pro tennis and we haven’t seen his best tennis yet. Good things are in store for him."
Other top seeds with the potential to go far include No. 16 Alexandr Dolgopolov, No. 21 Roddick, No. 29 Sam Querrey, No. 31 Feliciano Lopez, No. 32 Viktor Troicki, No. 33 Denis Istomin, No. 34 Kevin Anderson, No. 39 David Nalbandian, and Benneteau, who made it to the finals as a qualifier last year and his climbed all the way to No. 30. Benneteau was ranked No. 113 when he came to Winston-Salem last year and used the WSO as a springboard..
"Benneteau’s backed that up with some really good tennis, at the end of last year and throughout this year," Shiras said. "He’s a very talented player. He’s a guy who the top players have to reckon with. He can beat the best on any given day. He beat Roger Federer a few years back in Paris. So this is a guy who when he’s at his best can be very, very good. He’s an older player who has the experience and all-around skills to be in the mix every week now. And I know the fans will appreciate him because he’s got a little of that European flair."
If Shiras had to pick a darkhorse of sorts, it would be Querrey, who has had a strong summer and currently leads the Emirates Airline US Open Series standings, thanks to a victory in Los Angeles and a semifinal appearance in Washington.
"Sam Querrey is one of those guys who is as dangerous a floater as there is," Shiras said. "He’s got a big serve, a big forehand, and it takes a special talent and special skill set to deal with what he brings to the court. He got handled pretty well by Andy Murray in Cincinnati but Murray is one of those exceptional players who can defend very well. But if you’re not one of those top four players who can really defend well, Sam is the type who can really, really hurt you. I have a feeling he could make a strong run in Winston-Salem."
Shiras isn’t ready to give up yet on Roddick, who has lived a nightmare the past year and a half with injury after injury, the most recent at Cincinnati when he suffered back spasms. The good news is that Roddick has won twice this summer, at Eastbourne on grass and at Atlanta on hardcourts.
"He hasn’t been able to play as much tennis as he’d like, but he is still very much in the mix," Shiras said. "If he can sort of figure out the health issues he’s been facing, I think he’s still got some tennis in him."
Other top players in the field include No. 36 Jurgen Melzer, No. 40 Pablo Andujar, No. 41 Jarkko Nieminen, No. 42 Marcos Baghdatis, No. 44 Robin Haase, No. 46 Santiago Giraldo, No. 47 Albert Ramos and No. 50 Nikolay Davydenko.
Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram are back to defend their doubles title, but repeating will be difficult as the 16-team doubles field appears stacked. The top seeds are the reigning Wimbledon champs, Jonathan Marray and Frederik Nielsen.