By John Delong
John Isner is the two-time defending champion and the local favorite, but he’s got his work cut out if he is to win a third straight Winston-Salem Open title.
The Greensboro native will be the third seed in the 48-player Main Draw, behind top-seeded Tommy Haas and second seed Andreas Seppi.
It’s a deep and talented field that includes five players ranked in the Top 25, plus 18 of the Top 50, and 35 of the Top 75.
No fewer than eight players in the field have won ATP World Tour singles titles this year, and a total of 10 have been ranked in the Top 10 at some point in their careers.
"To have 18 of the top 50 for the week before a major, I think that’s a tremendous field," said MaliVai Washington, the 1996 Wimbledon finalist who will conduct on-court interviews with the winners after matches on Stadium Court. "Any tournament would be happy with that field. You want the upper echelon players with the Top 20s, the Top 30s, but you also want depth. And without question, Winston-Salem has depth."
The tournament will get under way Saturday at the Wake Forest Tennis Complex with qualifying, and then the Main Draw will start on Sunday night.
The top 16 seeds will receive first-round byes. Right now, that group consists of Haas, ranked No. 13 in the latest ATP World Tour rankings; Seppi, No. 21; Isner, No. 22; No. 23 Tommy Robredo; No. 24 Benoit Paire; No. 28 Sam Querrey; No. 31 Fernando Verdasco; No. 32 Juan Monaco; No. 33 Jurgen Melzer; No. 37 Alexandr Dolgopolov; No. 39 Jarkko Nieminen; No. 42 Bernard Tomic; No. 43 Lukas Rosol; No. 44 Dmitry Tursunov; No. 45 Martin Klizan and No. 46 Marcel Granollers, though the tournament still has one wild card to hand out that could affect the seedings.
Also in the field are Americans Mardy Fish, James Blake, Jack Sock and Michael Russell, plus crowd favorites Gael Monfils and Marcos Baghdatis.
"This is a nice mix of players who have come to Winston-Salem before and who are coming for the first time," Washington said. "I think the fans are going to enjoy watching guys like Tommy Haas and Seppi and Monfils for the first time, and then, of course, you have the American players who are always crowd favorites."
Isner, who defeated Julien Benneteau in the finals of the inaugural 2011 WSO and then outlasted Tomas Berdych in the finals last year, told Triad reporters last week that he felt very confident coming into this tournament.
He’s had a fine summer hardcourt season, winning at Atlanta and reaching the finals at Washington before losing to Juan Martin Del Potro. He’s also having a nice run this week in Cincinnati.
Washington sees an extremely driven Isner these days, as Isner looks to climb back into the Top 10, where he resided at this time last year.
"He’s going to have a little added pressure on him because he’s got points to defend and he obviously will want to do well in front of the home crowd," Washington said. "But he’ll be highly motivated, because I think in his mind he feels like he should certainly be Top 15 and then eventually back in the Top 10 where he was last year.
"The challenge for a player like John is, to be in the Top 10, you have to win tournaments, and you have to continue to win tournaments. You can’t just do good, you can’t just reach semis and finals, you have to win. When you’re not winning tournaments, your ranking is going to drop, and I think that’s what we’ve seen out of John a little bit. He’s having a very good year, but I think he wants and he feels like he should be back in the Top 10."
The top seed Haas is one of the truly remarkable stories on the ATP World Tour these days. At age 35, the former World No. 2 has reached as high as No. 11 this year and won in Munich this spring.
"What a career resurgence," Washington said. "I remember at the end of my career, Tommy Haas was out there. Then when I was a television commentator, I remember announcing the guy. And here were are in 2013 and he’s ranked 13 in the world. That’s essentially unheard of. It’s hard to explain, but I think it’s a tribute to how he has conducted himself and his desire and to the people around him. What he’s doing at 35, you can’t do that on your own. So it’s a credit to him and his team.
"I think people are really going to enjoy having him because, one, he’s a great player, but also, he’s a great personality, a good person, and I think people are going to appreciate that he is a good person."
Washington also has kind words for Seppi, the 29-year-old Italian who has flown under the radar a bit in climbing up the rankings.
"I think a guy like Seppi helps give you a sense of the depth in men’s tennis," Washington said. "He’ll be a player that maybe your casual fan doesn’t know a lot about, or they might say, ‘I remember seeing him once before but I haven’t seen him live,’ and I think people are going to enjoy watching him play. He’s a very, very good player. He has a dogged personality when he’s out on the court. I think he’s a great addition to the field."
Others to watch? Well, as Benneteau proved two years ago by coming through qualifying and winning eight matches en route to the finals, it truly could be anyone.
The eight players who have won ATP World Tour singles titles this year are Haas (Munich), Isner (Houston and Atlanta), Robredo (Casablanca), Monaco (Dusseldorf), Tomic (Sydney), Rosol (Bucharest) and Marcel Granollers (Kitzbuhel).
Then there others such as Verdasco, Querrey and Monfils, who have had multiple wins in their careers and will be highly motivated to get some momentum going into the US Open.
Washington points out that momentum is something that can accumulate over the course of the week, so it’s not always the hottest player coming into the tournament who winds up winning.
"Sports is really interesting in that you don’t have to go on a three-week roll to kinda get your confidence back going into a major," Washington said. "It can literally turn around in one week. Look at Jason Duffner last week in the PGA Championship. I don’t think people were picking him as a favorite going into the tournament, but you know what, he gets on a little bit of a roll and he played some great golf. I think it’ll be interesting to see who that player is that gets on a roll in Winston-Salem."