By John Delong
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (July 13, 2017) -- There’s a lot to like about the 2017 Winston-Salem Open field, which was announced on Wednesday with 38 of the eventual 48-player Main Draw players now locked in.
This will be a tournament with a little bit of everything, and a whole lot of interesting story lines.
There’s star power at the top with two-time WSO champion John Isner of Greensboro making a heralded return after a two-year absence. There’s no fewer than six players committed who have been ranked in the Top 10 at some point in their careers. There are three former champions, including Isner (2011, 2012), Kevin Anderson (2015) and defending champion Pablo Carreno Busta, along with possibly four former runners-up. There is another strong field of American players, including three players who have been the top-ranked Americans at some point in their careers. The depth is outstanding with 17 players in the field in the Top 50 in the latest ATP World Tour rankings, which likely means players will have to be ranked in the Top 50 in order to receive a first-round bye. Youth will be served with at least a couple of the top #NextGen players who are battling for spots in the #NextGen ATP Finals. And last but certainly not least, there is a long list of well-known, highly respected veteran players who have been showing their support for the WSO by coming back year after year and have become tournament staples.
And that’s all without knowing what potential big names could fill out the field as wildcards, and who might write another Cinderella story by coming out of qualifying and making a deep run.
No wonder tournament director Bill Oakes is so excited. It’s generally regarded that the 2012 field was the strongest ever with Andy Roddick, James Blake, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych and Isner battling it out, but this field could wind up being a close second from top to bottom.
“Our playing field this year is one of the strongest in the history of the Winston-Salem Open,” Oakes said. “It just goes to validate why the players voted the Winston-Salem Open as the ATP 250 Tournament of the Year last winter. These are world class players and they love coming to Winston- Salem because of the warm hospitality and enthusiastic fan support that our city offers. Many of the players have developed a loyal local fan base. It’s part of the fun to go to the tournament and cheer on your favorite players, and the players recognize and appreciate that.”
Here’s a look at some of the more-interesting story lines that are sure to unfold when the tournament starts on Aug. 19:
Welcome back John: Isner is hugely popular with WSO fans as the local favorite, after growing up in Greensboro. Technically he has never lost a match at the WSO, winning in 2011 and 2012 and then winning two matches in 2014 before being forced to pull out because of injury. There’s no way to verify this exactly, but it’s believed he has never lost a match inside the Winston-Salem city limits, as he doesn’t remember ever losing to a Winston-Salem player during his high school years at Greensboro Page. Isner owns 10 career ATP World Tour titles but hasn’t won since Atlanta in 2015, so he’s hungry to add to his resume. A former World No. 9, he is currently ranked No. 21.
Sam is the Man: Sam Querrey has been a WSO semifinalist twice previously, in 2012 and 2013, and he is the winner of nine ATP World Tour tournaments during his career. At age 29, Querrey is playing the best tennis of his career. He’s been phenomenal at Wimbledon this year, reaching Friday’s semifinals after a stunning five-set win over defending champion Andy Murray on Wednesday. That’s hardly his first taste of success at Wimbledon, though. He beat another Wimbledon champ, Novak Djokovic, to reach the quarterfinals at SW19 last year. With his Wimbledon success, it’s possible he could arrive at the WSO as the top-ranked American, sure to rise from his current No. 28.
Skyrocketing Pablo: Pablo Carreno Busta wasn’t a household name when he beat Roberto Bautista Agut to win last year’s WSO. But the victory has proven to be a launching pad for the 26-year-old Spaniard. He won in Moscow later last year and notched his third career title at Estoril earlier this year, and has risen to a career-high No. 17. He hasn’t played since retiring in the quarterfinals of Roland Garros against Rafael Nadal with an abdominal injury, but that just means there’ll be an urgency to get his form back as the summer progresses, and will make defending his 250 points from last year’s WSO win even more important.
Anderson’s long comeback: After winning the WSO in 2015, Kevin Anderson cracked the Top 10 in October of 2015. But he was injured late in the year, had a long layoff, and fell all the way back to No. 80 this past January. His comeback has been slow and often frustrating as he has tried to regain form, but it looks like that is finally happening. He is up to No. 42 again and is sure to go even higher after reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon, when he lost to Querrey. Anderson has been very vocal about loving Winston-Salem, and the good vibes from his past here should bring out the best in him.
Third time’s a charm: Gilles Simon came to the 2015 WSO as the top seed, and was promptly upset in his first match by Aljaz Bedene. He apologized for his performance and vowed to return to the WSO in 2016 to atone himself. Alas, he was stunned again by Diego Schwartzman in his opening 2016 match. But the former world No. 6 is determined to give WSO fans a good show and he’s back in this year’s field, currently ranked No. 36. He’s clearly the embodiment of the old phrase, if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. He’ll be on a mission to perform well this year.
Young guns: One of the neat things about each WSO is seeing young up-and- coming players show their immense potential. That’s been going on ever since Kei Nishikori played in the inaugural WSO in 2011 as a qualifier. Two names to follow this year are 21-year- olds Danill Medvedev and Hyeon Chung. Medvedev is currently ranked No. 49 and is coming off a first-round upset win over Stan Wawrinka at Wimbledon. He’s ranked No. 4 in the latest Race to Milan standings for the #Next Gen ATP Finals. Chung is ranked No. 56 after previously reaching 51, and this year he owns match wins over the likes of Querrey, Alexander Zverev, Gael Monfils and Borna Coric. He’s No. 5 in the Race to Milan.
Promise being realized: Ryan Harrison is a familiar face at the WSO and has long been considered as one of America’s most-promising young players. Now at age 25, that potential is being realized as Harrison has risen to a career-best No. 41. Earlier this year, Harrison won his first ATP World Tour title, at Memphis.
Thank you for your loyalty: It’s really an impressive list of players who come back to the WSO year after year after year. The likes of Marcos Baghdatis, Alexandr Dolgopolov, Denis Istomin, Steve Johnson, Yen-Hsun Lu, Nicolas Mahut, Fernando Verdasco, Viktor Troicki and Jiri Vesely all fall into that category. There can be no greater testament to the tournament’s popularity than to have well-respected veteran players continually return. It’s easy for some players to take the week off before the US Open, but these veterans feel the WSO is far better preparation than dealing with the hassles of an off-week in New York. This is where quality depth in a field comes from, and it’s something the WSO can be very proud of.
Never forget qualies: Julien Benneteau provided one of the great story lines to the inaugural 2011 tournament when he advanced through qualifying and made it all the way to the title match before losing to Isner in the finals. Then French compatriot Pierre-Hugues Herbert matched Benneteau’s feat by winning eight matches in eight days before falling to Kevin Anderson in the 2015 finals. There’s no telling who might get one of the four qualifying spots this year, because that of course will play out over the tournament’s first Saturday and Sunday. But names to watch on the current list of alternates include former World No. 10 Ernests Gulbis, 2014 WSO runner-up Jerzy Janowicz, American #NextGen rising star Taylor Fritz, Andreas Seppi and the ever popular Dustin Brown to name a few.