By John Delong
(Editor’s note: This is one of a series of updates on players who either played in last year’s Winston-Salem Open or have committed to this year’s tournament.)
Jarkko Nieminen likes almost everything about the Winston-Salem Open, but he does have one request.
This year, he’d like a better draw.
The 31-year-old Finn has exited early in each of the first two WSOs, no thanks to a couple of unlucky draws that pitted him against eventual finalists. In 2011, he lost in the third round to eventual champion John Isner, and last year he lost in the third round to Tomas Berdych, who went on to reach the final against Isner.
"I would like to go deeper in the draw this time," Nieminen told WinstonSalemOpen.com recently. "When I played Isner obviously it was a tough opponent and I didn’t play so bad, but he played well. And the same thing with Berdych. I would like to get a little easier start and meet those guys later in the tournament."
Nieminen was one of the first players to commit to this year’s WSO, and he says it will continue to be a part of his schedule for several reasons. He likes playing the week before Grand Slam tournaments in general, but the WSO’s laid-back atmosphere is especially important the week before the U.S. Open.
"I like it," Nieminen said. "I feel like it’s good preparation for the U.S. Open. I like the site. I like the tournament organization. Everything works pretty well. They have enough practice courts, and it’s really a relaxed tournament which is good because you’re going to New York and it’s a hectic tournament.
"And I like the fans. It is a pretty good crowd even for the outside courts, and that makes it nice to play. So it is a part of my schedule now."
Nieminen’s career has always been solid, never spectacular. He has been ranked in the Top 100 for the past 13 years and has finished in the Top 50 in eight of the past 11 years. He’s currently on a streak in which he has reached at least one final in each of the past eight years.
He has done that despite two extended layoffs because of injuries; in 2005 he suffered a torn stomach muscle and in 2009 was shelved after wrist surgery.
His reached a career-best No. 13 in the ATP rankings in June of 2006, the same year he won his first ATP World Tour title, at Auckland. He claimed his second title last year in Sydney.
Nieminen is currently ranked No. 38, and again it’s a case of solid but not spectacular success. His best showing was a trip to the final in Dusseldorf last month, when he beat Tommy Haas along the way before eventually losing to Juan Monaco.
He reached the semis at Montpelier, and the quarterfinals in Sydney and Monte Carlo, where he knocked off Juan Martin Del Potro along the way. He also teammed with Dmitry Tursunov to win the doubles title in Munich.
Nieminen attributes his recent success to good health and maturity, saying he has been fully healthy for the past year and a half now.
"I am really pleased with how I’m playing," he said. "Knock on wood, but I have stayed healthy for a long time now. I haven’t even had the flu or anything. So that has helped me. I can play all the tournaments I want and practice when I want, and I can have rest during the times I want to have rest. So it’s all good.
"I also feel this is my 13th year on the tour and I feel more relaxed on the court. I have nothing to prove to myself or anyone else, and that takes the pressure off. I have won many tight matches this year. So I am really happy with the way I have started these first five months."