Time and again during the inaugural Winston-Salem Open, players talked about how the tournament was great preparation for the US Open.
It turns out their comments were right on the money.
A look at the US Open results supports the notion that playing the week before can be a great springboard to success in New York.
John Isner followed up his title at the Winston-Salem Open by advancing to the quarterfinals of the US Open, before losing to fourth seed Andy Murray. That’s Isner’s best showing ever in a Grand Slam event.
Andy Roddick, who reached the WSO semifinals, also made it to the US Open quarterfinals before losing to second-seeded Rafael Nadal. That’s a solid performance considering the fact that Roddick had played just one match all summer, because of an abdominal strain, before he came to Winston-Salem. Among Roddick’s victories was a four-set win over No. 5 seed David Ferrer.
Julien Benneteau, runner-up to Isner at the WSO after advancing through qualifying, upset 10th seed Nicolas Almagro in the first round of the US Open and made it to the third round before losing to Roddick. Benneteau was ranked No. 113 in the South African ATP rankings when he got to Winston-Salem, and moved all the way up to No. 71 by the time he left New York.
Donald Young, a wildcard entry in Winston-Salem, had his best US Open showing ever by advancing to the fourth round. He beat No. 14 Stanislas Wawrinka and No. 24 Juan Ignacio Chela in the process, before eventually losing to Murray.
Robin Haase, a semifinalist at the WSO after beating James Blake and Alexandr Dolgopolov, had Murray on the ropes in the second round, up two sets to none, before falling in five sets.
Tournament director Bill Oakes plans to use the success of Isner, Roddick and others as a recruiting tool of sorts when reaching out to players in the future.
Oakes attended the US Open and found that he already has a captive audience.
"It’s been ALL of my sales pitch to players so far," Oakes said. "When I walked through the players’ lounge at the US Open Wednesday and Thursday of the first week, I felt like a mini rock star. I was stopped by players, agents, coaches, and not just players who played our event but people who represented other players wanting to know how it was, because they had heard really good things.
"In my discussions with players, it was, ‘Look, you had a great experience and it’s going to be even better next year. Why don’t you make sure we’re on your schedule next year?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, it makes sense.’ So that has certainly played into the situation already."
Roddick, in particular, needed as many matches as possible in Winston-Salem to shake the rust off his game and build up his conditioning. But it wasn’t just the opportunity to play matches that made Winston-Salem attractive to him. Roddick talked at length about how good the practice facilities were at the new Wake Forest Tennis Center, with eight of the 11 courts available for practice time.
Roddick stayed around Winston-Salem after he lost to Isner partly because of travel problems created by Hurricane Irene, but also because he was better off practicing in Winston-Salem than trying to practice in New York. Most players in New York had to practice on indoor courts.
"I think it was a tremendous indicator that when you provide a facility and an event that was a good complement to the players, it makes it comfortable for them and they can use that as a springboard for the US Open," Oakes said. "Roddick, Isner and a number of other players stayed longer in Winston past their time so they could practice on the courts. They didn’t have to wrestle for court time in New York, and it’s really difficult to get court time in New York. By staying in Winston, they could practice and take it easy, and I think that really paid off. My thought is it paid off with the success that some of the guys had."
Oakes, of course, is aware that there has long been a culture among top players that it is best to skip the event prior to the US Open and rest up.
Roddick, for example, had never played the week before the US Open in the past.
But Oakes feels that a combination of factors – the potential to build momentum going into the US Open, the ability to use the practice courts at the Wake Forest Tennis Center, the cordial treatment the players receive in Winston-Salem, the success players had this year in New York after playing in Winston-Salem, and more – will help chip away at that culture.
"I think we’ll be able to change the culture," Oakes said. "We’ve already made a significant inroads changing the culture with a lot of players. I’ll tell you what, it doesn’t hurt when Andy Roddick, John Isner and others talk about you in on-court interviews and post-match interviews about how good an experience they had by playing a tournament before the US Open. That’s just a huge advantage for us.
"Will we be able to make it with the Big Four? That’s something that is probably unlikely. But as I said before the tournament when I took this job, other than the Big Four and maybe one or two other guys, everybody else to me is open for discussion. By putting on a good event reinforces that. I see no reason why other than the Big Four we need worry about the culture. I think we’ll get good players."
Interestingly, some of those players are already penciling Winston-Salem into their 2012 schedules. Isner and Benneteau said after the tournament that they would definitely be back. Mardy Fish has promised to include Winston-Salem in his 2012 schedule. Roddick certainly has strong ties to Winston-Salem that were only reinforced this year. And as he said, Oakes has already talked to players who didn’t play this year but are interested in coming next year.
"I think we’ll probably have some players committing by the end of October," Oakes said. "I think we’ll be able to start announcing some players much earlier than I would have ever thought. I was contacted by some agents before I even got to New York about next year, that their guys wanted to come back.
"I’ve never had that happen before, and that is exciting."