- The Washington Times - Monday, August 3, 2009

Some of the biggest names in men’s tennis return to the District this week for the Legg Mason Classic, and this time the stakes are higher.

The 48-man draw will compete for more than twice as much money and twice as many ranking points, thanks to a decision to bump the event to ATP World Tour 500 status. With the designation, the tournament is considered one of the top 20 ATP Tour events in the world and has attracted one of its strongest fields in years.

“We elevated the event because we felt we were one of the top 20 events in the world, and now we have that status to go with it,” tournament director Jeff Newman said. “We’ve invested in tennis in this area in order to get a strong field top to bottom. And we feel we’ve accomplished that.”

Main-draw play begins Monday. The tournament once again lacks top-ranked Roger Federer and world No. 2 Rafael Nadal. But it does have three of the world’s top 10, including defending champion Juan Martin del Potro and Wimbledon finalist Andy Roddick, plus six more in the top 20. Prize money is $1.4 million, up from $600,000.

The event has benefited from an effort by the ATP Tour to simplify its schedule and bolster the fields of many tournaments. Top players are now required to play the nine Masters 1000 Series events and at least four of the 11 “500 Series” tournaments.

The change gives the Legg Mason Classic a prominent position as part of the U.S. Open Series of hard-court tournaments. Unlike past years, there is no other major tour event to compete with. And for some players, it is seen as a good way to prepare for the Masters 1000 event next week in Montreal or the U.S. Open at the end of August.

“Washington is uniquely positioned to attract a quality field, as we seem to have here,” ATP Tour supervisor Mark Darby said. “It’s been a real plus for them.”

The boost in prize money placed pressure on tournament officials to attract more sponsors. Newman said sponsorship revenue is up 30 percent from last year despite a sluggish economy.

This year’s tournament comes when there is considerable buzz about the sport in the District. Mayor Adrian Fenty this summer announced an expansion of the youth tennis program offered by the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation, as well as the refurbishing of some city courts. And last month, the Washington Kastles of World TeamTennis won the league title. Fenty and members of the D.C. Council declared this “Tennis Week” in the District.

Once again, charitable proceeds from the tournament will go to the Washington Tennis & Education Foundation, which provides tennis-related activities and academic help to disadvantaged children in the region.

Last year, del Potro was relatively unknown but entered the tournament having won three straight events. He emerged with the Legg Mason title as well after toppling Roddick in the semifinals and beating Viktor Troicki in the final. After earning a title in Auckland and reaching the semifinals of the French Open, he is ranked sixth in the world.

Roddick is having one of his best seasons to date. He reached the semifinals of the Australian Open, won an indoor title at Memphis and had a career-best fourth-round appearance at the French Open. Then at Wimbledon, he battled Federer in the longest match in event history, losing 16-14 in a fifth set.

This will be Roddick’s first tournament since that loss, and Newman said he has become the player fans want to see. Roddick won the tournament in 2001, 2005 and 2007.

“He sort of takes over from what Andre Agassi was for the event,” Newman said. “He just provides that competitiveness that people love to see. He’s great for the fans, and we’re ecstatic he’s coming back.”

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