- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 6, 2009

It seems that in every Legg Mason Classic, one underdog is certain to go deep into the draw.

World No. 124 Gilles Muller marched into the final in 2004, a feat that No. 416 John Isner was able to repeat in 2007. A player ranked lower than 90th has advanced to the semifinals in each of the last five events in the District - four of those times, he made it to the final. And a wild card or a qualifier has reached the quarters every year since 2004.

The tournament has had its share of high-profile winners, such as Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and James Blake. But sometimes the upsets have been just as good for the event as the stars.

“The more players that become known, the better off all the tournaments are as a whole because then you have more marketable players,” tournament director Jeff Newman said. “It’s good for the game. It creates great storylines. John Isner, people are still talking about [him] at this event.”

Before the season, the ATP elevated the Legg Mason to “500 Series” status, making it one of the top 20 tournaments in the world and awarding 500 points to the champion. Juan Martin del Potro earned 175 points when he won last year - this year, a player earns more points than that by making the semifinals.

As a result, the Legg Mason has a stronger field this year, with nine of the top 20 players in the world. While that means there are more recognizable names for the fans, the road for lower-ranked players is more difficult.

“It’s a very tough draw,” No. 29-ranked Juan Carlos Ferrero said. “There’s a lot of good players here.”

Ferrero is a prime example of how much more competitive the draw has become. In 2008, his ranking would have been good for the fourth seed; this year, he is unseeded. After prevailing in a grueling three-set, opening-round match Tuesday, the former world No. 1 had to turn around the next day and take on fellow Spaniard Tommy Robredo, a top-20 player.

Isner is in a similar situation. When he made his magical run in 2007, the highest-ranked player he faced before the quarters was No. 47 Benjamin Becker. Two years later, Isner is positioned nearly 350 spots higher than he was back then, and his reward was a second-round match with No. 7 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

Still, triumphs by unheralded players aren’t impossible. The bottom of the draw is more threatening than before, and more players are capable of pulling a stunner.

“Any player can beat anyone on any given day - that’s how the performance level has risen,” Newman said. “There’s still that opportunity even though the field’s deeper.”

Somdev Devvarman proved that Tuesday night with his victory over sixth-seeded Marin Cilic in straight sets. Devvarman, a two-time NCAA singles champion at Virginia, also won his first two matches last year. Half his pro wins have come in the District.

Though his foes have presented a stiffer challenge this year, Devvarman said underdogs have a chance only if they’re playing their best - regardless of the opponent.

“For me to be competitive, I need to be on top of my game,” he said. “It really doesn’t matter how tough the draw is.”

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