- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 29, 2012

Last summer’s Legg Mason Classic brought 10 of the 30 best tennis players in the world to Rock Creek Park, from Gael Monfils and Marcos Baghdatis to American John Isner. But this summer, the annual tournament has a new name — the Citi Open — and a depleted field.

The 2012 London Olympics have drained the Open of many of its most talented players, as 12 of the 16 seeded men’s singles players from last year are competing in London. Another, runner-up Monfils, is nursing an injured right knee. The number of top-30 players in the field has dropped to two from 10 a year ago.

“Obviously, we try to focus on who is here and not who’s [isn’t], and we think we still have a tremendous field,” tournament director Jeff Newman said. “What we’ve done to kind of offset the perception is to bring in a women’s event, so in terms of the value that we’re offering this year versus other years, you’re going to get a tremendous amount of tennis.”

In previous years, the Legg Mason Classic and Citi Open were separate tournaments. The Legg Mason was a men’s event in late July, and the women played at College Park in the Citi Open the following week. Newman said combining the two will offer fans up to 20 matches per day beginning Monday.

The men’s field may not be as strong as years past, but it still has its fair share of marquee names. Americans James Blake and Sam Querrey will play Monday and Tuesday, respectively, and Mardy Fish will make his Citi Open debut Tuesday after missing last summer’s tournament due to injury.

“At this time last year, he was the story in tennis. He was just absolutely on fire,” Newman said. “But he’s back, he looks great, he’s enthusiastic, and I think he’s going to make a good run here.”

Fish, the No. 2 player in the United States and No. 13 in the world, passed up an automatic Olympic berth to be in Washington this week. The 30-year-old was treated for an irregular heart beat in May and only recently has returned to form. He opted for the hard courts of the Citi Open over the grass courts of Wimbledon in order to prepare for the U.S. Open in late August.

“I was lucky enough to do well in the Olympics. I’ve got memories from that,” Fish said in reference to the Athens Games, in which he won silver in 2004. “Playing in the States is my most fun time of the year, in the summer, in the heat. I didn’t want to miss that.”

Neither did Kevin Anderson and Chanelle Scheepers, the two top-ranked players from South Africa. The duo would have automatically qualified for the Olympics based on their respective world rankings, but instead they spurned the South African tennis administration and ignored the necessary qualification matches.

Other top players are at the Citi Open by default. Querrey and Blake were left off the Olympic roster despite competing in the 2008 Beijing Games, where Blake took fourth and Querrey was bounced in the first round. Tommy Haas likely would have won an Olympic wild card spot but was not nominated by the German Sport Committee. And Alexandr Dolgopolov of Ukraine wasn’t eligible because he hasn’t competed in the Davis Cup for five years.

Fortunately for Newman, each of London’s losses has been the Citi Open’s gain. The Stadium Court’s bleachers were only dotted with fans Sunday, but attendance is expected to reach usual heights as the week progresses.

“We are tracking slightly less than last year, but a lot of it comes down to weather and results,” he said. “That’s the beauty of tennis — it’s the good and the bad, it’s single elimination, so clearly it’s still to be determined.”

NOTES: Higher seeds were upset in two of the three women’s singles matches contested Sunday, as Kai-Chen Chang defeated sixth-seeded Iveta Benesova, and late qualifier Michelle Larcher de Brito upended Croatia’s Mirjana Lucic.

• Virginia’s Jarmere Jenkins and Mitchell Frank received wild card invitations to the tournament’s qualifying draw but lost in the opening round Saturday.

• Mardy Fish will greet fans at Citibank’s Foggy Bottom branch at noon Monday. His first match is against Bjorn Phau of Germany on Tuesday.

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