- The Washington Times - Monday, July 28, 2003

Despite a new July start and a concurrent tournament in Los Angeles, this week’s Legg Mason Tennis Classic offers a competitive and compelling cast of characters. Which is far from the worst-case scenario feared by tournament organizers after the ATP decided last year to rework its summer hard court calendar.

In Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and defending champion James Blake, the Legg Mason sports the top three Americans in the world. Up-and-comers Paradorn Srichaphan and Fernando Gonzalez provide a dash of freewheeling foreign flair. Well-known veterans Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Tim Henman are still capable.

And hard-serving Greg Rusedski is as dangerous as low seeds come.

In fact, had Wimbledon champ Roger Federer not pulled out with an aching back late last week, the Legg Mason might have boasted one of its best fields ever.

And that’s no mean feat, given the bad vibes and scheduling uncertainty that surrounded the tournament as recently as last summer.

Then, the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation — the nonprofit body that owns the Legg Mason — and the organizers of the RCA Championships in Indianapolis were embroiled in a federal lawsuit against the ATP. The issue? The ATP’s decision to bump both the Classic and the RCA tournaments from August to July.

By doing so, the ATP hoped to produce stronger player fields and a pre-U.S. Open push at its top-tier Masters Series tournaments in Cincinnati and Toronto, which were moved to back-to-back weeks in August.

However, Washington and Indianapolis tournament officials fretted that altering the calendar would leave them with severely depleted player pools. For one, organizers feared they would have a tougher time drawing top European and South American players, many of whom don’t come to North America until August.

Worse still, top players might choose to skip one or both tournaments entirely, the better to rest up for the more prestigious Masters Series events and the subsequent U.S. Open.

In addition, organizers in Washington and Indianapolis didn’t want to lose their previously plum August dates, which fortuitously fell just two weeks before the U.S. Open. Legg Mason officials also worried about competing for stars with a Los Angeles tournament held during the final week of July.

Last year, for instance, Agassi won the Los Angeles event before making his annual trip to the District. Forced to choose between the two, why wouldn’t Agassi go there instead of here?

Noting that the ATP owns 10 percent of the company that sells the television rights to the Masters Series events — and fearing a conflict-of-interest that would fatten the ATP and the Masters tournaments at their expense — organizers in Washington and Indianapolis went to court. But facing the prospect of protracted litigation and a losing battle against the rescheduled Cincinnati tournament for player commitments, both tournaments settled with the ATP last winter.

The results? So far, not so bad.

The ATP’s new dates stood. At the same time, the Legg Mason and the RCA Championships were allowed to drop down a tier in the tour’s event classification system (read: offer less prize money, and put the difference toward appearance fees).

In both cases, the sky remained upright.

Indianapolis organizers took advantage of their status as the only tournament in North America last week to draw a first-rate field, headlined by first-time participant Roddick. As a result, sponsors such as RCA stayed aboard, while NBC renewed its television deal with the event.

Likewise, the Legg Mason hasn’t suffered an appreciable talent drop-off. Blake is back to defend his title. Paradorn was last year’s runner-up. Agassi and Roddick are the top two American draws in men’s tennis (conveniently, both are represented by SFX, the agency that runs the Legg Mason). And while the Mercedes-Benz Cup in Los Angeles features a deeper overall field, the Legg Mason draw is anything but shabby, with six players ranked in the top 30 of the ATP Entry system.

To put it another way: The presence of Federer, arguably the hottest player in the game, would have been an unexpected coup. But when the Legg Mason remains worth watching without him, the tournament is in pretty good shape.

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