- The Washington Times - Monday, August 16, 2004

This year’s Legg Mason Tennis Classic certainly values quality over quantity.

With many of the world’s best players in Athens for the Olympics, the tournament pared its singles draw to 32 players from the customary 48. Still, the $500,000 Legg Mason attracted its customary star power, including five-time Legg Mason champion Andre Agassi and former world No.1 Lleyton Hewitt of Australia.

The smaller field means big names won’t receive first-round byes. And if the past is any indication, people will pack the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center to watch Agassi, even in the first round.

“[Agassi] draws tennis fans, and we’re fortunate to have him. He’s the Tiger Woods and the Michael Jordan of his sport,” tournament director Jeff Newman said. “He’s a great draw in D.C., obviously, and anywhere he goes.”

Agassi, 34, opens this year’s tournament against local favorite Paul Goldstein of Rockville tomorrow on Stadium Court. If the seeds hold, the top-seeded Agassi will meet fifth-seeded James Blake, the Legg Mason’s 2002 champion, in the quarterfinals Friday.

Hewitt, the second seed, faces Danish veteran Kenneth Carlsen tonight on center court in his first-round match.

Initially, the tournament received commitments from seven of the world’s top 50 players. However, Mariano Zabaleta (No.30) and Agustin Calleri (No.38) pulled out of the Legg Mason and went to Athens after fellow Argentines Guillermo Coria and David Nalbandian withdrew from the Olympics. Injuries also forced another Argentine, No.20 Guillermo Canas, and 26th-ranked Fernando Verdasco of Spain to bow out. That left No.7 Agassi, No.8 Hewitt and third-seeded Dutch star Sjeng Schalken (No.31) as the Legg Mason’s highest-ranked players.

“There are enough very, very good players to be able to fill a draw, especially with guys like Agassi and Hewitt not going to the Olympics and choosing to play here instead. [It] makes the tournament a little bit better for the public in anticipation of the tournament,” said Todd Martin, always a threat on hardcourts. “And two, the fact that the tournament is a smaller draw this year I think helps.”

Alex Corretja, Todd Martin, Jan-Michael Gambrill, Wayne Ferreira, Alberto Martin and rising 21-year-old American Robby Ginepri give the downsized tournament enough sizzle.

The FitzGerald Center’s hardcourt surface serves as a perfect tuneup for the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., in two weeks.

“We have four Olympics a year basically. The Grand Slams are the highest in our sport, where the other sports don’t,” said American Justin Gimelstob, whose uncle Gerry Gimelstob was George Washington’s men’s basketball coach from 1981 to 1985. “I think the Olympics is obviously an unbelievable honor and is right on top of everyone’s goal, but the Grand Slams are what we play tennis for.”

Another incentive this year is Legg Mason’s inclusion in the U.S. Open series, which links 10 summer hardcourt tournaments to the U.S. Open and creates an opportunity to play for increased prize money at the U.S. Open.

This year, the male and female winners of the U.S. Open series will receive 1 times the prize money they would otherwise receive at the U.S. Open. In addition, second- and third-place finishers in the series will receive bonus prize money based on their U.S. Open performance.

“For me, [this tournament is] preparation for the U.S. Open,” Hewitt said of his decision to skip the Olympics. “… The best way of giving myself a 100 percent chance of trying to play my best tennis at the U.S. Open was to come here to Washington and stay with the same climate, the same balls, the same courts, and hopefully in a couple of weeks time it will help me out in New York.”

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