- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 9, 2008

Washington’s main annual tennis attraction will begin this weekend amid a flurry of questions over the health of top draw Andy Roddick, competition with the Olympic Games and a sluggish economy.

Officials with the Legg Mason Classic said they expect a typical healthy crowd of between 70,000 and 75,000 for the weeklong tournament, but signals from the other U.S. Open Series events have been mixed, with at least one reporting a big drop in attendance but another seeing near record crowds.

The Indianapolis Championships, the series event most comparable in size and field, reported an 18 percent drop in ticket sales compared with last year. Organizers said some of the drop can be blamed on moving the date of the tournament up a week to accommodate the Olympics.

“The calendar moving is obviously a challenge,” said Kevin Martin, volunteer tournament director in Indianapolis. “You train people to a week, and a lot of our ticket buyers who were steady fans were now taking their family vacations.”

But Martin also placed some blame on the downturn in the economy.

“People are definitely feeling the pain a little bit,” he said. “We had a lot of people just buying day tickets, and I had a number of people who said $600 or $700 on tickets for the week for me is a big commitment. I had a number of people who said ‘I just can’t do it this year.’”

Quality of field - and how well the most popular players fare - could also be a factor. In Indianapolis, eighth-ranked American James Blake was the top seed, and he was ousted before the semifinals. The final featured a win by Frenchman Giles Simon over Russia’s Dmitri Tursonov - highly ranked players, but hardly household names in the United States.

And strength of field could pose a problem in the District. Competition with the Olympics and an intense summer schedule that included back-to-back Master Series events last month has left the Legg Mason with one of its weakest fields in years, with defending champion Roddick the only player ranked in the top 10. And Roddick has battled a right shoulder injury for most of the summer and withdrew from last week’s Cincinnati Masters tournament with an unrelated neck strain. He won his opening match in the Countrywide Classic in Los Angeles on Thursday over Dusan Vemic.

“I think we’ll get some great matches between some veterans and some young guys that could be the stars of tomorrow,” said Legg Mason Tournament director Jeff Newman, who pointed to the return of last year’s runner-up, John Isner, and 19-year-old American hopeful Donald Young. Russia’s Marat Safin and American Mardy Fish are also in the draw.

Tournament directors entered the summer’s hardcourt season with a sense of optimism after the men’s final at Wimbledon in which Rafael Nadal toppled Roger Federer in a five-set thriller. And there was an immediate impact. Tournament officials at the Masters Series event in Toronto said they had a record one-day sale of tickets after the Wimbledon final. The event pulled in a record $10.8 million and might have exceeded an attendance record were it not for rainstorms that affected play on seven out of nine days, tournament director Karl Hale said.

At the Master Series event in Cincinnati last week, attendance was about on par with last year, and tournament directors said there appeared to be fewer “no-shows” than in 2007.

Neither Cincinnati nor Toronto benefited from a Federer-Nadal rematch, as Federer was ousted early from both tournaments. But officials there said fans responded well to the emergence of several young players, and they said interest should be high in the District despite the lack of some of the game’s biggest stars.

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