By John Delong, special to EmiratesUSOpenSeries.com
WINSTON-SALEM - Being the tournament the week before the US Open can have its drawbacks, especially with attracting the elite players on the ATP World Tour.
But the Winston-Salem Open is intent on changing the culture that says it’s best to take the week off and rest up before heading to New York. And in its second year of existence, the tournament seems to be doing precisely that.
Twenty-four of the current top 50 are playing this week, including No. 6 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, No. 7 Tomas Berdych, No. 10 John Isner and No. 16 Alexandr Dolgopolov, plus American favorites Andy Roddick, James Blake, Sam Querrey and Ryan Harrison.
Tournament director Bill Oakes is using Winston-Salem’s small-town charm and Southern hospitality as a selling point, and is starting to succeed in convincing players that coming to Winston-Salem can be the perfect preparation for the Open. This year’s 24 top-50 players are more than double last year’s total of 11 out of top-50 players.
"It’s a fun event," said Blake, who was already familiar with Winston-Salem from playing for the U.S. Davis Cup team in three ties here over the past 12 years. "It’s the perfect atmosphere for the week before the US Open. It’s tough the week before the Open, so if you’re going to play somewhere the week before the Open, you hope it’s a little laid-back. That’s how it is in Winston-Salem."
Oakes goes so far as to offer Winston-Salem as sort of a calm before the storm, mindful that the US Open provides the most-intense two weeks of the year for players.
"I think it’s important for us to recognize that the players, they’re leaving Winston-Salem to go to one of only four Grand Slams during the year, to a city that is extremely vibrant and probably the most stressful city in the world, much more so than Melbourne or Paris and probably even London," Oakes said.
"For us to be successful, it is our need to make sure that they’re very comfortable. Our goal is to make them as comfortable as possible, so that they don’t have to worry about things. It takes five minutes in bad traffic from the host hotel to our venue. There is the ability for them to get practice courts pretty much any time they want. And it’s only an hour and a half flight to New York. So we want to make it as comfortable and easy for them as possible."
That hour and a half flight, by the way, comes in a private jet for Saturday’s finalists, as one of the many perks Oakes offers players. Another perk: thanks to an agreement between the WSO and USTA, the finalists are guaranteed that their first US Open match will not come before Tuesday.
Longtime tour veteran Michael Russell agrees with Blake that Winston-Salem is the perfect lead-in to the US Open.
"It’s just a nice set-up all around," Russell said. "It’s a nice little area where you’re staying downtown, a lot of nice restaurants. You’re five minutes from the courts. There’s a big players lounge, and the facilities are fantastic. It really is the opposite of New York. In New York, once you go to the site you pretty much have to stay there. It’s hard to go back and forth because of the traffic. And obviously Manhattan is pretty much 24-7 like Las Vegas. So it’s nice to have something laid-back the week before the Open. Obviously Winston-Salem has Southern hospitality, and we appreciate it."
Roddick freely admits that Winston-Salem has changed his entire philosophy about playing the week before a Grand Slam.
He came to the inaugural WSO last year because he needed matches, after being shelved with injuries throughout most of the summer hardcourt season. He got the matches he needed, advancing to the semifinals before losing to eventual champion Isner. And in the process he realized several other benefits, one being that he could practice any time he wished.
"The great thing about this complex is that there are so many practice courts all together," Roddick said of the new 13-court Wake Forest University Tennis Complex. "One thing players want at a tournament is practice time, especially the week before the US Open. You can come here and get all the practice in that you need. And for me personally, I’ve always enjoyed coming to Winston-Salem."
Roddick – who first started coming to Winston-Salem as a teenager in the non-sanctioned Flow Motors Invitational – feels Winston’s Southern hospitality.
"This is a nice city," Roddick said. "People appreciate you more than any other place I’ve been. I’ve had people say, ‘Thanks for coming to Winston.’ You don’t normally get thanked for coming to tennis tournaments. It’s what we do. So that stuck with me and that was a big part of me wanting to come back. It’s just a fun place to be. You don’t get a lot of headaches. It’s just a really fun week."