A tradition will end when this year's Sovran Bank/D.C. National Tennis Classic swelters its way to an Aug. 3 close. Next year's tournament will be played on hard courts rather than clay, which has been the surface every year since this tournament began in 1969.
"We just feel it's a necessary switch at this time to attract the best players," said tournament director Henry Brehm. "We already have a commitment from Ivan Lendl for next year as long as we change the surface."
The tournament is one of a series of summer competitions that precede the U.S. Open, which will begin in late August and is played on hard courts in New York. Players prefer to participate in tournaments on the same surface as the next Grand Slam event, Brehm said.
For that reason, this year's tournament field won't be star-studded. Defending champion Yannick Noah might not play because of the same ankle injury that caused him to miss Wimbledon, and the world's top hard-court players -- Lendl, John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Jimmy Connors and Mats Wilander -- aren't coming.
"Those are the caliber of players we want to get for next year's tournament," Brehm said. "We're still anticipating that Noah will play, though. He would have to withdraw by this Friday at noon if he wasn't going to."
Andres Gomez, who won the tournament in 1984, said he thought the surface switch would attract more top players. "In moving from clay to hard courts they expect to get more players in the top 10, and they probably will," he said. "Personally, it doesn't make much difference to me. I like to play on hard courts, although clay is my favorite surface."
Although the switch may gain some participants, it also will lose some. Aaron Krickstein, the runner-up in 1984 to Gomez, said he probably will not play next year. "I may go to Europe, instead, and play on clay there," he said.
Brehm said that at least 10 of the 16 courts at the Rock Creek Tennis Stadium will be left as clay courts. The stadium court and no more than five other courts will be converted. "It may even be less expensive to build new ones than to resurface with DecoTurf the type of hard court on which the U.S. Open is played ," he said.
Other top contenders for the title include three-time champion Guillermo Vilas, Gomez, 1985 runner-up Martin Jaite and Jimmy Arias.
The tournament will begin July 28 with a 56-player field. Qualifying play is next weekend, but the high point of the first few days of tennis at Rock Creek Tennis Stadium will be the Prudential-Bache Securities Grand Champions tournament, which will begin Thursday and will feature former tennis greats 35 or older.
"The great thing about this tour is you've been playing the same fellows for the past 20 years, and it gives us an opportunity to still continue the rivalries," said Stan Smith, one of the participants. "Everybody wants to win -- these guys are all used to winning -- so it's very competitive."
The Grand Champions tournament will include last year's winner, Cliff Richey, along with Smith, Bob Lutz, Jaime Fillol, Dick Stockton and Manuel Orantes in the 12-player field. Washington is the third stop on an 11-city tour for the senior players, each of whom must have either won a Grand Slam tournament, played for his country's Davis Cup team or achieved the No. 1 ranking in his country. Richey and Stockton have split the first two events on the tour.
One factor that will affect both tournaments is the ever-present heat, which topped 100 degrees at times last year. Gomez likes it. "It's very hot, and I really look forward to that," he said. "Coming from Ecuador and being used to the heat, I think it gives me a big advantage."
The older players aren't as fond of the heat, trying to control it rather than revel in it. "The players who are the fittest will have a distinct advantage," said Smith. "The heat and humidity will be tough on us."
The proceeds for both tournaments benefit the Washington Area Tennis Patrons Foundation, which supports the youth tennis programs in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, and last year received $139,224 from the tournaments.