The Legg Mason Tennis Classic has learned what every good host knows: It's easier to get people to come to your party if your party is easier for people to get to.
For the last 30 years, the tournament had been held in July, the no-man's land of the U.S. summer hard-court season, and the quality of the field accordingly ranged from fair to weak. But when the 1999 tournament opens today, two weeks before the U.S. Open, five of the ATP Tour's top eight players will be on the grounds of the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center, trying to hone their games.
"This is definitely the best field we've ever had," tournament director Ivan Blumberg said. "We started talking about moving the date about seven or eight months ago. We wanted to be closer to the Open. We knew that would make us more of a must-play event."
No. 2 Yevgeny Kafelnikov of Russia, No. 3 Andre Agassi, No. 5 Tim Henman Britain, No. 7 Todd Martin and No. 8 Alex Corretja of Spain are all committed to play, with three-time winner Agassi returning as the tournament's defending champion. No. 1 Pete Sampras and No. 4 Patrick Rafter will both be missing, playing instead in Indianapolis this week, but two-time winner Michael Chang will compete, along with local favorite Paul Goldstein, fresh off winning a gold medal at the Pan American Games.
Agassi remains the week's biggest draw, Blumberg said, his popularity bolstered by winning the French Open and reaching the Wimbledon final. Agassi has had a strong hardcourt season, winning 23 of his last 27 matches, although he has continued to have trouble playing Sampras, who beat him at Wimbledon, Los Angeles and last week at the ATP Championships in Cincinnati.
The only other player Agassi has lost to since winning the French Open is Kafelnikov, who defeated him in the semifinals in Montreal this month. Kafelnikov has had an uneven year, losing in the opening round of six consecutive matches in March and April before reaching No. 1 for six weeks in May and June.
"You'd always like to have everyone at your tournament, but if you asked any director who their number one choice would be, it would be Agassi," Blumberg said. "For the past few years, [the tournament has] been a two-man show. It's been Andre and Michael Chang, but now we've had enough top-10 players that doing the schedule for each day has been a real pleasant problem."
After struggling most of the year and missing the grass-court season with back spasms, Chang has returned to form recently, winning seven of his last 10 matches. In Cincinnati last week he defeated Corretja, Marat Safin and Cedric Pioline before falling to Rafter, who lost to Sampras in the final yesterday. Henman also reached the quarterfinals in Cincinnati, falling to Kafelnikov after reaching his highest career ranking.
This week will be Henman's first visit to Washington, where he is looking forward to seeing more than just the grounds of Rock Creek Park.
"Hopefully I'm going to get to see the White House and some of the other important places around the city," said Henman, an avid golfer who is also hoping to get in a round at one of the local courses. "I went to Indianapolis last year and it was fine, but since I had never been to Washington before I really wanted to be at this tournament this year."
Unlike Henman, Goldstein is intimately familiar with the FitzGerald Tennis Center, but this will be the first time the Sidwell Friends graduate will play the tournament as a regular entrant. In past years he has been dropped into the draw as a wild card.
"You feel much better about yourself when you can just get in on your own, and its definitely nice to come back after the summer I've been having," said Goldstein, whose ranking has improved from No. 190 to No. 97 this year. "Plus it's just good to be coming home. The support for me in D.C. is always unbelievable."
As a Rockville native, Goldstein is used to the oppressive heat that can bathe the Washington courts in the summer, but in the past other players had complained that the oven-like conditions were too difficult. Tournament officials moved the weekday sessions back to start at 4 p.m. last year, and the change was such a success they again will be starting at 4.