More than 150 players begin competition today in the 10th annual Legg Mason Wild Card Challenge at the Arlington Y Tennis and Squash Club.
It marks the fourth consecutive year that at least 150 players enrolled in the USTA/Mid-Atlantic Sectional Championship, making it the region's biggest men's event by more than 50 players.
"We get a great field here," said Dan Laufer, the tournament director. "Guys who usually win championships at other big tournaments lose in the first or second round here. People want to play this tournament because it gives them top-level competition."
It also gives players something more concrete: a chance to compete against touring professionals such as Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt in the Legg Mason Tennis Classic, held at the William H.G. Fitzgerald Tennis Center in mid-August.
The singles champion at the Wild Card Challenge earns a spot in the qualifying draw for the Legg Mason, and doubles champions win a place in the main draw of that ATP tournament. Even a first-round loser at the Legg Mason leaves with $1,000 in prize money. Some Wild Card Challenge winners have earned considerably more.
In 2001, wild-card winners Carl Clark and Trevor Spracklin beat Jan-Michael Gambill and Torrey Gambill in the first round of the Legg Mason and doubled their prize money, thanks in part to a rowdy home crowd.
"We had a bunch of friends there just screaming and yelling at them," said Spracklin, who will play in both draws this year. "We were relative lowlifes, just wild-card winners, playing against a top pro. It shows you that anything can happen."
Last year, wild-card partners Christopher Groer and Andrew Carlson advanced to the quarterfinals of the Legg Mason before losing to then-No. 1 ranked Andy Roddick and his partner, Brian Vahaly.
Carlson, who won both the singles and doubles championship last year, is ineligible to play this time because he competed in another ATP event this season. His partner, Groer, will try to repeat in the doubles draw with new partner Joey Atas, an Ohio State player who was 2004 Big Ten freshman of the year.
"How many other tournaments let regular guys get to go up against a [Roddick]?" Laufer said. "That's a pretty awesome opportunity."