Fans roaming the grounds of the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center for the Legg Mason Tennis Classic this week might have to adjust to a different sight: women lugging tennis bags around on their shoulders and playing tough matches on the venue's outer courts.
For the first time in the Washington tour stop's 37-year history, a women's event has been added -- a $75,000 USTA Pro Circuit tournament.
"Over the years, we've gotten feedback from our fans that they would like to see a women's event here," said Jeff Newman, the men's and women's tournament director. "It's an added value for customers. We're now providing the full product. We're trying to make it one event, not two events competing at the same location."
The event features players fighting for a chance to earn enough points to move up to the WTA tour, where the bigger names such as Venus and Serena Williams play.
While lacking big-name stars, the tournament already has gained stature among up-and-coming players because of its large purse -- a $75,000 total purse with $12,000 going to the winner -- and high number of points that can be earned toward competing on the WTA. The women's draw features 32 players, while the doubles draw has 16 teams.
"This is the highest level challenger," said Kaysie Smashey, who has played on the challenger circuit for three years and is competing in the doubles draw. "There are only four or five events this size per year. Most of the time, the purse is around $25,000. It's a good event."
Some tennis observers believe it's about time for women to compete at the Legg Mason. "It's a great opportunity for fans to be introduced to the women's game," said Lori McNeil, a former top 10 player who reached the 1987 U.S. Open semifinals by defeating six-time champion Chris Evert. "It would nice if it could be a WTA event. But it gives fans a little taste of women's tennis."
Many of the players competing in the event are teenagers and former collegiate players. But some, such as 20-year-old Ashley Harkleroad, are using the tournament to help come back from a 10-month layoff. Harkleroad, who was ranked 40th on the WTA, left the tour when her mother developed skin cancer. The player was also suffering from torn ligaments in her hitting elbow.
Several hundred fans were at an outside court to watch Harkleroad advance to the quarterfinals with a 6-4, 6-4 victory over Tatiana Poutchek. A contingent of male players cheered whenever she won a point.
"Two nights ago, I missed the Tim Henman match because we were watching a women's match," said Beverly Abeles of Hagerstown, Md., as she watched Harkleroad yesterday. "We couldn't pull ourselves away. The men just seem to serve. The women play tennis. It's great to watch."
Other fans echoed similar sentiments. "It's really fun because you can relate to the way [women] play," said Elizabeth Greenbaum of Charlottesville. Added her friend Gloria Harr, as she watched Harkleroad: "The men are all power. This woman [Poutchek] is crying and giving us so much drama."