The men’s tennis elite makes one final stop on the ATP Tour before heading to the US Open at the end of August.
The Winston-Salem Open, a 250 tournament, began life in Long Island before relocating to New Haven and then North Carolina.
Winston-Salem’s origins as a host city for professional tennis can be traced back to a small four-player exhibition tournament that was first played in Long Island in 1981. As this event grew in popularity and prestige, it garnered more media attention and a larger pool of competitors. By the end of the decade, tennis megastars such as John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors, Yannick Noah and Andre Agassi had entertained fans in New York.
With the creation of the ATP Tour in 1990, the decision was taken to elevate the Long Island event to tournament status. It remained a popular US Open tune-up until 2005, when the USTA purchased the tournament rights and merged it with the WTA’s New Haven Open at Yale University.
The mixed tournament was staged until 2011, when a mutually agreed separation led to the men’s event relocating to Winston-Salem. Now played at Wake Forest University, the Winston-Salem Open has one of the largest draws of any 250 tournament, and its scheduling in the week prior to the final Grand Slam of the year makes it a must-see event for ardent tennis fans.
In Long Island, the tournament was won by a number of Grand Slam champions. Stefan Edberg beat Goran Ivanisevic in the very first final, but lost to Ivan Lendl the following year. Petr Korda, later an Australian Open champion, was triumphant in 1992, and Carlos Moya and Patrick Rafter lifted the trophy in 1997 and 1998 respectively.
No man has won the event more than three times, but there are several notable two-time champions. Yevgeny Kafelnikov was the first to feature on the roll of honour twice, winning back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995. His feat was matched by Magnus Norman in 1999 and 200, and by Paradorn Srichaphan in 2002 and 2003.
James Blake became the tournament’s most successful player after the move to New Haven; he won in 2005 and again in 2007. Since the relocation to Winston-Salem, however, no one has been able to stop John Isner. As of 2013, the North Carolina-born right-hander is on a 10-match winning streak at Wake Forest University, having won the title in 2011 and 2012.
Isner def. Berdych, 2012 final:
In 2012, American number one John Isner secured his place in a second straight final in Winston-Salem with a battling three-set win over top seed Jo-Wilfred Tsonga. Isner edged his semi-final with the Frenchman in a final set tie-break, but waiting for him in the showpiece match was an equally tough competitor, second seed Tomas Berdych.
It was the Czech who began the match impressively, breaking the fearsome Isner serve for a 3-2 lead. Berdych then held his own serve convincingly, and took the opening set 6-3 when his opponent sent a forehand wide. Yet Isner rebounded at the start of the second set, taking advantage of his first break point by sending a difficult return to Berdych’s feet. From thereon in, the crowd favourite dominated on serve, firing down nine aces, including three in the 10th game alone. Isner took the second set 6-4 to keep his chances of a successful title defence alive.
As the tension increased in the deciding set, both men dedicated themselves to holding serve. Isner, playing catch-up throughout the set, responded to the raucous support of the North Carolina fans and produced another barrage of aces, but Berdych remained focused, cutting down on his unforced errors and playing the big points with authority. A third set tie-break seemed inevitable, but few could have predicted how nail-biting the final stage of the match would be.
Isner grabbed the first mini-break, and almost built a commanding 3-0 lead, but his curling topspin pass just missed the line. Berdych continued to press, and looked set to earn three match points when he approached the net at 5-3. Isner hit a superb forehand pass, followed by another ace, to even the score, but an untimely error just moments later handed Berdych his first championship point.
At 6-5, Berdych moved into the net to put away a sitter, only for his backhand volley to clip the tape. The Czech made no such mistake on the next point to give himself a second chance to serve for victory, but Isner’s serve bailed him out once more, and a 22nd ace saved another match point at 8-9. Moments later, a pinpoint forehand from Isner caught Berdych off guard, and the hometown hero raised his arms in delight. The two hour, 27 minute contest was one of the most dramatic in the tournament’s history, but the fans couldn’t have hoped for a better ending.
Video: Isner v Berdych, 2012
- In 2002, Mike Bryan teamed up with Mahesh Bhupathi to win the doubles trophy in Long Island. It was one of only two titles he won without his brother Bob.