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Tennis superstars commit to Mason tourney

Defending champs Nadal, Azarenka among players returning to Western & Southern.

CINCINNATI — The stage seemed set for a tennis version of “Waiting for Godot” — two brown armchairs, a glass coffee table, even the Rookwood Trophy perched on a pedestal stage right like a prop.

Even the location, the Ensemble Theatre in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, hinted at drama, but instead of two tramps sitting on a park bench and talking, Monday’s Western and Southern Open draw announcement featured ESPN analysts Sam Gore and Jimmy Arias handicapping the 2014 field.

“I’ve always felt that Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams are the best players,” said Arias, a former tour player. “If Serena Williams is at her best, you’ll see the best player in the world.”

“What happened at Wimbledon might be motivation for Serena,” said Gore, referring to Williams’ singles loss in the round of 32 and her illness-induced doubles meltdown. “I’m picking Novak Djokovic. There are a lot of question marks about Rafael Nadal. The women are a little tougher to predict. Serena is showing a vulnerability she hasn’t shown before. I do see an up-and-coming young player winning this tournament. The women’s game is in transition.”

Gore also was hesitant about his Djokovic pick, even though the Serbian is coming off outlasting Roger Federer to win Wimbledon.

“He hasn’t won here before, and that might be in his head, but he’s probably playing the best of all of them right now,” Gore said.

Gore finally settled on Canadian Eugenie Bouchard, who lost to Czech Petra Kvitova in the Wimbledon finals, as his pick to win the Western and Southern women’s championship.

The top 43 men and top 39 women have committed to playing in the Western and Southern, which is scheduled for Aug. 9-17 at the Lindner Family Tennis Center in Mason. The men’s draw includes defending-champion Nadal, currently ranked No. 1, along with the second-ranked Djokovic, No. 3 Stan Wawrinka and fourth-ranked Roger Federer, both of Switzerland, and No. 5 Andy Murray. All but Djokovic and Wawrinka have won the Western and Southern.

The top-ranked Williams leads an equally glittering women’s lineup, which includes the last three champions — ninth-ranked Victoria Azarenka, No. 2 Li Na and fifth-ranked Maria Sharapova — along with No. 3 Simona Halep and fourth-ranked Agnieszka Radwanska.

Gore pointed out a few reasons players could choose to not come to Southwest Ohio, including the weather.

“If they didn’t want to play here, they could come up with an excuse,” he said. “That doesn’t happen. It’s one of the most beloved stops on the (men’s) tour, and it’s becoming that way on the (women’s) tour.”

Fans didn’t need Monday’s draw event to spur their interest. According to the tournament website, 12 of the 16 sessions already are sold out. Thirteen of the 16 sold out last year, tournament director Vince Cicero pointed out.

“Everything is pacing ahead of that this season,” he said.

This year’s tournament includes improvements such as a bar area that’s twice as large as before, additional food court offerings such as Graeter’s and Montgomery Inn and the Dayton International Airport entertainment stage, Cicero said. Fans also will find Wi-Fi available in the food court and a Selfie Wall, he added.

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