Chuck McGill: Men’s open field makes for tough title road

There are seeded players in the Public Courts tennis tournament men’s open division that weren’t born the first time James Kent was the top seed and champion in 1997.

The now 34-year-old Kent, who last July captured his record eighth men’s open championship, is once again the No. 1 overall seed in the deepest, toughest draw of the eight-day tournament. It’s been 17 years, half his life, since he was first labeled the favorite as teenager, but Kent said the road to a title is more daunting these days.

“It seems much deeper now,” said Kent, who opens play Saturday at 5 p.m. against Zachary Hatfield. “It’s one of those tournaments where you could play somebody really good out of the gate.”

Kent is the No. 1 seed by virtue of his three-set win over six-time champion Patrick Walker in last year’s Public Courts final, as well as Kent’s victory in the CTC Open at the Charleston Tennis Club in May. But while Kent and Walker have combined for 14 Public Courts men’s open championships since Kent’s first win in ‘97, the field is loaded behind them.

Mark Cassis, who won last month’s Daymark tournament at the Charleston Tennis Club, is the No. 3 seed. Walker rallied for a 4-6, 6-0, 6-4 win over Cassis in last year’s Public Courts men’s open semifinals. Christopher Pratt, who nearly claimed the 2012 men’s open title by losing to Walker 7-6, 6-7, 6-4 in a three-hour final, is seeded fourth. Next is Matt Sherba, who was undefeated in Mountain East play this past season and won the MEC Tennis Player of the Year award while playing at the University of Charleston.

Domenick Centofanti, who lost to Cassis in the Daymark finals last month and was eliminated by Walker in last year’s Public Courts quarterfinals by a score of 7-6, 6-4, is seeded sixth. Recent George Washington High School graduate Ryan Massinople, who advanced to the state championship finals as a senior and is headed to play tennis at Furman, is seeded seventh.

Bud Vredeveld, who aside from Kent and Walker is the only other player in the field who can boast a Public Courts men’s open crown, is seeded eighth. He won the event in 1984.

“I’m most impressed seeing a guy like Bud come out,” Kent said. “I played him in a tournament a month ago and he said he hadn’t played in 11 years. I used to have battles with Bud years and years ago and I’m really glad to see him playing again.

“Everybody knows what Pat (Walker) brings to the table and you’ve got the conference player of the year in Matt Sherba.”

Kent also pointed out that Rico Williams and Jacob Lorenz are unseeded gems. Williams and Lorenz face off in the first round Saturday at 9 a.m. Lorenz was a second-team All-MEC selection at the University of Charleston as a sophomore this season.

Walker had won six of seven Public Courts titles before Kent came through with his record-breaking performance last July. Kent’s eight titles ranks ahead of the seven won by Kevin Ball and Walker’s six.

Kent held off Walker in last year’s final 7-5 (7-6), 4-6, 7-5.

Kent won his first seven titles in a nine-year span starting in 1997. Walker won all his championships in a seven-year span starting in 2006. Kent is the only player to have won three consecutive titles multiple times, while Walker is one of two player (along with Ball) to have a run of four in a row.

“I think Pat and I, we’re just from two different eras,” Kent said. “Pat was a young and up-and-coming player in 2005, 2006, and was really hungry at that point.

I think he wanted it more than I did. He could’ve won it last year and we know we have one of those matchups where it’s always going to be close.

“He’s probably beaten me more than I’ve beaten him in the last six years.”

Only four different people have won the men’s open title since Kent claimed his first crown in 1997: Kent, Walker, Neil Rajapakse (two) and Adam White (one).

Since Vredeveld won his only title 30 years ago, only nine different people have taken home the open division’s top prize.

The field is deep. There are young, hungry players like when Walker started winning his titles in 2006.

If there isn’t a new champion, at least the road will be much bumpier from Saturday to Saturday.

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