Armed with two new doubles divisions and some new blood in the women's singles draw, the 53rd Public Courts tennis tournament begins play at 5 p.m. today on the Schoenbaum Courts in Kanawha City.
Most of today's matches feature players who are competing in up to three different divisions in the multi-bracketed tournament. The majority of top-seeded singles players start their matches either Saturday morning or afternoon.
That group includes five-time Public Courts men's singles champion Patrick Walker, who is set to play at noon Saturday against the winner of an earlier match between Tanner Sigman and William Jones. A Huntington native, Walker is chasing the all-time record of seven Public Courts titles jointly held by James Kent and Kevin Ball.
The reigning champ in women's singles also returns, as former George Washington state champion Erica White seeks to extend her record of six Public Courts crowns. White's bid takes flight at 7 p.m. Saturday against Jana Jones in a first-round match.
The new names in the women's draw come from the two players slotted directly behind White, the No. 1 singles seed.
Galina Vishnikina of Kazakhstan, a former standout player at both California (Pa.) and Fairmont State, holds the No. 2 seed and Romanian Andrea Slusarciuc, a top player at West Virginia State, is seeded third. Both will be competing in their first Public Courts.
"There's some new blood,'' said tournament director Eric Jarrett. "There's some hope for the underdogs.''
Vishnikina played three years at California, an NCAA Division II tennis power, before suffering a serious knee injury that left her with three torn ligaments and a torn meniscus. She spent a year recovering and used her final season of eligibility at Fairmont State, where she competed last fall and spring.
The two new divisions of play added to the Public Courts docket this year are men's and women's combination doubles USTA-rated 7.5 and 8.5.
"We had an online survey of what people wanted that we didn't have,'' Jarrett said, "and we came up with combo doubles. It allows people who normally don't play together to play together - a higher-rated player playing with a lower-rated player. It creates some unique combinations. One player may have gotten bumped up recently, and now they can still play with the same team.''
The schedule for today's matches can be found on Page 2B.
Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or rickr...@wvgazette.com.