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Daunting competition

Two-time defending champion Josh Prager should receive a challenge from a field that includes six-time champ Todd Stanley

ASHLAND ' Josh Prager doesn't make a habit of looking beyond opponents when he steps on the tennis court.

He's too intelligent, too poised of a competitor.

But as the No. — seed in the men's open singles bracket, it's hard to not let curiosity creep in as you peruse the draw for the 28th annual Big Al's Tennis Tournament at Hunter Park.

— In his past two trips to Ashland, the names have been noteworthy, but not necessarily daunting as Prager sized up the draw.

This year, however, it didn't take long before Prager's attention was peaked.

One glance at the No. 2 seed and Prager had his answer on how great the challenge would be in his pursuit of a third straight Big Al's open singles title.

I'm not really familiar with all the names, but that one stood out, says the 29-year-old from Yuba City, Calif.

The name of the No. 2 seed is one that should stand out for Big Al's followers as well, considering it's Todd Stanley of Ventura, Calif.

Stanley won an unprecedented six straight men's open singles titles from 1994-99 and was well on his way to a seventh in 2000 when forced to retire in the quarterfinals. He quit at match point due to a recurring back injury.

After a two-year absence, Stanley has apparently returned to form and is ready to give Prager a run for his money this weekend.

We're happy to see him entered again, Big Al's director of operations Steve Sacks says of Stanley. He's one of the stronger players we've ever had here. And if the seeds hold true, he'll be playing Prager and that will be a nice final.

Possibly dispelling any concerns of his health, Stanley is also expected to team with Patrick Rutz in men's open doubles. Stanley, who turns 38 on July 25, teamed with Matt Mancasola to win three straight open doubles titles from 1994-96.

I'm assuming if he's signed up for singles and doubles, he's in pretty good shape, says Sacks.

That bodes well for tennis fans looking for some prime matchups this weekend.

The men's open singles draw also includes No. — seed Kevin Jones of Veradale, Wash., No. 4 seed Tyler Wilson of Medford and Beau Toy of Henderson, Nev.

Jones beat Andy Oas for the open title in 1993, and most recently lost in the semifinals to Chad Wilson last year. Wilson, a senior-to-be at North Medford High, advanced to the state quarterfinals this past school year. Toy, another former open champion, most recently advanced to the finals in 2000 before retiring due to leg cramps.

All will have eyes on dethroning Prager.

Everyone's going to try to gun me down this year, says Prager, who is the No. 4-ranked amateur player in Northern California. After a while you get to know what the other person can do. After that, it's just a matter of who can go out and do what they have to do to win.

Prager's patience and court savvy have been his saving grace the past two years at Big Al's. His style has been to simply return and volley, forcing his opponent to do all the work.

He admits that may not be enough to take down Stanley should they meet in the finals. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Stanley counters with a mixture of power, aggressive play and astute court awareness.

Todd's a very good player, says Prager, who teaches at the Yuba City Racquet Club and coaches the local junior college squad. I've seen him play doubles a lot and singles a few times, and I've never seen him lose.

Few have, which makes the intrigue of a Prager-Stanley final that much more enticing.

I'd like to get to the finals and play Todd, Prager admits. I have no idea how good he is since we've never played, but I would imagine he's going to be pretty tough for me. Maybe he'll have a tough match in the semifinals and he'll be pretty tired for the finals.

That may not be necessary considering Prager's recent success. He won the Santa Cruz Open and lost in the finals of another prestigious tourney in Sacramento.

I'm playing reasonably well so I think I'm as ready as any other year, says Prager, who will open his quest at 8 a.m. Saturday against the winner of today's — p.m. opener between Ashland's Adam Stamper and Han Herrick of Chico, Calif.

The women's open singles competition will be a little more pared down than the men, with only seven participants in this year's field.

Amy Brown, the 2001 champion and '02 runner-up from Palo Cedro, Calif., highlights the list with Medford's Annie Chaney, who lost to Brown in last year's semifinals.

With such a small field, Brown received a bye into the semifinals, while Chaney's first action will be in the quarterfinals at 8 a.m. Saturday against Ashland's Jessica Baker.

Oas and Leo Young return to defend their men's open doubles title and begin play at 2 p.m. Saturday against the Eugene tandem of Len Spenser and Daryl Winser.

In other matches of interest, Medford's Dan Perone will begin his search for a ninth straight title in the men's open 40s singles division at 8 a.m. Saturday against Phil Freneau of Crescent City.

Sacks says Big Al's will feature 418 matches this year involving about 250 players. The tournament will use 24 courts over the three-day span, with most action at Hunter Park and the Southern Oregon University courts. Lithia Park will also be used to handle overflow during peak periods of play.

Proceeds from the tournament are allocated to Supporters of Tennis for Ashland Youth (STAY), the SOU women's tennis team and Ashland's Parks and Recreation Department to fund youth tennis.

To view the complete draws for all Big Al's divisions, go to and click on tournaments.

Josh Prager, the defending champion and No. 1 seed in this year?s tournament, is going for his third straight open singles title when the 28th annual Big Al?s Tennis Tournament begins today.