The defending men's open singles champion won't return to defend his title, but Josh Prager's absence will not leave the Big Al's Tennis Tournament without its share of local tennis big-shots.




The 33rd annual event begins Friday and wraps up with the championship matches Sunday. Matches will be played at both sets of Southern Oregon University courts by McNeal Pavilion and at Hunter Park, where the men's open singles final is scheduled to start at 8 a.m. Sunday.




Competing in the 10-player men's open singles bracket will be former Ashland High No. — singles player Evan Schleining, his current University of Portland teammate Filip Zivkovic and top-seeded Chad Wilson, who lost to Prager in last year's three-set final.




Wilson, a speedy baseline slugger with a big forehand, enters the tournament as the favorite based on previous success here, but a return trip to the finals won't be easy. He plays 14-year-old phenom Mico Santiago in the first round then, if he survives that, could face Schleining in the semifinals. Schleining, 21, a lefty with a powerful serve who likes to attack the net, won eight of 21 singles matches as a sophomore at the University of Portland.




On the bottom half of the bracket is Zivkovic, 23, who was 18-0 in singles play at U of P after transferring from Nis, Serbia. According to his biography on the University of Portland Web site, Zivkovic was ranked in the top 10 in Serbia in all junior categories and reached the semifinals of the U-16 National Outdoor Championships.




Despite rising gas prices, Big Al's, which draws more than half its participants from outside the Rogue Valley, did not see a drop in entries. This year's tourney will feature 365 players, up 68 from a year ago, according to Big Al's volunteer Lori Lawniczak. For the third year in a row, however, there will be no women's open singles tournament. That makes the nine-player 4.0 singles bracket the highest ranking competition on the women's side. The top seed there is Jackie Thiebe, who plays Ashley Brooks in the quarterfinals on Saturday.




In the men's open doubles bracket, which features just four teams, Schleining and Zivkovic will join forces to form what could be one of the strongest combinations Big Al's has seen in years. Their stiffest competition may come in the finals from the tandem of Leo Young and Ari Zaslow, who was Schleining's doubles partner at Ashland High.




"We're going to go out there, hit some balls and see where it takes us," said Zaslow, 23, who played college tennis at Lewis-Clark State College. "I think in doubles, because we can take away the court from them [Schleining and Zivkovic], we have a shot, definitely."




In the highest-level mixed doubles bracket (8.5 combined), which features 19 teams, the top seeds are Alex Chavez and Dawn White of northern California. The No. 2 seeds are Ashland's own Steve and Kelly Sacks, who help organize the tournament.




Big Al's is a volunteer-run, fundraising event for STAY (Supporters of Tennis for Ashland Youth), which provides rackets, balls and other equipment, plus lessons to tennis players at Ashland High.