Big-serving American John Isner will have to get through an “absolutely loaded” field to claim his third ATP Tour title in Auckland.
The world No.11 will go into the ASB Classic beginning on Monday as only the third seed, with the tournament boasting the strongest field in its history, including four players in the world’s top 12.
“It’s incredible when you look at the draw and you see … ‘how’s this guy not seeded’,” he said.
“This tournament is absolutely loaded. Four players in the top 12 speaks for itself. Eight in the top 25 – it’s pretty impressive.
“It’s great for us players. The competition is top notch.”
The holder of 10 ATP titles, 30-year-old Isner claimed his two in Auckland in 2010 and 2014, when the event was known as the Heineken Open.
However, he was a late no-show last year, citing tiredness after playing in the Hopman Cup.
Isner said he was aware of the disappointment that caused.
“It was something I felt bad about and I still feel bad about,” he said.
“But I’m glad to be back and I’m glad people have welcomed me back.”
Isner’s end to 2015 included a notable victory over Swiss ace Roger Federer in the Paris Masters, before losing to Spaniard David Ferrer in the quarter-finals.
Ferrer is a four-time winner in Auckland but a back strain meant he missed last January’s tournament.
The world No.7 is back as the No.1 seed, accepting a wildcard after his early exit from the Qatar Open.
Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the world No.10 and visiting Auckland for the first time, is the second seed.
South African Kevin Anderson completes the top four, who all get a bye into the second round.
Tsonga, one of the tour’s entertainers, allayed fears about the arm problem that led him to pull out during an exhibition event in Abu Dhabi.
“I stopped so I had time to recover here and I’m feeling good,” he said.
While the atmosphere at the Classic might be more relaxed than at a bigger tournament, the former world No.5 is focused on hitting some good form to move himself back up the rankings.
Tsonga, 30, rated his hardest opponent as himself, “like always”.
“I have to control myself,” he said.
“Every player in this draw is able to play really good tennis so I expect tough matches every day.”
The field includes defending champion Jiri Vesely, the unseeded Czech facing No.8 seed Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain in the first round.