Three hours after the last ball had been struck, four boys no taller than five feet tall walked, ran and smack-talked one another on the Volvo Car Stadium at the Family Circle Tennis Center.
“Do you have a racquet?” one asked.
“I’ve got the balls.”
“Watch me jump over the net.”
“Bet you can’t.”
“Bet I can.”
The circus was about to leave town. Exhibitor booths were being torn town. Save for the singles winner Daria Kasatkina and runner-up Jelena Ostapenko, all the other players were gone. Kasatkina was across the street, at one of the restaurants located right next to the tournament. Ostapenko walked the grounds with her mother.
For those from the traveling circus, there would always be another transportation van, a car to the airport, a plane to the next stop – likely another tournament, but maybe a precious off-week back home.
“What’s the score of the final there?” Kasatkina asked a tour official, referring to the WTA hard court event 1,600 miles away in Monterrey, Mexico – in the scheme of things, fairly close. This is the world the pros occupy, a global that spreads to all corners of the world. Once upon a time there was a pro who by April of a calendar year had competed on every continent but Antarctica.
But as the sport marches across the planet, in cities like Charleston, the aura of the tournament remains – or does it? For every event, the recipe is the same. Get a sponsor. Make sure the player field is as good as possible – and, more than ever these days, treat every player as if each day was his or her birthday. Organize tickets, TV rights, media coverage, food, parking and various exhibitors.
The bigger question: What kind of footprint does the tournament wish to leave beyond the actual time of the event? There are no wrong answers. Some event organizers register nary a fingerprint in their community once the tournament is over. For other events, their scope and mandatory player fields carry the day.
But for events like the Volvo Car Open, atmosphere and connection is everything. When this year’s singles draw was first made, only one of the entrants was ranked in the top ten – Madison Keys at number nine. On the tournament’s first day, the second seed, red hot Johanna Konta, fresh off the heels of winning Miami, announced her withdrawal. All of the top four seeds failed to reach the quarterfinals.
The good news was that the fans continued to engage with the event. A lot of the credit for that goes to the facility’s layout and energy. The stadium holds 10,200 – large enough to let you know you’re at a major league tennis venue, but small enough for terrific viewing from any spot. The second court, the Althea Gibson Club Court, is cozy, at most holding 1,500 spectators. Additional courts offer even more intimacy. A few more courts are available for racquet testing. Across the street from the tournament are several restaurants and a supermarket.
It all adds up to an extremely welcoming, county fair-like atmosphere – to some degree flavored by Charleston’s Southern charm, to another by this tournament’s engagement with the tennis. It’s also a cautionary message for tennis. How best to balance popularity and growth with the intimacy of a one-on-one sport? Not all tournaments pull this off so well.
Meanwhile, the four boys continued to walk, run and joke with one another on the stadium court.
“Maybe I should be a ballboy one year,” said one.
“Would you be any good at it?” asked another.
“I can’t wait to come back next year.”
Originally published on TennisChannel.com. For more articles by Joel Drucker, click here.