With a personal touch all its own, Charleston's absence immensely felt

With a personal touch all its own, Charleston's absence immensely felt

South Carolina has embraced the WTA-only event since 1973, and through a charming authenticity preserved by Bob Moran, it's no surprise the tournament is a favorite stop among fans—and players—every year.

Back in the spring of 1973—a landmark year in women’s tennis when the Women’s Tennis Association was formed and Billie Jean King toppled Bobby Riggs in the fabled “Battle of the Sexes”—the Family Circle Cup was born on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. For the first time, a women’s only tournament was seen on national television as Rosie Casals claimed the record breaking top prize of $30,000, overcoming her countrywoman Nancy Richey in a dandy of a final on NBC. Each and every year, the tournament was a widely anticipated springtime stop for the leading female players, held on green clay, played frequently in bright sunshine, beloved by the players for a wide range of reasons.

The popular tournament remained in Hilton Head (with the exception of 1975 and 1976 when it shifted to Amelia Island, Fla.) through 2000, moving up the coast to Charleston the following year. It changed title sponsors in 2016, becoming the Volvo Car Open, and remains immensely popular.

The tournament was looking forward to its 20th year in Charleston this week and had planned some special festivities to suit the occasion. But it was cancelled along with so many other sporting events, courtesy of the coronavirus pandemic. Unless an opening can be found to reschedule the tournament toward the end of this year, Charleston will be sorely missed in 2020.

Tournament Director Bob Moran is weighing all of his options. When we spoke by phone, he sounded somber, yet sensible and upbeat, as he talked about what has happened.

“We were really looking forward to it. The biggest change for us was a few years ago when we went to Tennis Channel with 60 hours of live coverage, showing every match first ball to last ball, having each winner of a match come to the Tennis Channel desk, and introducing them to our television viewer fans,” said Moran. “From a ticket sales standpoint we were significantly ahead this year right up until three weeks out. We were seeing fans who watched the broadcasts come from all across the country—and really the world—and bring not only the tournament but the city of Charleston to life. The full television coverage was a game changer for us.”

Speaking only days before the tournament had been planning to start on April 6, Moran said, “It hurts for all of us who are working here in Charleston that we are not operating now, not running an event. We are coming up with a game plan building toward next year, but to be quite honest we don’t know what this fall on the calendar is going to hold. There is a lot of discussion about if this 2020 season is going to be extended to the end of December. Could there be opportunities in that window? Yes, but the biggest problem we have is the unknown. We just don’t know when this is going to end. All we can do is plan for 2021.”

Many players are lamenting the loss of Charleston at this time, but none more so than Shelby Rogers, a 27-year-old American who reached a career high of No. 48 early in 2017. She literally and figuratively comes home every time she competes in the Volvo Car event.

“Being born and raised in Charleston and growing up there, the support I get from the city of Charleston is very humbling. I was even a ball girl when I was seven or eight years old for a few years. There is even a picture of me handing flowers to Jennifer Capriati when she won it in 2001,” reflected Rogers. “It is the most amazing homecoming I could ask for every single year and so much fun to play in front of my family and friends. There is this great vibe and energy that is brought to the event and from the fans. The stands are always packed from the qualies right through the finals. It is a really special time of the year going from Indian Wells to Miami to Charleston—three weeks of paradise if you will.”

Hall of Famer Pam Shriver played the tournament in the Hilton Head days and has been a commentator in Charleston eight or nine different years.

“The tennis facility is much bigger than the one at Hilton Head and the stadium is much bigger as well. Charleston certainly has a different feel than Sea Pines in Hilton Head,” she said. “Charleston is one of the great food cities in our country and players grew to absolutely love picking their four or five favorite places to have dinner downtown. Like Hilton Head it still has that southern hospitality charm. Bob Moran has done a tremendous job as a leader and really good tournament director and a true fan of women’s tennis. You have to be an advocate when you have a women’s only tournament. He is authentic. He has a charm and a hospitality that makes media, coaches, fans, families and everybody in the community feel good. He is a great leader.”

Rogers can attest to that. “Bob stays in contact with the players throughout the year. He likes to know what is going on and wants to hear about the concerns of the players and their successes. He is genuinely rooting for all of the players who partake in his event and you feel a deep sense of caring coming from him.”

Peachy Kellmeyer also admires Moran’s compassion and concern for the players, and is as familiar as anyone with how the tournament has evolved over the years. Inducted at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2011, she was the first to work full time for the WTA in 1973 and has served that organization incomparably ever since.

“Charleston and Hilton Head are similar because they entertain the players royally,” Kellmeyer said. “Charleston has been able to maintain that personal touch they always had in Hilton Head.”

Martina Hingis triumphed at the event in 1999 over Anna Kournikova. (Getty Images)

That view of both idyllic locations in Hilton Head and Charleston is shared by everyone in the know. Hilton Head was known for its serenity, festive presentation, player-friendly atmosphere and old-fashioned simplicity. The top players in the 1970s and 1980s played indoors all winter starting in January on the Virginia Slims and Avon circuits. By the time they got to Hilton Head in April to play outside, they welcomed the change.

As eight-time former champion Chris Evert told me this past week, “It was like the first day of summer or school’s out as we finally got to play the outdoor tournaments like Hilton Head. At the indoor events we pretty much stayed at hotels but in Hilton Head we stayed in condos.

“We would walk around the tournament, and enjoy being outside getting some sun. It was more intimate with the fans and, because of the vitamin D from the sun, everybody was in a good mood.I remember Virginia Wade laying out in a lounge chair in her bikini trying to get some sun on her stomach, and Martina getting a sunburn one year before we knew about the value of sun screen.”

Shriver was similarly relieved to be competing outdoors in Hilton Head, even though the surface did not suit her serve-and-volley style.

“I just remember being so happy being outdoors in a beautiful place close to the water. It was a nice time of the year. Martina and I played a doubles match on Easter Sunday and we had fun hiding a couple of Easter eggs in the flowers.”

Evert would often drive from Florida to Hilton Head with her mother.

“There was a lot of camaraderie. Lee Jackson was the tournament referee and she would have us all come over for her famous chicken noodle soup. Rosie Casals, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and I would play scrabble at Lee’s place. It was like a vacation/tennis tournament for us.”

The vacation part of the equation was epitomized by the softball game the players would engage in over the years.

“I think we called it ‘Ladies of the Evening’. We had it once a year, sometimes in Hilton Head and sometimes in Los Angeles at the Championships or in San Francisco,” recalled Evert. “Lee Jackson was there and was a vital part of this camaraderie we all had. This was a very important part of the seventies with a group of women paving the way for those in the future. If we had any differences or had to compete against each other the next day on the court, it didn’t matter. It bought us all together. There were no ill feelings. We had a lot of giggles.”

Yet the tournament was front and center and everyone valued its importance. The setting in Sea Pines brought the players and fans together with both style and intimacy.

“The press would come to the tournament in their shorts and t-shirts and some of them had just come off the golf course or the tennis court when they would interview you,” Evert said. “Everything was so relaxed, a lot like Indian Wells and Miami today which are two of the favorite tournaments for the players. It felt like you were playing in your backyard with a lot of people watching who were sitting almost right on the court. You could see who was clapping and who was eating.”

Shriver believes it was an almost seamless transition from one town in South Carolina to another.

“Charleston is one of the great small cities in our country. So keeping the tournament in South Carolina when it left Hilton Head was brilliant. When it was in Sea Pines there were so many tournaments in the States but not anymore. I love the facility in Charleston.”

American Madison Keys was due to defend her title in 2020. (AP Images)

Moran has made it a high priority for Charleston to become a community strongly associated not simply with tennis but more so with the women’s game.

“You go back to when we built this facility and it was really the first stadium that was built for women’s tennis alone. We weren’t a combined event. It wasn’t built for the ATP,” he explained. “This was built strictly for women’s tennis and that was pretty special at the time and it continues to be so. We had great fans in Hilton Head and in Charleston.  South Carolina has embraced this event for all of these years since 1973.”

This WTA Premier Level tournament was ready to celebrate a 48th year in a row before COVID-19 interceded. Rogers was devastated when we spoke about Charleston not being played this week as planned.

“It is truly heartbreaking. Everyone is in the same boat and all of the tournaments have a big question mark on them, but Charleston definitely has an optimistic future as I see it because this great city will support the tournament and want it back better than ever. I am already counting down the days already until next year’s tournament.”

Moran is optimistic as well, but he understands the severity of the challenges ahead, including sponsors at all of the tournaments who are wondering how long the crisis will continue.

“There is going to be a new norm that we have to get through over the next year or maybe two years. Everyone is being hurt globally by this. That includes the really tried and true sponsors that support tennis. It rings true for our partners here in Charleston. Our title sponsor, Volvo, had to close their plant here in South Carolina and they have had to close dealerships. Things are going to be tough for everybody. Fans are going to be hungry to come back but we are going to have to win them back and make them feel comfortable again, taking the proper precautions to make sure everything is in a safe environment. The financial pressure is on everybody is going to be a long-term issue. We all have to understand that. But I feel good about our future. Charleston is an American city that is really an international destination that has all of these great attributes both the players and fans love.”