Every year since 2001, the city of Charleston has hosted the Family Circle Cup, a nine-day affair that features the fervent play of the world’s most accomplished female tennis stars and draws hordes of appreciative spectators from the Lowcountry and from well beyond the confines of the Carolina coast. The tournament certainly played a huge role in the United States Tennis Association’s decision to name Charleston the nation’s “Best Tennis Town” in 2010, an honor that will remain with the Holy City at least through 2012.
And while the tourney’s home, the Family Circle Tennis Center on Daniel Island, is within Charleston’s city limits, it also is East of the Cooper, a growing area that includes Mount Pleasant, the barrier islands and an array of public and private tennis facilities intent on attracting as many participants as possible.
Even at the Family Circle Tennis Center, where the brightest stars in women’s tennis strut their talent and celebrity status for nearly a week-and-a-half each spring, much of the emphasis the rest of the year is on giving area residents from 4 to 80 and older a taste of what tennis is all about. It wasn’t always that way, according to Facilities Director Rob Eppelsheimer. He said the Center, completed in 2001 and owned by the city of Charleston, was a major step for a sport dwarfed in much of the South by the overwhelming popularity of college football and NASCAR.
“When the Family Circle Tennis Center was built, it raised the bar for all tennis facilities in the area,” said Eppelsheimer, who was part of the Charleston contingent present at the U.S. Open in Flushing, New York, when the USTA announced that online voters had chosen Charleston as America’s top tennis town. “Other facilities put money into upgrading. It brought up the quality of tennis in the area.”
John Legun, the pro at Creekside Tennis & Swim Club in Mount Pleasant, agreed that the presence of professional tennis has played a major role in the rising popularity of the sport in the Charleston area and was a critical factor in the city’s national recognition.
“The Family Circle Cup is about 60 to 70 percent of why Charleston is the top tennis town in the United States,” he said. “The rest is the clubs, coaches and players who love the game.”
“Even non-players go watch the Family Circle Cup,” said Rich Shy, the tennis pro at Snee Farm Country Club, also in Mount Pleasant. “The more people are exposed to tennis, the more they want to play.”
“All the pros and clubs work together,” he added. “It’s a great lifetime sport. There’s no downside to playing tennis.”
The courts at all three facilities remain full throughout the year. At Creekside, where Legun took over the reins of the club’s wide range of tennis programs at the end of the summer of 2011, boys and girls ages 4 and older learn all about the sport through group lessons, while individual lessons are available for people of all ages. Clinics, adult league play and competition with other local clubs – including I’On, Live to Play and Snee Farm – help fill Creekside’s 11 courts on a regular basis.
Built in 1969, Creekside is the oldest private tennis club in the Charleston area. Legun, who competed on the collegiate level at High Point University in North Carolina and professionally until his career was sidetracked by a knee injury, grew up on Creekside’s courts. He said the sport he has played virtually his entire life fits perfectly with the Lowcountry’s mild climate.
“Tennis has always been a big deal in the South,” he commented. “It’s a sport you can play outside all year round. It’s never too cold to play. The weather is just gorgeous all the time.”
Legun gives much of the credit for his success in tennis to the pros who helped him nurture his game as a youngster living in the Creekside neighborhood, which surrounds his current place of employment. Two of them, Rob Woods and Rich Shy, have moved on to Snee Farm.
“They are the best,” Legun said. “I wouldn’t be who I am today without them.”
Shy and Woods, who have been teaching tennis together for more than 30 years, the past seven at Snee Farm, share Legun’s passion for the sport. However, to make learning a little more fun, their summer camps include windsurfing, golf and kayaking. Depending on the weather, their campers might participate in two different activities each day.
“We just want to make it fun,” Shy explained. “In the summer, there’s no hard-core tennis training.”
Snee Farm hosts league play and a large number of tournaments on its 18 courts, including several for children aimed just as much at fun as at competition. For example, in one tourney, all the prizes are chocolate, while in another, kids vie for Olympic-like medals.
At Snee Farm, as at Creekside and the Family Circle Tennis Center, 10 and Under tennis, basically the sport’s answer to Little League baseball, is making great strides. Participants use smaller rackets and lower-compression balls, and they compete on much smaller courts than older players.
The program was launched a few years ago by the USTA and received a financial boost recently in the Lowcountry. Along with the honor of being named the best tennis town in the United States came a $100,000 prize. The committee appointed by the Lowcountry Tennis Association to determine how the money would be distributed decided to split it among organizations concentrating on starting new tennis programs and bringing new people to the game, with an emphasis on 10 and Under tennis.
The LCTA gave $10,000 each to seven entities – the town of Mount Pleasant, the city of Charleston, the city of North Charleston, St. Andrews Park and Playground, Berkeley County Schools, Dorchester-2 Schools and the Charleston County School District. The remaining $30,000, according to Eppelsheimer, helped launch 10 and Under tennis programs and pay for 10 and Under tournaments at Dunes West, I’On, the Daniel Island Club, Live to Play and the Mount Pleasant Tennis Complex on Whipple Road.
Though the Family Circle Tennis Center hosts a tournament featuring the world’s best female tennis players and is currently developing a top-notch 10 and Under program, the public facility has much to offer to players whose talent on the tennis court falls somewhere in between. From men’s and women’s leagues to mixed doubles competition to combo leagues, USTA Team Tennis keeps the parking lot full for much of the year.
In addition, the Center offers a wide range of programs for younger players, ranging from the Farm System, for those up to the age of 10; the Academy, for 10- to 12-year-olds; the Advanced Academy, for 10- to 15-year-olds “who have already picked tennis as their sport,” according to Eppelsheimer; and the Elite Academy, for talented 15- to 17-year-olds.
The Center also is among many tennis facilities that host the Charleston Area Ladies Tennis Association on Tuesdays, except in the summer.
“When you put 800 women together, that’s a very strong organization,” Eppelsheimer commented.
And the sport of tennis, with an estimated 15,000 participants in the Charleston area, is vibrant as well.
“Charleston has a thriving tennis community,” Eppelsheimer remarked. “The Family Circle Cup is a major focal point of the community. People come out and watch, and the one thing they want to do after that is to go play tennis.”