When I got on the phone to chat with international tennis professional Melanie Oudin, I was not the least bit surprised to learn that just minutes before my phone call, she’d been practicing her swing. Oudin, one of the many tennis players who grace Daniel Island during the Family Circle Cup, scheduled this year for March 29 through April 6, is a native of Marietta, Ga., and visits the East Cooper area every year to play in one of the Lowcountry’s most popular sporting events.
For the last few years, Oudin has spent the several exciting, tennis-filled days that surround her participation in the Family Circle Cup with a special, local family: The Shealys. Like many other ladies who compete for the Cup, Oudin elected to stay with a local family for that “home away from home” feeling and Southern hospitality. According to Oudin, she could not have asked for a better host family; according to the Shealys, they could not ask for a better guest.
“I’ve been to Mount Pleasant four or five times now and I’ve stayed with the Shealys twice,” noted Oudin during our phone call. “This year, the 2014 Cup, will be my third stay with the family. I’ve gotten attached; they’re my family away from home.”
Jackie Shealy, an avid tennis player herself, looks forward to hosting guests in her Mount Pleasant home – in fact, she’s been doing it for a while. She described herself as a “nurturing” individual and explained that she thrives on showing her guests how to enjoy the East Cooper area. She first heard about the opportunity to host Cup players from her friends and neighbors and immediately wanted to put her name in the pot to host a player of her own.
“I’ve hosted other kids while they went to college in this area,” Shealy mused. “I’ll do anything for anyone. Family is important to me.”
Shealy doesn’t use the word “family” lightly, but she certainly includes Oudin into her fold. During the days when Oudin stays for the Cup, Jackie and her husband, Monty, and college-aged daughter, Samantha, do whatever they can to welcome her. Shealy doesn’t even make her guest take a taxi to the Family Circle Cup location on Daniel Island – she insists on driving. The family also takes Melanie to “local mainstays” such as Wild Wing Cafe and King Street Grille to help her enjoy her stay.
“I take her everywhere with me,” she admitted. “I introduce her to my friends, drive her wherever she needs to be and even put together a cheering section for her at the Cup! I ask her if she hears me and my friends screaming her name. She says yes. We’re loud.”
It makes sense that Jackie Shealy and her friends are loud in their enthusiasm for Melanie Oudin’s performances – as avid tennis players and regulars at the Family Circle Cup, they knew very well who Oudin was before she came to stay in the Shealy household. But now that the tennis player has stayed a few times, she’s bonded well with the Shealys. In particular, Samantha Shealy has formed a friendship with Oudin, as they are almost the same age.
“Melanie is so sweet,” said Samantha Shealy. “She’s become like a sister. When she first stayed with us, I was nervous because I wanted her to enjoy herself. But she’s laid-back and easy to talk to.”
The girls have planned a getaway in New York City for this year, in addition to Oudin’s visit during the Cup. Samantha Shealy said she is looking forward to “hanging out without Melanie working.”
And meanwhile, on Daniel Island, Dr. John Ramey and family are hosting a player for their second year in a row – Arantxa Rus.
“We thought it’d be fun, especially for the kids,” said Ramey, who has three out of four children playing tennis on a regular basis. “So we offered our home.”
The Ramey’s youngest daughter, Kaitlin, is one of Rus’ biggest fans, despite being just 6 years old. Ramey described his daughter as being “really excited” and doing warm-up stretches along with the tennis pro.
It’s no surprise that these East Cooper families are extending their hospitality to tennis pros from all over the world; the old saying about Southern hospitality certainly has its roots. But it’s refreshing to know that when the hoopla of world-class women’s tennis fades each year, the friendships forged during the eight-day tournament remain.
By Denise K. James
Photo provided by Jackie Shealy