By Isabella Smith and Julianne Smith-Frazer
The Tallahassee Tennis Challenger, a USTA Pro Circuit & ATP Challenger Tour tournament, recently celebrated its 20th year at Forestmeadows Athletic Center. The event, held this year from April 22-28, kicked off the Roland Garros Wild Card Challenge which awards a men’s and women’s Wild Card into the 2019 French Open. This is an influential event in Tallahassee that features not only some of the best tennis players in the world, but dedicated volunteers and sponsors who return year after year.
The week-long competition consisted of several different men’s singles and men’s doubles matches, with the winners of each being announced on the final day Sunday, April 28th, 2019.
All the proceeds raised from the Tallahassee Tennis Challenger go towards the Vogter Memorial Endowment which benefits the Vogter Neuro-Intensive Care Unit. The unit is dedicated to to the late Dr. Mark Vogter at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital. Dr. Vogter and his wife, Karen Vogter, have always been involved in the tennis community in Tallahassee. Karen Vogter is now the tournament director of the Tallahassee Tennis Challenger.
The Challenger is more than a tennis tournament and includes events that are centered around community involvement and educating children about the sport, with more than 600 children in attendance. Using the net generation format, third graders from around the community came out and learned the game between matches.
Also, on Friday, the Challenger hosted a Special Olympics with 300 kids. Vogter touched on this and explained, “We are very passionate about getting kids out here and introducing them to tennis.”
This event is also affordable for families, with children ten and under admitted for free. Vogter told TR, ”I want the community to have the ability to see this kind of tennis without having to break the bank. We keep it cost friendly for the community.”
The Tallahassee Tennis Challenger has something for everyone and focuses on fostering good relationships between players, volunteers, and the community. As a result, the Tallahassee Tennis Challenger has continued to grow from when it began twenty years ago.
Vogter said, “We may not be the fanciest, but all 300 plus of our volunteers who are here are giving the players and this tournament one hundred percent. The players feel that from us.”
Approximately 70 of the 300 volunteers are the ball kids. Ball kids retrieve and give balls to the players, hold player’s towels, help ensure the match runs smoothly, and more. During the day, there are adults ball retrievers who are then replaced for the rest of the competition by the ball kids in the afternoon, once school is let out.
Two experienced and dedicated ball kids, Hanna Neustadter and Harit Nori talked about their favorite parts of volunteering, a couple embarrassing moments, and how important they feel their roles are.
Neustadter, a junior on the Lincoln High School varsity tennis team states her favorite part is interacting with the players. “I end up watching the match more closely because you’re on the court and get to pay more attention,” she stated. An embarrassing moment as a ball kid for Neustatder happened a couple of years ago when her shoe came off in the middle of a match, and everyone watched her struggle to put it back on.
Nori is a junior and varsity player on the Chiles High School tennis team. The most rewarding part of being a ball kid for him is learning new things about tennis, how to be a better player, and gaining more knowledge on how the game works. “I like to be close to the match so I can learn more things and meet new people,” Nori stated.
The pair also stressed how thrilling being a ball kid can be when a player serves a ball at over 100 mph and you have to quickly move out of the way. They also have realized that a smooth progression of the match depends a lot on their role as ball kids. Neustadter commented on this interesting feeling and experience, “A lot of it [the match] is dependent on us and these are peoples careers, so if we screw up that could affect somebody else.”
Another factor to the success of the Tallahassee Tennis Challenger are the yearly sponsors. Long time VIP sponsors, David and Tanya Wilkins, are big tennis fans, tennis players, and are eager to see professional tennis a part of the community.
The Wilkins have been attending the Tallahassee Tennis Challenger since the beginning and have seen it grow and change into the event it is today. The Wilkins sponsor the event to support the Vogter Memorial Endowment and because the professional players create an interest in the game for the Tallahassee community. “To really be a tennis town you have to have some big names play and I think Tallahassee has proven we really are a tennis town by putting on this event,” David Wilkins highlighted.
On Sunday, April 28, Emilio Gomez claimed the singles title in the 2019 Tallahassee Tennis Challenger, defeating Tommy Paul 6-2, 6-2. This marked the first time in their careers that these players have faced each other in a match. This is Gomez’s first ATP Challenger Tour singles title.
As for the doubles final, Roberto Maytin and Fernando Romboli defeated the American team of Thai-Son Kwiatkowski and Noah Rubin: 6-2, 4-6, 10-7. The wild card to the French Open will be awarded next week after the last stop of the USTA Pro Circuit at the St. Joseph’s/ Candler Savannah Challenger.