VCO courts fans with solid player field and new ways to 'get in the game'
They are some of the best female athletes in the world. And you know several of them by their first names alone - Venus, Madison, Caroline, and Sam. They all work hard at their craft, they travel thousands of miles each year to grit it out on tennis courts around the globe, and beginning this weekend, they will put their top-notch talents to the test on Daniel Island under the watchful eyes of some 90,000 spectators.
It’s the 45th year for the Volvo Car Open, North America’s largest women’s only tennis tournament. Formerly known as the Family Circle Cup, the event is in its 17th year on Daniel Island, after moving to Charleston from Hilton Head in 2001. The 2017 competition officially kicks off with “Family Weekend” this Saturday, April 1 and Sunday, April 2, as qualifying rounds get underway. Main draw play begins on Monday, April 3.
The top ten seeds taking part are be Madison Keys (USA, World No. 9), Johanna Konta (United Kingdom, World No. 11), Venus Williams (USA, World No. 12), Elena Vesnina (Ukraine, World No. 13), Carolina Wozniacki (Denmark, World No. 14), Sam Stosur (Australia, World No. 19), Kiki Bertens (Netherlands, World No. 21), Anastasija Sevastova (Latvia, World No. 25), Darla Gavriola (Russia, World No. 26), and Irina-Camelia Begu (Romania, World No. 28). All total, 56 players will compete in the singles draw, 32 in the qualifying rounds, and 16 in the doubles showdown.
“We’ve got our commitments and we’re thrilled with our draws,” said Eleanor Adams, VCO tournament manager. “It’s very strong, particularly with numbers 10-25, where a match can go either way depending on how they’re playing that day.”
While she is enthusiastic about all the VCO participants, Adams is especially stoked about Konta’s return to the tournament roster.
“The last time Johanna played here she was in the qualies,” said Adams. “And now she’s ranked in the top 10! So we’re very excited about her being here.”
When it comes to the American players, Adams believes the talent level is at a new high.
“The USTA has worked hard on their player development,” she said. “What I love to see more than anything is the support they are giving each other. There was a time when players were really concentrating solely on themselves. And now, particularly the Americans, they’re really a close-knit group and they are being led by the likes of Serena (Williams), Bethanie Mattek-Sands...they are like the ‘elders.’ They are setting a good example and they are being inclusive of these girls, off the court as well.”
So what can fans expect when the big show arrives? Plenty of opportunities to engage in the action, both on and off the court, according to Tournament Director Bob Moran. There are events happening for all ages throughout the VCO, including a pants giveaway at the Lisette L Montreal pop-up shop, the “Blue Lizard Family Zone” for a little family-style tennis complete with junior rackets and mini-nets for youngsters, a Ban Challenge Court to test your skills, MUSC Health pickleball clinics, Special Olympics demonstrations and tennis drills, programs for local adult and junior tennis teams, and more. Plus, each night Tuesday through Friday will have a different theme to offer fans (see page 22 for details).
“Outside the court, we’re trying to engage the customers all the time,” noted Moran. “It’s not just about coming and watching tennis. It’s about being active with us and participating. That’s important to us.”
And speaking of watching tennis – that is an area where Moran expects the VCO to score big this year. For the first time in the history of the tournament on Daniel Island, much of the event will be broadcast live by its new media partner, The Tennis Channel.
“We’ve been with ESPN for as long as we’ve been here,” said Moran. “But we made a shift this year to the Tennis Channel...We basically have a network for a week. They’re going to cover our first ball on Monday to our last ball on Sunday. Every singles match.”
That will translate into about 64 live hours and another 54 in replay hours, compared to the seven to 10 live hours they received on ESPN in 2016. Plus, every match broadcast “linear-wise” on The Tennis Channel will also be available digitally, said Moran, so fans can watch on their TV sets at home, their smartphones, their iPads, and more.
“It’s really unbelievable,” he added. “We will be in 174 countries. So our international broadcast will continue to grow...For us and for the market, it’s an enormous boost in coverage. We’re really excited about what that means...The Tennis Channel is a true partner for us. And what we’ve seen is our ticket holders are coming from all over.”
A quick glance at the rundown of ticket sales reveals fans are in fact traveling from all across the U.S. to take part in the VCO. A few of the states listed include Tennessee, Missouri, Colorado, Texas, California, Louisiana, and, of course, both North and South Carolina.
“It’s pretty fun to see,” added Moran.
And so far, ticket sales have been netting good numbers for this year’s event.
“It’s interesting,” Moran continued. “When everyone had that lull back in 2008-2009, and even into 2010, everyone saw everything go down. So I would say since 2010, we’ve seen that number come back up and continue to grow. We’re nicely tracking ahead for this year, compared to last year, which is our expectation.”
Another game changer has been the influx of even more international players to the event.
“We’re not 20 or 22 countries anymore,” said Moran. “We’re like 50 countries represented every year. That’s where tennis is different – it’s truly a global sport!”
And having an active and engaging presence on social medial helps spread the word among both players and fans.
“Just the way people consume their media - how we can reach every part of the globe - is amazing I think,” added Moran. “...You may want to be quiet, but you can’t. It’s very important that our response rate on Facebook is very, very fast. That our response rate on Twitter is very, very fast.”
“The players use their social media to talk about being on Daniel Island, and about the fans, and about enjoying Charleston” added Adams. “I think that’s a dramatic difference from what it was 16 years ago.”
And both Moran and Adams go to great lengths to keep the players busy, entertained and well fed during their time in the Holy City. There are visits to favorite restaurants (Sam Stosur is a fan of FIG, Lucy Safarova likes Wasabi, and Venus Williams and Caroline Wozniacki are said to enjoy Hall’s Chophouse), the relatively new Player Dining Hall (first erected on site in 2016) featuring catering by Hamby’s, and, of course, the Annual Player’s Party at the Aquarium.
“That will be fun,” said Adams, noting that this year’s party will feature a light-up dance floor, the traditional candy bar, and a new ice cream bar with player-inspired flavors. “It’s always just a great night for everyone to just relax and have fun before competition begins.”
The players will also be taking part in a variety of charitable activities, such as visits to the MUSC Children’s Hospital, hosting clinics for kids at the Jack Adams Tennis Courts downtown, championing WTA charities, and supporting 2016 defending VCO Champion Sloane Stephens’ Soles4Souls campaign - all in a city and atmosphere many of them have come to love, noted Moran and Adams.
“Coming here is so much easier for them,” said Adams. “Because they know what to expect – they see the same faces.”
“We do the little things,” added Moran. “We’re picking them up at the airport. We’re trying to be there, as much as we can. Because when they come from Miami, it’s that Latin South Beach feel, it’s high energy. It’s a different vibe. And when they get here, they see us and it’s like this smile comes across their faces. And they take a deep breath and say ‘Ok, we can relax a little bit, we’re in Charleston. They know they are going to be comfortable, they know they’re going to be taken care of.”
For the complete schedule of events, or to inquire about tickets, visit www.volvocaropen.com.