A Culminating Event

By Glen Howe

The United State Tennis Association’s (USTA) Tallahassee Challenger is widely known as the best challenger in the country. Beyond the world-class tennis, featuring no fewer than 20 players ranked in the top 200 in the world, there is even more to this annual event. The event follows a path for any local player who would like to enter the pre-qualifiers tournament, with the winner moving to the qualifier draw. Three rounds are whittled down to the final four players, who are entered into the main draw of 32 to complete the first-round entries. The road to the finals consists of 11 matches!

The Tallahassee Challenger was started 20 years ago to benefit the Vogter Neuro-Intensive Care Unit at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital. Karen Vogter has led the charge from the beginning in memory of her late husband in researching threatening illnesses such as brain tumors and aneurysms. As the director, Vogter has been tireless in her efforts for this cause as well as the success of the Challenger.

Excitement Builds
The qualifier matches are attended by hundreds of local tennis enthusiasts at the city’s Forestmeadows Athletic Center at the end of April. With a rich background of former winners, such as John Isner, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and Donald Young, the event has been a launching pad for future superstars. More than 25 countries are represented in singles and doubles play. This event has become a second home for many of the players on the Challenger circuit due to the relationships formed between local families that host players for the week, giving them an opportunity to experience a normal family routine with cookouts and home-cooked meals! With the new live-streaming view instituted by the USTA, the event can be seen around the world.

The city is proud to be a partner, providing the site at Forestmeadows and management-staff support. Extensive preparation—including court renovations and grounds work—begins several months prior. During the eight-day event, continuous upkeep and preparation are maintained 18 hours per day. Post-tournament cleanup and the resumption of “normal” business usually take about three weeks.

The Tallahassee Challenger is part of the USTA Pro Circuit Wild Card Challenge. Players participate at three Challenger clay court events, and those matches culminate in Tallahassee with the points winner gaining entry to the French Open. It is always exciting to see players at the Open who participated only one week prior at the Tallahassee event.

The Secret To Success
Volunteers—including ball kids, ball babes and dudes, drivers for the players, ushers, and tournament desk attendants—are not the only the individuals needed for this tennis extravaganza. Continuous court maintenance, USTA referees, grounds maintenance workers, food-service caterers, and many personal volunteers make the Tallahassee Challenger the best of the best! At least 150 people help to make everything run smoothly.

Daily Special Events
Almost every day at the Challenger there is a special event taking place on the outer courts. For instance, there are two days of large school clinics, featuring the USTA 10&U program where more than 500 kids are taught by USTA clinician Anne Davis and many volunteers. On another day, local volunteer Kelly Tucker conducts a clinic for kids from the Boys & Girls Club, and the city’s Tennis Spectacular—a club with more than 100 kids from the city’s community centers is in its fifth year. These events allow kids who might not otherwise have an opportunity to be exposed to this level of tennis to participate in a skills clinic, eat some pizza, and then watch some world-class tennis. Lastly, a United States Professional Tennis Assocation (USPTA) Appreciation Day clinic is given for the ball kids. With more than 1,000 participants throughout the week, there are endless smiles on the faces of the kids who participate.

The highlight each year is Special Olympics Day when more than 250 kids have fun hitting balls. This is the largest special-needs clinic in the country. Tucker, who is also a certified special-needs coordinator, leads the group with training and implementation. Many volunteers are needed for the 10-court event, which lasts for two hours. Having assisted for the past 10 years, I have an overwhelming feeling in working with the kids.

Food Responsibilities
No event would be complete without plenty of food for the spectators as well as the tournament crew. For the contributing sponsors of the tournament, dinner and adult beverages are provided to make the experience complete. The staff, volunteers, ball kids, and referees are provided meals during the long days of the tournament. Some of the best food is provided by volunteer cooks.

USPTA Workshop
One of the missions of the USPTA teaching organization is to promote regional education. Many times, teaching professionals don’t have a chance to get away from their regular routine in order to work on their skillset. In 2015, the Challenger was the first workshop in the Tallahassee district. The Special Olympics included training and hands-on work for 10 certified pros. Rounding out the experience were presentations from a tennis-court company, USTA’s Nancy Horowitz and George English from the Florida Section, as well as my presentation on upgrading certification.

A Worthy Event
I personally am inspired by the hundreds of volunteers who make this marquee event a success.  There is much good in this world, and it can be found everywhere at the Tallahassee Challenger!

Glen Howe is the Tennis Superintendent for the city of Tallahassee’s Parks, Recreation, and Neighborhood Affairs, and he is also a USPTA Master Professional. Reach him at (850) 891-4979 or glen.howe@talgov.com.