A group of volunteers and sponsors for the Charleston Public Courts tennis tournament gather at the Schoenbaum Courts in Kanawha City Tuesday evening. In front of the net (from left) are Donna Michael, Kim Isaac, Betty Chilton, Norma Stump, Kate Ruggery, Roy Eagle and Mindy White.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Public Courts tournament has zoomed past its golden anniversary and shows no signs of slowing down in this, its 54th year.But tournament directors Kim and Rory Isaac know the annual tennispalooza in Charleston would be long gone and forgotten if not for a dedicated group of sponsors and volunteers who keep coming back for more every year."There's no way to run a tournament this size for nine straight days without having all these people come out and help us,'' Kim Isaac said. "They know each year what role they play and how they can help, and they just show up and do it."It's just fabulous to have them as part of it. They are the success of the tournament. We really feel blessed to have them all involved.''Kim Isaac estimated that about 25 people volunteer their time and efforts for various - sometimes mundane - duties that include working draw sheets at the tournament desk, setting up the courts, removing rainwater with squeegees, carrying score cards, handling T-shirts, packing coolers, serving drinks and working with sponsors.That's before, during and after matches of a tournament that sports 40 divisions of competition and more than 400 players."There's a lot of work getting ready for the tournament,'' said Bobby White, who for many years roamed those same Schoenbaum Courts in Kanawha City serving as tennis coach at George Washington High School. "And that's what these guys do.''Christi Smith, who used to coordinate play at Coonskin Park when some Public Courts matches were contested there, said she's been a volunteer "for so long I can't remember'' when she started.
"After working up there [at Coonskin],'' Smith said, "I'd come back down here and help - pick up trash, whatever needed done.''Don Vredeveld, a past Public Courts director and past president of the local United States Tennis Association district, said he's been connected with the Charleston tournament for 30 years."It's community service,'' said Vredeveld, whose son Bud serves as the tennis pro at Glade Springs resort in Daniels. "I've been involved in tennis for a long time, and it all started with taking my kid to tennis tournaments. It was fun. It was good father-son bonding stuff."We've run a lot of tournaments, and I've always enjoyed working in this tournament. A lot of other tournaments are work. This one is fun, and that's primarily what it's supposed to be.''Tom Hanna, another former Public Courts director, like Vredeveld keeps coming back to assist in any way he can. He began as a volunteer in 1974.
"This started out as a tournament for the average player,'' said Hanna, who entered the inaugural Public Courts event in 1959 as a 15-year-old."Tennis was a club sport, but at the time they were trying to introduce tennis to the average kid, and get school tennis started. Of course, they had a rule for a number of years that if you were a very good player, you were banned from this tournament. That list kept getting more and more names on it, but it eventually got dropped.''
Hanna said the allure of the Public Courts is that even past Kanawha Valley residents come back home to compete so that they can renew acquaintances with old friends."You've got the same people coming back every year,'' Hanna said. "People from out of town come back for a week to play in this tournament, and to see people they remember. It's almost like a reunion of tennis players in this area. People who don't play in any other tournament play in this one.''George Bsharah, a manager at Charleston Tennis Club, grew up in Boone County and started getting involved in tennis in his 30s. His friendship with the Isaacs helped him get connected with the Public Courts."This is just a community thing,'' Bsharah said. "It's more than tennis each year. It's as much a social event. As far as a tennis player in this community, this is the event they look forward to every year, more than any other tournament. Other clubs have weekend tournaments and people have fun, but this is the one everyone wants to play in and everyone wants to win."But people look forward to coming down and seeing old friends. And they raise scholarship money for the scholarships they give away. It's kind of a special tournament. A lot of people through the years have helped as sponsors and volunteers and everybody pitches in and gets it done. It takes a whole community to do it. Just four, five people cannot do this tournament.''Rory Isaac noted that volunteers don't have to have a long background in the sport to make a big difference.
Isaac told a story about 12-year-old London Straughter showing up one day at the tennis hut next to the Kanawha City courts in 2003, wondering if he could help.Straughter, now 22, is an indispensable part of the Public Courts team, Isaac said, who works sometimes for 12 hours straight, even after arriving right from his normal job, or from other volunteer work with the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization."Basically, he could run this site today,'' Isaac said, "and probably do it better than I do. He's quite a young man. We've gotten really, really close.''Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or firstname.lastname@example.org.