by Michael Augsberger, The Tennis Curator editor
Simon Myslivec (CZE) raises the Charles Assalé trophy in triumph as the overture from Bizet's Carmen fills the air on center court.
The first of its kind, the Teen World Open presented by Siranli Dental brought to Naples seven ITF players from abroad, reimbursing for travel and providing accommodations with the mission to support those without the means to make it to the top.
It made connections for another five underprivileged top players, introduced them to opportunities in college athletics, and ignited friendships among the scholarship players and host Americans who joined the competition.
Tennis Central senior writer and tournament director Michael Augsberger delivers his notes on the experience.
The trophy is named for Charles Assalé, who rose from orphanhood to become the first prime minister of what became modern-day Cameroon. Myslivec will not keep the actual trophy he raised overhead, though. It stays at headquarters for the next champion. The Czech winner and Ling, American runner-up, were both presented smaller glass trophies to take home.
Immense gratitude for title sponsor Siranli Dental, whose contribution made the entire event as well as the experiment of the mission to help players in financial need possible. Tennis has never really done it before, and it still wouldn't have without Samantha Siranli and her team.
Jack Ling earned the Sportsmanship Award with his grace under pressure and honorable play.
What a night with NCAA experts. Daniel Hangstefer, head coach at Idaho, and Jay Evans, head coach of Francis Marion, led the College Coaches' Forum on Monday. "Make sure the who of your decision is what you want," Hangstefer told the boys. "You're working with the people who coach you, it has to be compatible. It's not just about the Division I status." "You better know why you want to go to a particular program and ask questions in the interview," Evans advised. "The worst interview I ever had lasted just a minute. The player didn't have any questions for me."
Nsahno Ndonfack played the testiest matches of the tournament, and also the best ones. He came back twice, once against William Freshwater in the quarters, and again defeating Desmond Ayaaba for the bronze medal. In both, he navigated third-set tiebreakers. His style grated on opponents---finalist Jack Ling said he "runs down everything"---and so did his imposition in the mental game. Freshwater especially did not appreciate his gamesmanship, which earned Ndonfack the only point penalty of the whole event. Say what you want about his line calls, though---he won two of the three matches with a full-time chair umpire.
Players are to be reimbursed for their flights, and accommodations and meals at the host site, Emilio Sanchez Academy, were taken care of by the Tennis Central Foundation.
Americans surprised in the early going. Visitors Rushil Khosla, Jose Andrade, and Wian Roothman all went down with injuries and were bested by academy players. Ramy El Shoubaki went the distance with Graham Bourne in a winner-take-all group match but fell short to Bourne's big serve and volley game. Had Freshwater controlled his emotions in the rain, he probably deserved that quarterfinal. Heyang Li went unbeaten in group play. But in the end, three of four semifinalists were scholarship players.
What will Desmond Ayaaba do? The fourth place player's rating could place him at any number of colleges with the opportunities to live and work in the States that would offer. But he does not yet have the education to enroll. Surely an academy Stateside can bring him on to help him via its school or homeschooling. It has to be fast, as he turns eighteen this week.
Why we need to hold events like this to support underprivileged African players: Wian Roothman, now committed to Cal Poly, a top ITF player, second best junior in South Africa, had never played on clay before. They are that rare in his country.
Now to Retirement. The culture of retirement has to come to a stop. Make no mistake---players are extremely aware of the impact of losses to their Universal Tennis rating. It is a blessing and a curse. How brilliant to compare ability across continents so assuredly. But gone are the days of players taking on all comers for the love of the game. In every match between two players separated by a point or more, only one player really stands to gain. Further, tournaments will never be able to schedule meaningful multiple-match formats if they can't count on players to be there.
One reason for the high number of retirements---six in the main draw, at least eight in the consolation---is that in single elimination, injured players would be cast out early. Here, in the group format, they still had one or two more matches to play.
The question must be asked: Is it because players were guaranteed some amount of reimbursement before hitting a stroke in anger? Time will tell. We'll work to incentivize the format to make it last.
Another change to the usual format was meant to help players of limited means. Everyone was guaranteed at least three meaningful matches. Like the FIFA World Cup, it produced shocking drama during the final round robin matches. Ndonfack, eventual bronze medalist, watched with bated breath the Li-Galasso match, in which he needed a result. You could feel the intensity rise on every court. We hope it will catch on among ITF, ATP, and WTA events where players can earn little to absolutely nothing after elimination in the first round of qualies. Tennis can surely support more than a hundred men and a hundred women comfortably.
The beauty of the accommodations here at Sanchez Academy was how the players' got to know one another. Woo Hyeon Jung serenaded all comers with Pirates of the Caribbean and Mozart on the piano---and, elated, snapped to attention when I surprised him by playing his Korean anthem.
Will Freshwater choose baseball or tennis? The middle infielder travels for both. "I like the team aspect of baseball," he says, perhaps tellingly, "but I think playing tennis is more fun."
The food---in a word, scrumptious. And plenty to go around. As the boss said, you can't limit the appetites of athletes. Players feasted on chicken cutlets, tilapia, pizza, burgers, ribs, and pasta over the course of the week. Shrimp soup was a staple. And just how I like my rice to come---in the mountains.
Hats off to Oscar Rodriguez, on-site commandant for Emilio Sanchez Academy, and Lucas Regas, who basically was tournament director for the site in the buildup to a brilliant event.