04 April 2013

Backstage at the Family Circle Cup

I'm a spoiled tennis fan and writer. I've been to all the slams at least once, the Olympics, Fed Cup, Davis Cup and several other WTA/ATP tournaments. Each of them offers such a different fan experience with ranges of player access, food, games, practice sessions and other amenities.

The more you attend tournaments, the more you notice the little things. This is my first visit to Charleston and the Family Circle Cup. I grew up watching it and remember the year Jennifer Capriati made the final as a 14-year old (she lost to Martina Navratilova) - that was the first year the tournament hit my radar, and it great to see it continue to prosper when many others in the US disappear.

Here's my two cents about the Family Circle Cup:

It's evident that this tournament is well supported and the fans love it. I've watched many practices and matches and the support form the crowd is wonderful - they ooh and ahh and are genuinely excited to see these ladies. I've sat through matches in which players and/or their play are criticized and here it just seems the opposite. The fans love their former champions - from Venus and Serena to Stosur and Jankovic, the crowds are vocal in their affection for them during matches and around the grounds - they offer a lot of encouragement to players like Jankovic during her matches - it's rather sweet.

We are only on day 4 so the stadium has not yet been full but attendance has been steady in the past decade. Last Saturday, more than 6,000 fans came through the gates for the first day of qualifying! The field this year is very strong so it's going to be interesting to see how the numbers look at the end of the tournament and whether they top previous years.

The crowds seem very respectful of the players and just really enjoy watching tennis. I've been told that Charleston is a tennis town and it certainly feels that way.

Practice courts
Practice sessions can be the rare time fans can get up close with the players since stadium courts don't allow such access. Smaller tournaments are great for watching practices and the players are likely more to be a bit more relaxed here than at grand slams and bigger tournaments so getting autographs and photos is much easier.

The Family Circle Cup venue has a lot of practice courts and most days the tournament has a board with some of the schedule so fans can plan their day. This is a nice offering not always found outside the bigger tourneys - but I always suggest to do a few laps throughout the day to see who is practicing. One of the practice courts here has a sign where player names are actually written which is a nice touch. It hasn't always been accurate, but it helps casual fans identify who is practicing instead of them playing a guessing game.

The Family Circle Cup is a decent size venue but it only takes a few minutes to walk from the stadium court to the practice sessions and other main stadium. There are plenty of walkways to get you to the food stalls, sponsor tents and practice courts so there isn't too much congestion which is nice. Located on Daniel Island, the Family Circle Cup venue has trees all around which is great on sunny days. It can be hard at tourneys without a lot of shade but here there are plenty of open spaces and the large trees are a lovely backdrop to the outer courts.

One cool feature I've seen if that the side courts have signs on them naming former champions and the years they won. I haven't seen anything like this before and I think it's a nice touch. It's always great to be able to be reminded of the great champions who have won a tournament, particularly one that has such a long history such as the Family Circle Cup. There are also photos with champions along the walkways outside the stadium - nice acknowledgement of all the great players who have won here - as well as a plaque near Althea Gibson Court listing all the FCC champions.

Sponsor tents
I think there are more sponsor tents here than any other tournament I've been to - shows the support and value local businesses and the crowd provide to keep the tournament going. 
There are also non-clay courts which are used for a number of tennis related fun for fans. What better place to try out a new racket than the Dunlop Demo Court, or for fans to test their skills at the Serve Return Survivor Game. Free massages are also on offer as well as the usual giveaways from main sponsors. Apple Ale, one of the sponsors has a few kids games to kep

Food stalls
In addition to a food court with 4-5 stands, there are a great number of vendors and food options which is great to keep lines at bay. There are your typical pizza/pretzel stands but there's also a cafe and a restaurant plus plenty of tables to sit and eat. Althea Gibson Court also has its own bar area near it and a food stall selling nice sandwiches, soups and breakfast foods. It's great to be able to get food and drinks right by each main stadium instead of having to run back and forth around the grounds and miss out on play. There seem to be a decent variety in food options here, and there are also places to eat just across the street in case fans can't find what they're looking form.

Media room

Each media room is also different and is the press conference room. Here, the interview area is literally on the other side of a curtain from the media room. This is good in that it's hard to miss announcements of players arriving and you don't have to race up and down stairs to get to the interviews in time. In addition to meals (lunch daily and dinner if there is a night session), we have a steady stream of coffee and soft drinks available all day plus some candy to enjoy (even Venus Williams couldn't resist going for some chocolate after her press conference ended on Wednesday night. All in all, we are well looked after.

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