27 August 2017

Charleston Tips!




Hey y'all. After one heck of a travel adventure getting home (I may eventually post about travel mishaps on my travel blog), I am back and ready to recap my awesome 5 days at the Volvo Car Open!

I first attended the Charleston WTA event in 2013, and it was a magical year. I was credentialled media so this year was completely different. I went with my tennis-loving mom who uses a cane at events like this and has to be careful walking up/down steps.
Love the photos of prior winners in Charleston

Per usual, I rate tournaments based on the following criteria:

Food
I admit I was so spoiled at the 2013 Family Circle Cup - the media center food was outstanding! Shrimp and grits, freshly made pralines. It was amazing. This time around, I had to feed myself and mom at least once a day onsite. We are told not to bring food into the site, and one woman who got her bag searched after me was questioned about a granola bar. I actually had a few snacks in my purse which I didn't have issues with, but we did not bring in anything that constituted a meal.

So - the onsite food includes one main food court area that had three different options, and then there were about 6 food trucks, and a few other stalls around the stadium. I can't say anything I ate wowed me, but it was all decent and pretty well priced.

We really never had an issue finding a table whenever we wanted to sit. Now this was great and all but I think attendance was way down compared to the previous time I was in Charleston.

Ticketing
I purchased tickets back in November and purchased individual session tickets. Because mom and I are both USTA members, we got $10 off each of our tickets. I booked on the phone because I wanted to get accessible seats for my mom. I held off buying grounds passes for the opening weekend because I wasn't sure of our schedule, but when we got onsite Saturday and Sunday the grounds passes cost us just $5 with our USTA discount.

The main draw starts on Monday, and the first night session was Tuesday night. Our handicap seats were located on the main stadium level, which was wonderful. We sat behind all the box seats. The 200 level were just above us, and then the top level is grounds pass admission, FYI.

Stadiums
Billie Jean King Stadium is a nice sized stadium and it feels pretty intimate. By far my favorite court at the Family Circle Tennis Center is the Althea Gibson stadium, essentially the 'grandstand' court. It's wonderful and is located right near the player area and the back practice courts.
Althea Gibson Club Court is a wonderful place

Located along the stadiums are the main bathrooms and water fountains (still the old school ones, not the new bottle fillers). There are some food options inside the stadium concourse but I did not buy anything from them. The Hanby donuts did smell delicious, and I did notice a few bars and a Chick-fil-A (gosh it pains me to spell that name).

Crowds
As I mentioned above, this year's crowds felt a bit light, but I was there the first few days of the main draw. The opening weekend is always family-centre and the grounds were hopping so naturally the weekdays felt thin. But, this is not always a bad thing. It wasn't crowded for us to get around the grounds, there were always handicap seats available for us and as previously mentioned, getting a table was never an issue.

In terms of the stadium atmosphere, I gotta say the Charleston crowd is on the quiet side. I rarely heard anyone on any court actually cheer for a player. Only when I watched Venus did anyone every cheer her on by name, tho I am sure when Shelby Rogers played that was also the case.

Security
Every tournament is SO different when it comes to security and bag searches. As I have so regularly been media, I am sometimes not prepared for the old bag hunt. I did read the policy before we left so I knew the Volvo Car Open said no food could be brought inside and no glass bottles. It also said you were only allowed to bring in an unopened bottle of water. Well. I left behind my Swell bottle, but brought in a plastic bottle I could fill in onsite. My mom was the same. Neither was an unopened bottle but we never had issues. I had a few snacks in my bag, and security never nudged me about them.

I did not see a specific handicap line, and my mom's body cannot handle just standing on hard concrete so on our first day I asked if we could hop in the far right line which seemed for credentials? I wasn't sure, but they accommodated us which was great especially when we arrived as gates opened and the lines were long. Naturally, after 4 days the far right line changed and it was for box holders only, so the ticket scanners at the end were not the ones we needed. It all worked out, but signs might be helpful to indicate if there is a special line for any specific ticketholders?

Accessibility
Handicap chairs were literally just folding chairs and to put it mildly, they sucked! Totally uncomfortable. Even the ballkids had better seats - those plastic chairs which must have been a little softer than our hard chairs. I was regretting not bringing seat cushions but it can be a pain to lug them around all day. I was disappointed in the chairs and think the Volvo Car Open can do better!
Draw ceremony

One issue we had getting around the grounds was that often we had to walk on gravel, or on uneven ground to get to practice courts or food seating areas. My mom had her cane with her, but I was uneasy in some areas. Also, the bathrooms were not handicap accessible. There was one bathroom near Althea Gibson, and the toilet was way low. Then were a few trailers but those steps up and down scared me. The main stadium did have what must be considered handicap toilets but again they were quite low.

A major issue we had was that the main stadium bathrooms had wet floors! No matter what time of day, anytime we used them the floors and stalls had water all over. I have no idea what the issue was, but the tourney should do better about mopping or sometime because it is dangerous.

I am happy that getting to and from our seats was pretty easy and all the steps leading to the stadium had a handrail. I did not notice if there was a slope to walk up instead of steps but my mom did fine with the stairs.

Venus sliding to net
Charleston
I admit that when I attend tennis tournament, I don't prioritize being a tourist much. So only one morning did we head to Downtown Charleston for a look around. I parked by The Battery and took a brief walk along the park and the waterfront area. Charleston is very much a walking city (at least the downtown) and the roads are narrow and there were so many buses and groups of people all over.

I tried to drive mom near the French Quarter and to the City Market area but on a Monday mid-morning it was busy. Other than that, on this trip we did not eat anywhere remotely local. Our long days at the tennis, and the bad weather, sent us to grab quick meals at Whole Foods and Trader Joes. But, I am not that much of a foodie so I didn't feel like I missed out.

All in all, Charleston is a lovely option for tennis fans. The intimacy of the grounds and courts is special and the tournament is so well-supported by locals. I know I'll be back!

More photos...

Missed you here Serena!

Petko's glamorous ballgirl - her sister I was told?

Keys and Davenport hitting on Stadium court

Venus practice

Crowds entering the gate


The beautiful green clay


Cincy - take III

Cincy Stadium

The other day I referred to myself as a lapsed blogger. I had been asked to participate in a podcast called The Night Session:Box Seats by Val from Tennis Inside Out. It was fun to discuss a range of issues going on with the WTA this year, particularly the streaming mess. Take a listen here:



I met Val a few years ago in Cincy and she was one of many awesome Tennis Twitter people I recently hung out with during my return to the Western & Southern Open (more on that later)

Find the beauty of  a rain delay
I always say Cincy is my fave joint event held in the US (other than the US Open - if push came to shove I'd attend that each year if I could only choose one). Each time I've gone to ole Mason, Ohio I have stayed the entire tourney and this year was no exception but a big difference for me this year was that I wasn't credentialed media for the first time - was just a choice I made not to try and cover it for anyone so I was able to be a full-on fan the entire time.

I attended Cincy with my favorite tennis fan - my mom! I told her she has a fan club and I loved introducing her to so many wonderful members of the Tennis Twitter family. It really makes a tourney so fun to catch up with tennis-loving friends, whether onsite during Isner matches, or later at night at Applebees or Brixx! Or on the tennis court....

Art in progress
So why do I love Cincy so much? Well, accommodation is pretty cheap, tickets are easy to buy (and to me quite affordable), I'm a midwesterner and happen to think we make great hosts and I think the Cincy vibe onsite is pretty chill. I always say to anyone who hasn't attended Cincy that it's like a US Open experience without the craziness of NYC and crowds. For the most part, all the top players are there (this year was super funky on the ATP side but I didn't miss anyone) and accessibility is wonderful.

So here are my thoughts on what to expect when attending the Western & Southern Open:

Tickets
Cincy gives good sunsets
We purchased a full package which was around $700 each - this gave us the same seat for every session of this year's tourney. We purchased these back in February and I had tried to get handicap seating for mom (who has a hobby of getting surgeries and recently had food surgery) but I wasn't really successful. Our seats were under the media center (hey y'all) and initially I was annoyed with how high up we were, but then around 1pm each day we were in the shade and I was okay! I have never purchased single session tix to Cincy, but we did sell our finals tix through Twitter, and there is also a few ticket scalpers outside the grounds. I personally have never stopped by to find out about selling tix to them, but if you don't manage to find tix when you're already there, these could be good options.

Food
I think it's pretty hard to get amped about tennis tourney onsite food, especially when you've just eaten two meals a day for 8 straight days! I think the tourney needs to provide healthier options and more variety, but that's me. I recently completed the tourney survey and my three bits of food advice were:
  • More than one coffee place - the existing coffee option was good but it was the furthest food stall from the main entrance and it was the only place selling coffee!
  • Healthier options - one of my fave food stalls in tennis is the awesome salad bar in Miami. So much of the Cincy food court is carbs, carbs, carbs! Pizza, stews, chili, wraps, sandwiches, burgers, etc. I get that Ohio loves its chili, but that's the last thing I want to eat when it's hot! #pass
  • More Asian foods - there was one sushi place which I love but I felt like another Asian option could have been great - even a noodle place or something. 
Eating Graeters is a must do in the hot Mason sun
However, there were some great meal options - the falafel was a fave, and the coffee place had a yummy quiche that came with fruit. The stadium food was average but handy if you are like me and just want to race down and grab something then race back up for a match. The stadium food is hamburgers, hot dogs, brats, popcorn, nachos. It's fairly cheap and did the trick.

In terms of what you can bring in, the official Cincy rules say you can't bring in any food but every day I had nuts and dried fruit in my purse and I had no issues. The rules also say you can only bring in sealed water bottles or empty ones you fill onsite. Well, honestly I obeyed the first few days, then the rest of the time I had no issues bringing in a camelbak bottle filled with ice which was great given how hot it is!

Practice Courts
In general watching players practice in Cincy is pretty great. There's plenty of room to watch and only a few courts have accessibility issues. The Cincy app features a Practice Schedule which is fab. For the most part, it's pretty easy to see on each court, the exception when one of the big stars practice but that's no different than other tourneys. Warning - if your faves practice on court 15 it's very hard to see, but otherwise there's plenty of opportunities to catch your faves practicing. Also, I detest the setup of Courts 16 and 17 when big names practice there but c'est la vie.

One of my fave tennis duos - Davenport and Keys
Player Spotting
If you like seeing players off the court, you're in luck because Mason and Cincy are no NYC so you can try your luck at a few places. Applebees is right near the player hotel (the Marriott) so it's pretty common to see players there, and I have each year I've gone there. Also, Whole Foods is a good spotting place as well and I have heard Kings Island is too.

Where to stay
I have stayed somewhere different every year, and this year picked a hotel about 10 minutes away from the site. I have spent anywhere from $40 a night to $120 a night so there are plenty of options to fit any budget. If you don't have a car, then uber is a great option if that fits your budget. There are shuttles from four partner hotels, but I can't speak to how this works in terms of frequency. If you go this route, you'll need to book your hotel through the tournament (I've done this in Miami). More info here.

Transportation/parking
Rafa practice session
I have only ever had a car when attending Cincy so I have always driven to the site. Two years I attended with my mom and she has handicap access so we parked there. In 2015 I was able to park in media parking. If you buy a package, it usually includes parking.

Getting in and out of the grounds of course depends on your arrival and departure times but expect a gridlock situation if you stay until the end of the night sessions. Also, if it rains, the parking lots can be a MESS. In 2016 apparently 200 cars got stuck so there was more paved parking for some. However, we always parked on grass this year and thankfully it only rained one day/night so we didn't have to endure a muddy situation.

A quick rant - the tourney does great when you arrive onsite and need the handicap parking area. But upon leaving? No system, no clear waiting area for a golf cart and you can only find carts from the north gate which also runs fans without handicap needs to their cars. Just messy - do better Cincy Tennis. Because parking for the public is primarily on grass, my mom struggled to walk to our car when we couldn't find a cart to take us (and with gridlocked traffic some nights I couldn't just get the car and pick her up). As always, the volunteers do their best and you couldn't pay me to try and direct traffic leaving the site at night. So, Cincy Tennis I'll be in touch....

Other tips:
A valuable cup if you like ice!
  • If you don't want to wait in long lines at the North Gate, go around to the west gate. We were dropped off there every day (we parked in handicap parking and the tourney has golf carts to then take you to your gate) and there was never anyone in line! It was super easy and you then enter right by the back practice courts. Easy!
  • The Cincy Ice Game. Every year I've attended Cincy (2012, 2015, 2017) the tourney has a really cool, useful treat for fans. For 25cents, you get a plastic Cincy cup and with it you can get free ice the whole tourney at any of the stadium food stalls. Wonderful! But this year things went a bit awry midweek when all of a sudden the poor stadium workers said ice wasn't free. And then it was again. Anyway, great initiative Cincy but pick it and stick with it!
  • USTA members used to be able to attend a member appreciation day which was held one day of the tourney. This was really fun - it was inside an air-conditioned marquee and they provided snacks and drinks plus you could get a USTA themed gift and get an up close look at the trophies. Sadly, this year the USTA decided not to hold this and instead just had a little tent near others and gave away a free gift. This was really disappointing because I always felt special at Cincy because of this event, and this time as we walked into the stall the two USTA guys barely acknowledged us and did not do much to make me feel like my membership was appreciated! Lame. 
  • There's a little tourney museum just inside the West Entrance and by practice courts 12-15. It's worth a pit stop (and it has A/C)!
  • A Doubles Showdown is organized each year by Wayne Bryan (dad to Mike and Bob) - I can't speak to this as I'd never watched it but it's held early in the tourney and features a range of doubles players. This year I was in the adjacent court to it and there was definitely some loud atmosphere - sounded like fans were having a blast.
So what did I miss? Let me know in the comments! A few more pics:

Grandstand court is >>>

North Gate

Crowded Rafa practice 

View from food court toward Stadium

Player arrival area - very popular with fans

Beautiful sunset over Grandstand

Tennis Channel studio

Can you resist some tennis swag?


View from the nosebleeds (but SHADE)

If you must buy tennis souvenirs.....

See you next time!



25 March 2017

Charleston, take II

Hello tennis fans!

Serena Williams, 2013

Tis the season for tennis returning to the US. Each year since I moved back to the US, I have taken in springtime tennis. With so many options you really can't go wrong, so I have mixed up my tennis travels for the past five years:

2013: Charleston
2014: Miami
2015: Indian Wells
2016: Miami (oops didn't blog!)

The beautiful green clay in Charleston
So....this year I decided to return to Charleston, home to the Volvo Car Open (previously known as the Family Circle Cup). I LOVED my time in this lovely city and wonderful tourney when I came here the first time in 2013.

Growing up, my mom always subscribed to Family Circle magazine so I remember regularly seeing ads for this tourney way back when. One of my earliest tennis memories was Jennifer Capriati reaching the final here at just 14 years old back in 1990 (vs the 'lege' Martina Navratilova).  For years the tourney was on Hilton Head but it's been held at Daniel Island since 2001.

I will be onsite the opening weekend for qualifying rounds, and then the first three days. Last time I was at this event I was credentialled media, but this time I am going as a fan with my mom so my experience will be totally different. I will post my thoughts and tips after I return.

One of the reasons I'm so keen to return to Charleston is because I am a huge supporter of women's tennis and I love how wonderfully this event has been supported for more than 40 years. Charleston is a great tennis playing city and there's great energy at the tournament.

So, follow my exploits in Charleston via twitter (@StephintheUS) and I'll post some thoughts once I return! I may do a periscope or two as well (I am also @StephintheUS there).

Bring on some fabulous women's tennis!