By Jennifer Tuohy, Island Eye News Contributing Editor
The 2019 Volvo Car Open had a truly local flavor this year. From plenty of Daniel Island-brewed craft-beer on hand, to the not-one-but-two local girls competing in the field of world-class tennis players, plus a brand new local owner in Ben Navarro, the event did Charleston proud. Despite the Lowcountry’s notoriously fickle April weather desperately trying to disrupt proceedings, the 47th iteration of this women’s only tournament went off without a hitch, thrilling fans both on-site and across the globe, courtesy of wall-to-wall Tennis Channel coverage.
To top off the successful week, which finished Sunday, fan favorite Madison Keys took home the coveted trophy on her seventh try, having made the semi-finals last year and the finals in 2015. The American player, now ranked 14th in the world, saw off three grand slam champions en route to the biggest win of her season, first beating French Open champ Jelena Ostapenko, then best pal Sloane Stephens, 2017’s U.S. Open champion. Finally, she conquered 2018’s Australian Open winner and former World No. 1, Caroline Wozniacki 7-6, 6-2 in a blistering final, which saw some tense moments, including an incredibly lucky net ball in the second set for Keys to take the first break of the match. Despite Wozniacki’s popularity here, the crowd was undeniably behind the American, cheering her on to claim the title and her very own brand new Volvo. But the prize that appeared to surprise and touch her the most was when Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg handed her the key to the city.
“I love the support I get from everyone here in Charleston,” Keys said, commenting on court after her win that it feels like home to her (she lives down the road in Orlando, Florida). “And now that I have a key to the city I can’t wait to come back next year!”
The week-long tournament isn’t just about tennis. It kicked off on March 30 with over 500 children attending the Family Weekend for free (under 16s were able to attend free of charge all week thanks to a collaboration with SunTrust Bank), enjoying a Fortnite-themed obstacle course and a selection of rides from the state fair – including a ferris wheel, merry-go-round, and two-story glass house – among many other activities. There were a lot of upgrades and new additions to please the older kids too. New fan-focused elements at the tournament included a roof-top restaurant run by Vintage Cafe and Coastal Crust, a much expanded Serve & Volley hospitality tent, run by Food Network’s 2017 Great Food Truck race winners Braised in the South. A bevy of special events including sunrise yoga with tennis-star Bethanie Mattek-Sands and a gospel brunch were enough to entice even the non-tennis fans to make the trip out to the Daniel Island stadium.
Rounding out the festival-like atmosphere were many fun Charleston-area touches, including plein air painting and an actual beach complete with world class sandcastle sculptures.
The Volvo Car Open is North America’s largest women’s-only tennis tournament, a WTA Premier event, the winner takes home a prize purse of over $800,000. The tournament is now owned by businessman Ben Navarro, CEO of Charleston-based Sherman Financial Group and the founder of education non-profit Meeting Street Schools. When he acquired the tournament’s sanction along with the operations of the Family Circle Tennis Center and Volvo Car Stadium last year, Navarro said: “Our goal is to continue to grow the tournament’s impact, promote junior tennis in Charleston, and make the sport more accessible for all.” He has plenty of experience in the tennis world, his daughter, Emma Navarro, an Ashley Hall junior, is a rising star in the sport, who earned her way into the tournament this year by winning the U.S Nationals Girls 18 Clay Court Championships. Her night on stadium court, along with the return of Mount Pleasant native Shelby Rogers following an extended break due to injury, gave the event an even stronger local flavor on this global stage.
Mark your diaries for next year’s Volvo Car Open, which takes place April 4 through 12, 2020.