BY KEVIN FARIS
Imagine if you can, a hypothetical basketball tournament. Among the teams is one led by 1998 NCAA Champion and Final Four MVP Jeff Sheppard of the University of Kentucky. Another team has 2001 NCAA Champ Shane Battier of Duke. Yet another features 2000 NCAA Champ Matteen Cleaves of Michigan State and a fourth team is led by 2002 NCAA Champ Juan Dixon of Maryland. Do you think that would be an exciting tournament? Do you think people would come out and pay less than $10 a ticket to watch this tournament?
Imagine, also, if someone approached you five years ago and offered you the chance to watch a high school basketball game featuring a player named LeBron James. Would you go? Would you even know who he was? Five years later, would you look back on this opportunity and kick yourself for not taking advantage of the opportunity to watch one of the most exciting and popular players in the NBA?
Now, imagine all of this in Lexington. But it’s a different kind of court.
Summer, in the city, means several different traditions when it comes to the sporting world. You have the Bluegrass State Games, which brings people from all over the Commonwealth to our fair city to compete in a myriad of sports. You have the Junior League Horse Show (the first leg of a triple crown). You have the Dirt Bowl, which features players of all ages hoping it up at Douglas Park. The Lexington Legends continue to attract a ton of fans and chase a South Atlantic League title, and the newest kids on the block, the Lexington Horsemen, advance toward their first National Indoor Football League title. While all of these are fun, and exciting, there is one more event before we begin to talk about the fortunes of the UK football team, (early thought: not so good), and that is the $100,000 Fifth Third Bank Tennis Championships, a United States Tennis Association Pro Circuit held at UK’s Boone Tennis Complex next week.
This event features several young professionals on the verge of stardom. Former Men’s number one Lleyton Hewitt has made his way through here, as well as well known pros such as James Blake. This year’s tournament has no shortage of excitement as well. Four former NCAA Men’s Singles Champions will be present, as well as two runner-ups, offering local fans the opportunity to see some of the best that college tennis has had to offer over the past several years. Also, a number of younger players are here to make their mark and take one more step toward the top, including last year’s top American under 18 and a former Wimbledon junior champ.
The four former NCAA Champs who’ll be swinging rackets during the tournament are Cecil Mammitt, 1996 Champion from the University of Southern California, Jeff Morrison, 1999 Champ from the University of Florida, Matias Boeker 2001 and 2002 Champ from the University of Georgia, and Amer Delic, the 2003 Champ and MVP from the University of Illinois.
Morrison stands out among these four, mainly because he comes into this tournament for the second year in a row as the top seed. Currently, he is ranked 116 in the world, but was as high as 57 in April. He is a kinda/sorta local boy, from nearby Huntington, West Virginia and he has relatives in the Lexington area. One of his many career highlights came during the 2002 Wimbledon Tournament, when he was the last American player eliminated. He was upset last year, but has been building up a lot of momentum lately and hopes to capitalize on that in Lexington. Last week, he beat the 2nd seed, and overall 14th ranked player in the world, in the Mercedes-Benz Cup in Los Angeles, Paradorn Srichapan of Thailand 7-5, 6-4.
Boeker is another player who comes into the tournament with a lot of buzz. In fact, cameras from ESPN are expected to follow him during the early part of the week. Although he is unseeded in this competition, he has to be respected, in most part due to his standing as a back to back NCAA Champion. In case you wanted to add some more drama, the two men he beat in those finals, Jesse Witten of UK and Brian Valahy of are also going to be in the tournament.
Cecil Mammit of USC is the oldest of the defending champions, winning his title as a freshmen in 1996. Only three men have won NCAA titles as a freshman, and John McEnroe is one of them. That is not bad company to keep.
Amer Delic is the most recent of the Four Champs, winning his title in 2003 and also taking home the overall MVP for the Fightin’ Illini. He is also unseeded.
Although these four have won five titles between them, as you can tell by the number of them that are unseeded, there are several other notable men in the draw. UK’s own Jesse Witten, the 2002 NCAA Runner-up, just finished a 26-4 junior season. He owns an outstanding record against the NCAA Top Five, and made it to the finals of The 10,000K Event in Illinois. According to UK’s Tennis Coach Dennis Emery, this was a “big break through for him.”
The 2001 Runner-Up Valahy will be joined by two UCLA All-Americans, Kevin Kim and Eric Taino. And last, but far, far from least, is tow time 5/3 Champ Paul Goldstein, who won in 1998 and 2001. He was runner-up in 2002, but will try once more for the elusive hat trick.
The real treat this year could be among the younger participants, imagine a high school basketball player preparing to jump to the NBA, and you have an idea at what some of the players are attempting. Brian Baker, last year’s top American under 18 went to middle school in Lexington and his dad attended UK Law School. He will be looking to do well on his return. Wesley Whitehouse is a South African who was a former Wimbledon Junior Champ and he will be playing as well, as he and Baker both look for success on the next level. The most exciting of the young players, however, could be Donald Young, who won the prestigious 18 and under East Bowl in Miami, FL when he was only 14. He is 15 now and has just be signed as a professional by IMG. According to Emery, “Young has unlimited potential. He reminds me of (Lleyton) Hewitt in his game and (Andre) Agassi in his talent level.” This young African-American will be making his Challenger Level debut and could be the one you brag to your friends about seeing.
The women will be working hard as well, with Jennifer Hopkins, winner of eight USTA Circuit titles and Samantha Reeves, the runner up here in 2002, who is the top seed this year. Reeves is currently ranked at 123, but has been as high as 66. For some local flavor, Julie Ditty will be representin’ 40502, as the former three-time Kentucky High School champ from Ashland, plays in the tournament of her new hometown.
This tournament is special for many reasons, not the least of which is that it is one of the few times Lexington can host a truly professional sporting event. Each year this tournament has grown. One of the reasons could be attributed to the growing success of Emery and his UK Tennis program for helping to put Lexington out there, but Emery himself sees other reasons “The key to the event, and the biggest reason for its growth,” said Emery, “is not so much the success of the UK program, but the facilites, the growing crowds, and the tournament’s spot on the schedule.” The 50/50 split or the tournament’s $100,000 prize does not hurt either, as even today some tournaments lag behind in paying the men and the women equally. The two major sponsors, Bluegrass Toyota Dealers for the women and UK Healthcare for the men, help make this tournament attractive and possible.
If you are interested in seeing the future, and not just imagining it, the tournament begins with the qualifying rounds July 24-25, which are free to the public. The main draw begins on July 26 and runs through August 1st. Tickets may be purchased at all Fifth Third Bank locations in Central Kentucky or by calling 859/ 983.9484. n
Playing Host for the 5/3 Tennis Tournament
By Sarah Tackett
Every year the 5/3 Tennis Tournament brings both local and international players to Lexington. Because their schedules are intensive, they pretty much eat, sleep and play tennis. For this to go on without a hitch, it is necessary to recognize the kind families who open their homes to host these athletes.
By having a host family, the players can focus on their game rather than worrying about the details of transportation, where to eat, or where the maid hid their lucky sweatband. The hosts also provide entertainment and hospitality that gives the athletes a sense of returning home even when they’re on tour.
Dorothy Van Meter has organized and directed the host program for the past six years, placing 70 to 80 players in homes for the duration of the tournament. She describes the job as similar to running a bed and breakfast.
When asked the benefits of a host family over a hotel Van Meter simply stated, “they have a house and a yard, and people to interact with.” The people seem to be the important part. Over the years some of the host families have developed friendships with players that they wouldn’t normally get to meet.
Van Meter could consider her house the Australian connection when the tournament comes to town, and has honorarily adopted player Paul Hanley into her family. They keep in touch with him throughout the year and even travel to see him play in neighboring tournaments. Van Meter claims expertly (after hosting several Australians and New Zealanders) that “Paul must be the only introvert in the entire country.”
She has many fond memories from hosting Hanley along with other Aussies.
One night they were particularly excited about receiving free passes to “The World Famous Two Keys Tavern.”
They immediately took advantage of their passes and told everyone they were going to “The World Famous Two Keys Tavern.” Van Meter dropped them off only to have the police escort them home (for…the transgression of…littering…just in line with any good evening at the “World Famous Two Keys Tavern”).
When asked if the players were usually this rowdy Van Meter laughed, “Not at all!” She explained that since they play for 9 to 10 hours a day they really have to take care of themselves, “they spend their days eating pasta and fruit.” Van Meter adds, “There really isn’t much time for socializing, but when they have time they usually like to go shopping or see movies.”
She also explained how the tournament itself has evolved over the years, “players have become more and more professional, and really strive to be competitive and keep their edge.”
The family environment seems to be the perfect place to relax and unwind after a grueling day of matches. Lasting connections show themselves in that when the players return each year, many ask to be placed with the same families, or even contact the families themselves. Van Meter says that one of the best parts of the program is when athletes unexpectedly drop in for a visit when they’re not playing.
The hosting program seems to bring people together beyond the week of the tennis tournament.
Being a host family should be considered a rewarding opportunity that extends Lexington’s hospitality to people all over the world.