Palmetto State Racket

Month: May, 2014

In Belton, Another Palmetto Championships Winds Down

by Jonathon Braden

BELTON, S.C. – Past the winding two-lane roads, the empty fields and the dwindling Belton town square, dreams were fulfilled, comebacks were raged, businesses were busy and hospitality was taught here on Tuesday.

The dream: A boy from Spartanburg, who will play tennis at South Carolina this fall, has won a USTA Southern Championship and competed on the Nike Junior Tour, finally won the title he was missing.

Wood Benton playing in his last Palmetto Championships. (USTA SC photo)

Wood Benton playing in his last Palmetto Championships. (USTA SC photo)

From Adam Regan at the Anderson Independent-Mail:

Despite winning a Southern championship and competing on the Nike Junior Tour, Wood Benton never considered his junior career complete. That was until he brought home the one title that had always eluded him.

The Spartanburg resident and University of South Carolina recruit played steady throughout the Palmetto Championships over the last five days. He capped the tournament with a 6-3, 6-4 win over Alex Miller in the Boys 18U final on Tuesday.

While he has certainly won much bigger tournaments, Palmetto titles were always the ones he couldn’t close out.

“It’s a tough tournament to win,” Benton said. “I’m glad I got it on my last try.”

Alex Miller and Benton shake hands after Benton's 6-3, 6-4 championship victory. (USTA SC photo.)

Alex Miller and Benton shake hands after Benton’s 6-3, 6-4 championship victory. (USTA SC photo.)

Later in the day, on the same court, a doubles team that consisted of a redshirt freshman at Ohio State University and a high school junior was down 4-7 against Benton and Adam Elliget, a junior with a big game.

“We can do this,” Barr said before taking the court at 4-7.

Mendez and Barr did do this. They held, broke, held, broke and held to win the eight-game pro set, 9-7.

The winners will likely have a competitive college match or two as well. In fact, Mendez is already at Ohio State University, where he has redshirted since January. Barr is just a junior in high school. In the singles portion of the Palmetto Championships, he beat Mendez, 1-6, 6-3, 6-3; and then lost to Benton, 0-6, 4-6.

Down the street from the Belton Tennis Center, the Subway with the gigantic tennis balls on its windows was busy.

From Abe Hardesty at the Independent-Mail:

As he does when the Chick-fil-A Palmetto Tennis Championships dominate the traffic and conversation in this small town, Subway restaurant owner Gary Horton added extra staff in the past week.

It was a good decision. The line was long and the parking lot was full at noon Tuesday, as Horton and his staff greeted hungry tennis fans for the fourth straight day.

“It’s always one of our best weeks of the year,” Horton said. “The tough part is, the crowds tend to come all at once, when big matches end.”

It has been a good problem for business owners in Anderson and Belton for 58 years. Despite its size and less-than-ideal geographic location, Belton was awarded the host role for the USTA-sanctioned tournament in 1957 and has kept it ever since.

Off-court at the tennis center, a dad coached his son the most important lesson of the championships: appreciation. The father looked his son in the eye and told him, We’re going to walk over to Mr. Maynard, and you’re going to thank him for the great tournament and for letting you play in the tournament. You’re going to tell him how great of a job he did running the tournament.

The father and son soon walked over, father leading the way.

They approached Mr. Rex Maynard, who was glad it was Tuesday, the final day of the five-day Palmetto Championships, South Carolina’s state qualifier for the USTA Southern Closed Championships.

Maynard, in the yellow, is the tournament director of the Palmetto Championships. (USTA SC photo.)

Maynard, in the yellow, is the tournament director of the Palmetto Championships. (USTA SC photo.)

For the 38th consecutive year, Maynard had helped run the tournament. This year, it was again South Carolina’s biggest junior tournament, with 440 players.

Maynard, in between posing for championship photos and gazing at matches, talked about how he and the volunteers had pulled off another Palmetto Championships.

But he was not sad; he was looking forward to the 59th.

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The names of champions remain on the board for a year at the Belton Tennis Center. (USTA SC photo.)

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58 years and counting, Belton and South Carolina’s junior tennis championships

by Jonathon Braden

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BELTON, S.C. – Dozens of South Carolina families this week have traveled here, a town of 4,000 people that, during the next five days, will host the biggest junior tournament in South Carolina, one of the biggest tennis states in the U.S.

And once these families, some of whom left coastal cities with pristine, multi-court tennis facilities, spend some time here and see that Belton has no hotels, only a few chain restaurants and 18 tennis courts total, a few of them are likely to wonder, “Why is a tournament like this held in a town like this?”

Tradition, Rex Maynard, the Palmetto Championships’ longtime tournament director, will tell them, and history.

Maynard grew up in Belton and has lived here almost his entire life. This will be his 38th year of helping run South Carolina’s state qualifying championship.

With the families, he will gladly share stories of backyard tennis courts and friendly homeowners. He will pass along the experiences of so many South Carolina tennis greats – future Division I collegiate tennis coaches, USTA Board Presidents and others – who got their start in Belton and still fondly recall their time here.

He also will say that what makes this confusing to some people – a big tournament held in a shrinking town – is also what makes the Palmetto Championships so special to others – a shrinking town cherishing a big tournament.

“Some people like it and some people don’t,” Maynard said. “And people who don’t understand the history don’t.”

***

There is plenty of history.

Since 1957, the South Carolina junior state championship has been in Belton.

In other words, players have to play in the Belton tournament to advance to the sectional championships and then the national championships.

No tournament in South Carolina has been held in the same place for as many years, and, Maynard guesses, few tennis tournaments in the country have been in the same place for as long.

“Even the US Open moved,” he said.

The junior championships started in Belton because tennis was so popular and had been for decades, Maynard said.

During the first state championships Belton hosted, an 18-year-old boy named Paul from Charleston played in the weeklong tournament.

In Belton, Paul had few worries.

He stayed with the Blake family, where he had his own room. For dinner, the family fed him fried chicken, corn on the cob and okra. Paul also didn’t have to worry about transportation; he could walk to the courts, including the nine private backyard courts the tournament used.

On the last day of the championships, Paul’s Belton experience got even better: he won the championship.

He went onto play at Florida State University and coached there as well. In 1967, he returned to South Carolina and became the coach at Furman University.

Paul Scarpa coached at Furman for 45 years. In 2009, he became the winningest Division I men’s tennis coach in NCAA history.

“(Belton) had a lot to do with my career as a player,” he said. “I still remember and treasure it and cherish the fact that I was there.”

Belton remained important for Scarpa years later when he was looking to recruit South Carolina’s best juniors.

“You could go to Belton and see the best of the best in the state,” said Scarpa, who retired from Furman in 2011. “Everybody was there. Everybody played Belton.”

***

Rex Maynard

Rex Maynard

Belton still gets most of the top juniors, but much has changed since 1957.

For starters, Belton.

When Maynard was a kid, the town had around 5,000 people. Now it has closer to 4,000 people.

Players also don’t stay at people’s houses often; they instead opt for hotels in nearby Anderson.

What courts the players use also has changed.

The tournament no longer sends players to so many backyard courts largely because few have been maintained over the years.

This year, the championship will use only one backyard court.

Instead, the tournament will use 18 courts in Belton and 36 elsewhere in Anderson County, including courts at public parks, universities, private clubs and city-owned sports facilities.

Maynard acknowledges that all the crisscrossing and different host facilities can make it confusing for parents and kids. He also realizes that it can be time-consuming: driving from one Anderson facility to a Belton complex can be a 30-minute drive.

But he also points out that if the tournament were held in a bigger city, parents probably would be driving 30 minutes in between sites there as well, from a facility on one end of the city to a complex on the other side of the city.

“We are in a small community and we don’t have a mega tennis center,” Maynard said. “It makes it special but it also makes it challenging … We try to make that work as best as we can.”

Ryan Young looks back favorably on the setup at Belton.

Young played in Palmetto Championships from 1994 to 2003. By the time he finished, he held the record for the most singles and doubles titles won – 15.

Young, a prolific junior player, experienced all kinds of junior-tournament settings, including the one at Belton, with courts in people’s backyards and smaller tennis facilities, and the settings at most other places, with 16- and 30-court facilities.

Young enjoyed Belton’s intimacy.

When he played in people’s backyards, he said, sometimes the homeowners would talk to him before and after matches and tell him how much they enjoyed watching him play.

Young also liked how, at the Belton Tennis Center, all the fans were close together. The compact crowds helped make matches more exciting.

What Belton brings to the championships – different facilities and engaged crowds – helps make the Palmetto Championships special.

“That’s why Belton is such a tradition, because of the city… it’s heart for the tournament,” said Young, who’s now an assistant men’s tennis coach at USC.  “Belton obviously has a special place in my life.”

***

For all the playing and coaching careers Belton has helped, the championships have probably aided even more tennis volunteers and business professionals.

Include the most prominent South Carolina tennis name on that list: Lucy Garvin.

Garvin served as USTA Board President from 2009 to 2011. As president, she led the board in developing a strategic vision for the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, where the US Open is played. That strategic vision led to last fall’s announcement that the US Open’s biggest stadium will get a roof in the near future.

Garvin also has served on numerous other USTA and International Tennis Federation committees.

But 40 years ago, she was another volunteer in Belton, sitting behind a desk, handing out balls to players and assigning them to courts.

It was at Belton that Garvin said she was introduced to volunteering and refereeing tennis tournaments. For 35 years, she worked with other volunteers to make the tournament as positive of an experience as possible.

“It was something that inspired me to do more,” she said, “and I’m sure it’s played a significant role in my desire to do other things in tennis.”

***

Maynard knows the history, and he also knows the tournament remains strong.

The 440 players in this year’s championships are more than expected. In the 12-and-under division, he said, he had to turn away six kids.

For the next five days, he will sleep less, work more and survive off adrenaline.

Come Wednesday, he might sit down and recall the blur that was the 58th Palmetto Championships.

And, by then, he will have done it once more: Directed South Carolina’s junior state championships in Belton, a small town in love with its tournament.

Seeing SC: Sumter

by Jonathon Braden

 

iPhone photos from a March visit to Sumter. This week, the fine South Carolina city is hosting a USTA Pro Circuit tournament.

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A daily newspaper.

Incredible byline.

Incredible byline.

Home to the USTA Pro Circuit Tournament this week and to many other noteworthy tournaments that help Sumter's economy.

Home to the USTA Pro Circuit Tournament this week and to many other noteworthy tournaments that help Sumter’s economy.

Well done, Sumter.

Well done, Sumter.

Seeing SC: Aiken

by Jonathon Braden

Often on the blog, we share stories with words. This post and future ones with the header, “Seeing SC”, will showcase iPhone photos. Seeing SC will be another way we show off tennis throughout the Palmetto State.

The below photos were captured on a visit to Aiken last month.

Let us know what you think, and where we should visit next.

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The Odell Weeks Tennis Center in Aiken, home of many USTA SC State League Championship teams throughout the years.

 

Further evidence of Aiken's prowess at USTA SC State League Championships.

Inside the tennis center, further evidence of Aiken’s prowess at USTA SC State League Championships.

 

One of the neatest pieces of art I have seen inside a tennis club. Aiken trivia: Can you spot the artist?

One of the neatest pieces of art I have seen inside a tennis club. Insiders answer: Where’s the artist?

 

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Whenever I’m in Aiken, I always catch myself admiring the city’s beautiful, old trees.

Tennis Tip: How To Get To The Party!

by Lauren Stewart

In last month’s Ten Minute Tennis Tip, we discussed the importance of keeping the ball deep. By keeping the ball deep, you will eventually force an error from your opponent, or you will get a weaker, shorter return.

In today’s Ten Minute Tennis Tip, we will talk about how to dictate the point once you receive the weak, short ball, but first we must define what type of short ball we will be working on.

A short ball is a ball you receive that falls in or around the service box from either a weak return or from a weak second serve. We are going to treat these short balls as approach shots.

Think of them as invitations to the party, and the party is at the net. If you rush to the net without an invitation – a short ball – you will be crashing the party, just like our below friends did back in 2005.

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How to return short balls

1. Be Ready

When you are on the baseline in a ground-stroke rally with your opponent, you must be mentally ready for the shorter shot. If you are not anticipating the short return, you will be caught off guard and will not be ready for your shot.

If you are receiving a weak second serve, move forward into the court. This will not only get you into better positioning for your approach, but it will also put pressure on your opponent to get his or her first serve in.

2. Get Perpendicular

When hitting the short return, get your body perpendicular to the net. If you are a right-handed player, your left shoulder should be pointed toward the net when hitting a forehand. If you are a left-handed player, your right shoulder should be pointed toward the het when hitting a forehand. By getting your body perpendicular and your feet balanced, your entire body will be involved in the shot and you will be able to move through the ball toward the party, the net.

3. The Closer You Are To The Net, The More Spin You Need

Remember that you must use topspin or slice with this shot. Flat shots are not the best option for effective approach shots. Topspin can be used more as weapon by swinging the racket fast through the ball with a follow through over your shoulder. Slice will be more of a tool to help keep the ball low, allowing more time to move forward. The shot selection is dependent upon the type of ball you receive. A topspin shot will be easier to hit off of a higher, waist level ball. A slice will be easier to hit off of a lower bouncing ball below waist level.

4. Court Positioning – Singles vs. Doubles

Remember our goal here is to get to the party at the net. After hitting this shot, be sure to move forward. This is an approach; you do not want to be caught standing in no man’s land.

In singles, your approach shot should be hit down the line. You should follow the ball as if there is a magnet on your belly button attached to the ball. You do not want to be standing over the center line in the service boxes for singles. Standing over the center line will leave you vulnerable at the net, leaving too much court open.

In doubles, approach shots should be hit cross-court, and you should follow the ball in at an angle toward the net strap. If you are in the appropriate court positioning at the net after hitting your approach shot, the highest percentage area of the court will be covered, making more difficult for the opponent to pass you.

Live ball practice, two to four people

For this drill, you will need a partner around your skill level.

Start with both players on the baseline hitting cross-court. As soon as someone gets a short ball, approach down the line and move in to play out the point. (If you are practicing doubles, your approach shot should be hit cross-court). To add a little more competition, play to 12 points. If someone moves in to hit an approach shot and gets his or her approach shot in, the point stops and he or she receives 2 points. This forces each player to be ready for the short ball, and it also gives an incentive to move forward.

In your next match, try your best to get to the party! Let us know how it goes, and remember to always keep it between the lines.

Stewart is the director of tennis at The Woodlands Country Club in Columbia, S.C. She also teaches tennis at the University of South Carolina, serves as a presidential appointee on the USTA South Carolina Board of Directors, and is the vice chairperson of the USTA SC Tennis Coaches Committee. Stewart, a Columbia native, played varsity tennis at Heathwood Hall Episcopal School for six years. She also is an alumnus from the College of Charleston, where she also played tennis on a full athletic scholarship.