On USTA Pro Circuit, players’ frugal ways create interesting matchup

by Jonathon Braden

ROCK HILL, S.C. – Tuesday evening, Janina Toljan and Karolina Wlodarczak slept down the hall from each other at the Christopher home in Rock Hill. Wednesday morning, they were playing each other in the first round of Rock Hill Rocks Open, the USTA Pro Circuit tournament being held in Rock Hill.

Their host parents, Chris Christopher and his wife, Barbara, even came to watch. “I’ll be cheering for every point,” Chris Christopher said before the match.

Jokes aside, the first-round matchup highlighted the crucial role families like the Christophers play in the USTA Pro Circuit system.

All Pro Circuit players, even those receiving money from family, mind their budgets because of the meager prize money. And airfare and hotel stays take the most out of players’ bank accounts. It’s hard for players to get around flying to some tournaments, but if they can find free housing while playing in a tournament, the players can save enough for their next flight and more.

Wlodarczak (Tim Hartis/Rock Hill Rocks Open photo)

Wlodarczak (Tim Hartis/Rock Hill Rocks Open photo)

“That’s what you have to do,” Wlodarczak said of staying with families.

She’s been playing club tennis in Europe and professional tournaments for the past four years.

Danielle Lao might have had other plans this week if Rock Hill families weren’t welcoming players. This week, she’s been staying with the Miller family of Rock Hill.

“If I were to pay for a hotel every week, there’s no way I could do this,” Lao said.

She has been playing in USTA Pro Circuit tournaments since she finished her playing career at the University of Southern California and graduated in May 2013. After graduation, Lao thought about using her communications degree and pursuing full-time work instead of playing on the USTA Pro Circuit.

But her college coaches told her she would be young only once, and that if she didn’t seriously pursue tennis now, she would soon be 35 and full of regret.

“They were right,” Lao said. “I decided I still wanted to play tennis and here I am, a year later.”

Lao, who grew up in Los Angeles, particularly enjoys Southern tournaments because she gets to enjoy families’ “Southern hospitality.”

Before Lao and the two other players staying at Alison Miller’s home arrived, Miller went to Costco and stocked her cart with healthy proteins and carbohydrates, including mahi mahi, salmon, chicken, black rice and whole grain bread. Miller, who also hosted players last year, learned then that most players don’t prefer carbs that can leave you feeling full, such as lasagna and spaghetti.

During the mornings the players played, Miller also cooked cheesy eggs. She even let Lao drive the family’s 1995 Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo.

“The South really does humble a California girl,” Lao said.

Barbara Christopher, who is hosting four players, followed similar preparation plans as Miller. Christopher also made sure to show her players where the pots, pans and dishes were in case the players wanted to do their own cooking, which they have, she said.

Lao estimates that if families like the Millers and the Christophers didn’t open their homes and pantries to USTA Pro Circuit players, half the players would have to quit.

“It’s just nice for me to know that there are other people outside my family who really care,” Lao said. “It really makes me believe in the human race.”

The families like the arrangements as well.

Miller has enjoyed observing the players’ discipline, how they’ve been quiet by 10 p.m. every night and how they’re already sipping coffee at the table before 7 a.m.

The Christopher family appreciates getting to know the players beyond how well they hit their forehands.

The perfect matchup for the Christopher family, however, did not last long in Rock Hill.

In the battle of housemates, Wlodarczak retired down 1-2 against Toljan because of a back injury.

“At least one of us gets to move on,” Wlodarczak said. “I’m hoping she does well in her next match and keeps representing the Christopher household.”