Joel Drucker: Message from Charleston – Now, Then, Then, Now

“The past is never dead,” said the bard of the South, William Faulkner. “It’s not even past.” Of course, in most cases, Faulkner’s vision was aimed at his region’s complicated connection to America – to slavery, the Civil War and the aftershocks that have echoed through the South for decades.

Here in Charleston, Faulkner’s premise can even be felt around the tennis at the Volvo Car Open – for worse, for better, the history of this charming city and kindly tournament a procession through boulevards and monuments, tennis and time. In 2000, Serena Williams withdrew from the event in support of the NAACP’s boycott of South Carolina as a result of the Confederate flag flying above the state capital dome. But two years later, Serena would come to Charleston, to this date winning the title twice.

One of Charleston’s major streets -- Calhoun Street -- is named for John C. Calhoun, who in the first half of the 19th century served the United States as a congressman, senator, secretary of state and vice president. Calhoun was also a strong advocate of states rights and, by extension, slavery. The street that bears his name reaches its eastern end at the site of Sunday’s night player party, the beautiful South Carolina Aquarium, which opened in 2000.

Immediately south of the Aquarium is the Fort Sumter National Monument, the place where in 1861, the Confederacy fired the opening shots of the Civil War – if you will, an opening service break at love. Fast forward 154 years to the tragic 2015 Charleston massacre, nine people shot to death by a white supremacist. “A man is the sum of his misfortune,” wrote Faulkner in “The Sound and the Fury.” “One day you’d think misfortune would get tired but then time is your misfortune.”

History’s twists and turns shape the Volvo Car Open in subtle ways. The tournament’s second show court is named for a distinguished native daughter. In 1927, African-American Althea Gibson was born in Silver, South Carolina, just under 90 miles due north from the tournament’s current venue. Gibson left the South at age three and picked up tennis in Harlem, New York. Alas, per the exclusionary culture of tennis, she was initially denied the chance to compete at such venues as Forest Hills (site of the US Championships) and Wimbledon.

But Gibson was clearly a first-rate player. Fortunately, a public letter written in 1950 by the great champion, Alice Marble, proved the tipping point for Gibson at last getting the chance to compete anywhere she wanted. By 1957, Gibson was number one in the world. A couple of years later, in Southern California, Marble began to work with an eager teen from Long Beach named Billie Jean Moffitt. Moffitt, who cited Gibson’s attacking game as a source of inspiration for her own net-rushing style and, later became known to the world as Billie Jean King.

Walk up the stairs of the clubhouse at the north end of the Althea Gibson Club Court and you’ll see a black and white photo of King and eight of her peers. This was the infamous troupe of tennis rebels known as “The Original Nine,” the women who in the fall of 1970 signed contracts with World Tennis Magazine publisher Gladys Heldman to start the first full-fledged women’s pro tour, the Virginia Slims Circuit. One of that rebel movement’s crowning achievements came in the spring of 1973 with the creation of the Family Circle Cup, a South Carolina-based tournament offering the unprecedented pursue of $100,000 and coverage of the finals on NBC.

Tumble the dial on the way-back machine 44 years forward and we now have the Volvo Car Open, a grand tennis center in Charleston, a $776,000 purse and first-to-last ball coverage on Tennis Channel. Gibson to Marble, Marble to King, King to Serena with dozens more in between. Per Faulkner, “It's all now you see: tomorrow began yesterday and yesterday won't be over until tomorrow.”

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