We see the wins, the trophies, the big checks, even a peek into the celebrations, the entourages and all the goodies that accompany life as a pro tennis player. Then, nibbling into all corners, comes the rest.
Great Britain’s Johanna Konta woke up at 5:30 a.m. Monday morning in a downtown Charleston hotel room, entered in the main draw of the Volvo Car Open for the first time (she’d lost in the first round of qualifying six years ago). It had been a weekend like none in Konta’s tennis life. Just two years earlier, Konta had lost in the qualifying of the Miami Open. Now she was, to steal a metaphor from her homeland, queen of the world. She’d won the tournament, pocketed $950,000 and reached a career high ranking of seven. Her rise, Konta noted, had taken, “many, many years of hard work.”
But by Monday, Konta knew it was going to be a hard day. A shoulder injury that had started to nag her from the start of Miami had gotten worse. She’d also started to feel sick during that tournament. And so she made a hard decision, withdrawing from Charleston. While other players might merely issue a statement, Konta on Monday afternoon explained all this to the media. Alas, the Volvo Car Open had lost its second seed.
Earlier in the day, as Konta and the tournament staff scurried to engage the withdrawal sequence, fans and players made their way in for day one. Monday morning was the hopeful stage, of an event alive with possibilities for anyone from a random qualifier to past champions and current contenders. Transportation vans – all Volvos of course at this event – fetched and delivered players and various others. Special areas such as the big clubhouse that sits at the north end of the tidy 1,500-seat Althea Gibson Club Court teemed with entourages – coaches, parents, physios and other assorted tennis folk -- as tournament volunteers hustled to keep the room clean and fill glass jars with small chocolate bars and tart candies. Fans strolled through exhibits – USTA, insurance, cell phone tools – and began to scarf up the sweet and salty (personal favorite: the BKeD pretzel).
Konta’s withdrawal, however seismic, might strongly rattle some events. But not this one, which besides having a robust 56-player draw, also has a longstanding county fair atmosphere that compels both fans and players. Five-plus hours after Konta had awakened to a sober reality, 50 yards east of the Althea Gibson Club Court, Venus Williams practiced her volleys – delicately, one backhand volley after another, sharply clipping each with the delicacy of a barber. Williams’ one title here came back in 2004. She was 23 then, already a decade into her career. Now, Venus was 36, hardly an ornament but back in the top ten. “I love South Carolina,” she said. “I could live here. I’m not a city girl. Here you can take your dog for a walk, see the water, such nice people.”
So there it was – Konta out, Venus in. Konta, 25 years old, vowed to return to Charleston. Venus, surprisingly pushing back the midnight of her career, admitted that she conceived her arc in Olympic cycles, with the hopeful plan of competing at the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, set to happen one month after she turns 40. As Venus said, “Normal is overrated.”
It was time for another pretzel.