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Florence Officials Rethink USTA Pro Circuit Tournament

October 17, 2014 11:47 AM

FLORENCE, S.C. – The core of the USTA Pro Circuit tournament here remains unchanged from its first two years. Still a week of fun-to-watch tennis. Still held at the 30-court Dr. Eddie Floyd Florence Tennis Center.

But, to draw more than just tennis fans to the tournament, officials have changed most everything else.

Start with the name. It was called the Florence Open. This year, the "McLeod for Health Florence Open" because officials secured a local sponsor.

Organizers also have a tournament benefactor for the first time, the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

They also have tried to change the feel of the entire week. Think more festival with friends than a tournament with players you've probably never heard of. Since Saturday, organizers have hosted a fun 5K walk and run, free beginner tennis lessons, a wheelchair tennis clinic and three high school meets.

"The idea was to get people exposed to tennis and to get them out here," said Darlene Buchanan, the City of Florence's recreation division manager.

Fans enjoy the McLeod for Health Florence Open. Officials hope to see 500 people on Sunday.


City officials also want this tournament to be part of Florence and an event that helps grow their city – population, 37,792  rather than just weeklong blip in the area.

"People are realizing, you don't have the big towns hosting (tournaments), and here it is in Florence, South Carolina," said Mary Jane Weir, who serves on a tournament volunteer committee. "I think it helps sell Florence."

She would know what sells here. Weir grew up in Florence but spent nearly 30 years living elsewhere, including in Georgia and Ohio, before moving back two years ago.

Buchanan said the new promotional efforts all started after last year's tournament, when tennis fans and city officials realized they should try to do more to grow their professional tennis tournament.

So far, they've seen encouraging signs.

Attendance at weekday evening matches earlier this week was about 200 people, Buchanan said. To compare, during the tournament's championship match on a Sunday afternoon its first year, only about 100 people came, she said.

Buchanan has also seen more people watching tennis throughout the day. Fans sit atop the balcony of the Florence tennis center or in wooden chairs and metal seats under the center's upper deck, shielded from the sun. Either place, the attraction has been quality tennis, including US Open darling CiCi Bellis and Tornado Alicia Black, another talented young American.

This week marked the second consecutive year David Hanna has attended the tournament. Hanna, the retired longtime softball coach at Coker College in nearby Hartsville, has watched big tennis tournaments on TV the past 40 years but, until last year, had never seen live tennis.

"(The play is) just so much quicker in person," Hanna said.

A few people down from him, Weir was evangelizing the good word. She had brought a colleague in town from St. Louis to watch tennis with her during their lunch break.

It is inspiring to see city and tennis officials take ownership of a USTA Pro Circuit tournament and want to make it their US Open. Last week, in Rock Hill, city officials and volunteers were doing similar work to grow the Rock Hill Rocks Open.

Kristie Ahn of the U.S. competes in first-round action on Wednesday at the McLeod for Health Florence Open.


In Florence, all their work is leading to Sunday, the day of the tournament's championship matches. Organizers set the day's schedule according to their community, Buchanan said. Matches start at 1 p.m., giving everyone should have time for church and family in the morning. Buchanan is hoping to see 500 people.

You can bet Hanna will be there, in a chair, in the shade.

Earlier this week, he knew he was watching the future of tennis. As he watched Bellis, he remarked how he might see some of these Florence players again one day, on TV, competing in tournaments much bigger than the McLeod for Health Florence Open.

Hanna looked forward to the occasion.

"You'll be able to sit back and say, 'I saw them back in Florence,'" he said. "Who would have thought that?"