Get to Know: Kelly Gaines
(Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of stories featuring players, tournament officials, sponsors, volunteers and others involved with this year’s Winston-Salem Open.)
By John Delong
As the executive director of USTA North Carolina, Kelly Gaines is on a mission to promote the growth and development of tennis throughout the state.
The Winston-Salem Open offers Gaines and her Greensboro-based staff a fabulous opportunity to do precisely that.
Gaines and her staff work in conjunction with tournament officials on a variety of fronts, and the result is a win-win-win situation for the Winston-Salem Open, USTA North Carolina, and tennis fans from ages five to 85.
During the course of tournament week, Gaines helps organize Chick-fil-A Kids Day, plus a special USTA Play Day for youngsters up to age 10, plus USTA Member Appreciation Day and a variety of exhibitions held before the evening session matches. And, Gaines and her staff also operate an information booth throughout the week to help further the cause.
"Kelly is the greatest, and it is such a pleasure working with her," Winston-Salem Open associate tournament director Amy Schultz said. "Her entire staff is great. They do this 365 days a year and they know what they’re doing, so they’re easy to work with. We’re so fortunate to have such a good relationship with them."
Gaines returns the compliment. She notes that Schultz came to the Winston-Salem Open from the USTA national offices in White Plains, N.Y., and tournament director Bill Oakes spent several years at the USTA Southern Section in Atlanta. So everyone is on the same page.
"We’re just honored that the Winston-Salem Open is a partner," Gaines said. "I think we have a great partnership, and we’re sort of a natural because Bill and Amy have USTA backgrounds. They know what we do, so it made it easier to walk in last year. They were like, ‘Here you go, this is what you do.’ So I think it’s a perfect hand-in-glove operation with them as partners, and it seems like it was from the beginning."
Gaines’ priorities during tournament week are focused largely on young players.
That shows in two forms – the Chick-fil-A Kids Day and the USTA Play Day.
The Chick-fil-A Kids Day was a huge success last season. About 250 youngsters and more than 50 volunteers participated in a morning session at the Wake Forest Indoor Tennis facility. They played tennis, played other games, met mascots, posed for pictures and won a variety of prizes.
This year’s Chick-fil-A Kids Day is scheduled for Monday, Aug. 20. Because of size limitations and fire codes at the Wake Forest Indoor Tennis Center, attendance is limited to those who qualify and register through Winston-Salem Parks and Recreation programs.
"Kids Day is designed for kids that maybe have not played that much tennis," Gaines said. "They hit for prizes, play games involved with hitting a tennis ball, that sort of thing. Basically we just want them to go away knowing that they’ve played tennis and they’ve had a good time at whatever level they played at, and hopefully they’ll want to continue to play."
Gaines stressed that participants must go through the Winston-Salem Parks and Recreation Department.
"The way in which one would be able to participate would be if they are in a Winston-Salem Parks and Recreation summer program at a rec center and they would go through that rec center to sign up," Gaines aid. "We would love to open it up to 1,000 kids, but right now, that’s just impossible."
The USTA Play Day is scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 18, also at the Wake Forest Indoor Tennis Center. So while professionals are going through qualifying on the Wake Forest Tennis Center outdoor courts, youngsters can play inside.
"It’s basically a two-hour period where kids 10-under are welcome to participate in some supervised play," Gaines said. "The 9-10-year-olds will be on a 60-foot court, and kids 8-under will be on a 36-foot court. They’ll play games, and they’ll rotate, and play again. There’s no winner or loser, it’s just fun. There’s probably be a few surprises there with visitors and a few treats. It’s still in the planning stages right now. We’ll have all the details on our website (
www.nctennis.com) and the Winston-Salem Open website (www.winstonsalemopen.com)."
The goal of all this, of course, is to raise interest in the sport and perhaps spawn the development of a future Winston-Salem Open champion. Remember, WSO defending champion John Isner learned the game while playing on public courts growing up in Greensboro.
"John toiled away in junior tennis in North Carolina, and so our kids now are able to see him and say, ‘Maybe me,’" Gaines said. "I was talking to the mother of a kid who could very well eventually be doing what John is doing, and to see John up close and personal, and not just on TV, I think makes a big difference."
Other activities Gaines and her staff are involved with include the USTA Member Appreciation Day (Wednesday, Aug. 22), and pre-match exhibitions featuring those involved in Special Olympics and Wheelchair Tennis.
"The Winston-Salem Open is going to attract tennis fans that are already in the know, but what I think is so neat is it also attracts just sports fans who just know that this is a top-quality event with top-quality athletes," Gaines said. "No matter who you are, you’re always drawn to that as a sports fan, and that allows us to reach out and touch those folks and maybe let them see a different side of tennis other than just Andy Roddick’s serve."
Of course, the Winston-Salem Open takes up just one week of Gaines’ busy schedule.
During the course of a year, USTA North Carolina runs 10 different state-level league tournaments, and it sanctions close to 300 tournaments. USTA North Carolina is also responsible for rankings, and works with parks and recreation departments, after-school programs, Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs and various other organizations to promote the game.
USTA North Carolina currently has more than 36,000 members.
Gaines, who coached women’s tennis at N.C. State for eight years before becoming executive director of USTA North Carolina 16 years ago, has a staff of 11.
They include Gwenda Priest (executive assistant), Dan Holman (director of junior player development and tournament tennis), Jane Scott (tournament and competition coordinator), Mary Lloyd Barbera (director of marketing, membership and special events), Matt Gottfried (marketing and communiations director), Chris Bryce (director of adult league tennis), Jenny Phelps (adult league events coordinator), Amy Franklin (director of community development, outreach and training), Caroline Downs (junior and college league coordinator), Tyson Thompson (community training and program coordinator), and Cy King (N.C. Tennis representative).
Like Schultz says, they’re the best.
"We’ve got an incredible staff," Gaines said. "Our folks are very professional with a lot of talent. My first job is trying to manage that talent and keep them happy and keep them moving forward. That’s the No. 1 hat I wear, I work for them. Second, we serve a game we love. It’s filled with people that are so incredible, with the different leagues and programs we have. So my job, really, is just stay out of the way and be there when help is needed. I just try to keep the train on the right track."