By John Delong
The Winston-Salem Open has been showered with honors lately, and tournament officials are both excited and humbled.
First came news that the Winston-Salem Open had been selected as the Special Tennis Event of the Year by the N.C. Tennis Foundation. The ceremony will take place at N.C. Tennis’ annual awards banquet in Pinehurst on Jan. 26.
Then came news that the WSO had also been chosen as the USTA Southern Section’s Special Event of the Year. That ceremony will take place at the Southern Section’s annual meeting in Atlanta on Jan. 12.
Tournament director Bill Oakes will accept the awards on the Winston-Salem Open’s behalf, and he will do so with great pride.
Oakes said that the honors are a tribute to all the hard work that staff, sponsors, volunteers and the Winston-Salem community at large have put in to make the Winston-Salem Open so successful in its first two years.
Greensboro native John Isner successfully defended his title in 2012, prevailing against a stellar field that included Top Ten talents Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych and long-time Winston-Salem favorites Andy Roddick and James Blake.
"We’re really honored to be recognized by, basically, our peers – tennis folks saying we’re doing a good job," Oakes said. "We couldn’t be any happier. We’re pleasantly surprised. I really didn’t expect these awards for the tournament, but I think it’s deserved. The volunteers, the staff, the folks in Winston-Salem have really done a great job of welcoming the pros to little old Winston-Salem. So I think it’s very positive for the community and it shows we’re on the right track."
The award from the N.C. Tennis Foundation is particularly meaningful because the Winston-Salem Open has worked hand in hand with Kelly Gaines and her staff at USTA North Carolina (N.C. Tennis) from the moment Winston-Salem landed the ATP World Tour event.
The most-visible collaboration between the tournament and N.C. Tennis is the wildly popular Chick-fil-A Kids Day held at the Wake Forest Indoor Tennis Center during tournament week. That event draws more than 300 youth and volunteers.
Oakes can’t express his gratitude enough for the relationship the tournament has with N.C. Tennis.
"Kelly Gaines and the staff at USTA North Carolina, they’re really in tune with what’s going on in the tennis community throughout the state," Oakes said. "They are recognized as the best state association in the United States, without question. I’m not saying that just to pander, it really is true. I think she and her staff have done a great job.
"Where it helps us is, it helps us to leverage the event so people throughout the state know what’s going on. Kelly has been very helpful with running kids’ events and other grassroots programs to help the tournament. When we came here two years ago, they were the first ones who reached out and said, ‘We’re here to help.’ That goes a long way. Not every USTA state organization is like that. I’ve put on events all over the country and it really is a pleasant relationship where we’re working together. So we couldn’t be happier with our relationship, and we couldn’t be happier accepting this award."
The award from the USTA Southern Section is also particularly meaningful, because of the size and stature of the organization. The USTA Southern Section encompasses nine states – Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee – and its 178,000 USTA members equates to about one-fourth of the USTA’s total membership.
"We didn’t know we were nominated, so it was a pleasant surprise," Oakes said. "It’s a nine-state section, so for us to be recognized when there are a number of other great events throughout the section, whether it be the ATP events in Memphis and Atlanta, the WTA events in Charleston and Memphis, or the plethora of other events that are charity events and special events, we were humbled to get that award. But again, a lot of it goes back to the work that gets done within the community by our volunteers, our volunteer board of directors and the staff to put us into position to receive this award."