Sunday, April 20, 2008

Past champions honored in Charleston

On Saturday, between matches, a parade of former champions appeared on Stadium Court. Rosie Casals, Conchita Martinez, Jelena Jankovic, Martina Navratilova, and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario all walked out and greeted the crowd, and then came the clay court queen of all time--Chris Evert, who won the tournament eight times.

Casals was the first Family Circle Cup winner, in 1973. Unseeded, she was down 1-5 in the third against clay specialist Nancy Richey, and she then used an array of clay court shots--especially drop shots--to go up 5-3. She was broken, however, but won the match--and the tournament--in the tiebreak.

Casals said a few words (she spoke at length that morning at the breakfast event), then Sanchez Vicario spoke on behalf of all the former champions, thanking Family Circle for thirty-five years of sponsorship. This is the longest continuous sponsorship in professional tennis. The first purse, $30,000 was--at the time--the most prize money ever paid to a tennis player, man or woman, at any tournament, including the majors.

Evert and Casals then shared their memories of Lee Jackson, who died recently. Jackson was an umpire and mother figure for the women who competed in the early stages of the tour. She sometimes took her shoes off while she was in the umpire's chair, and Evert said that she and Navratilova used to steal them and put them on the court far away from Jackson's chair. She also talked about the dinners Jackson prepared for the women, and how they all called her "Mama Lee." Tournament director Robin Reynolds then presented a plaque in memory of Jackson, and that plaque was placed on the back of the umpire's chair, where it will remain.

Instead of presenting the Meredith Award, established in 2006, the Meredith Corporation presented gifts to each of the returning champions. And commemorative plates signed by the top eight seeds were presented to Casals and Jack Jones, one of the co-founders of the Family Circle Cup.

As the former champions left the court, Navratilova took a slow walk, repeatedly turning to the crowd and waving. A wonderful, and very funny, press conference with her and Evert is transcribed here.

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