Bakersfield Tennis Open

Keegan Smith lets loose with a backhand during the Bakersfield Tennis Open.

By Rod Thornburg

It should come as no surprise, really, that in 2016, tennis players on the pro-circuit voted the Bakersfield Tennis Open the best because of this tennis community’s hospitality. We are many things and welcoming and hospitable are at the top of the list.

In 2015, Laurie Haagsma and her husband, Gary, housed a player from Norway for the Open. Adrian Skogeng arrived in town with a racquet and a suitcase. But his lodging was uncertain. “My kids thought I was insane for inviting a stranger to stay with us,” Laurie recalled.

The couple will open their home for the fourth time next month when the 5th Annual United States Tennis Association Men’s Future Pro Tournament rolls into town.

Close to 4,000 people are expected to take in world-class tennis at the Bakersfield Racquet Club March 10-18 where $25,000 in prize money is up for grabs. Past participants have gone on to play at Wimbledon and the U.S. and Australian opens. The 2015 winner, Francis Tiafoe, nearly upset Roger Federer in the first round of last year’s U.S. Open.

The access that local spectators have to these outstanding athletes is unparalleled.

“You are literally 10 feet away, looking through a fence at a guy hitting a 130 mph ball,” said tournament director and Racquet Club pro Mark Fredriksz. “Anywhere else, that view would be a $1,500 seat.”

Hosting the event is a huge undertaking that takes a village of generous tennis lovers from clubs across the city to help with player-personnel, set up, transportation and, of course, housing for officials and players.

“We were so new to the sport that it was wonderful to learn about tennis from a participant’s vantage point and about the financial hardships they face as they chase their dream,” Haagsma added.

Skogeng gained more than just a chauffeur and house-mother for the week. Although he was eliminated early on, a friendship developed and he stayed with the family until the event was over when they drove him to his next tournament in Calabasas.

That same year, the Haagsmas enlisted friends Bennett and Rhonda Slagers to accommodate Abraham Asaba, a native of Ghana. The arrangement was more a cultural exchange than simply a roof over his head. The Slagers and Asaba communicate regularly and consider him like family.

“He is so interested in life and everything about our community so it was fun to expose him to farm life and the dairy,” Rhonda said.

Last year, they provided lodging for two boys from Germany.

“They said it is widely known on the pro circuit that Bakersfield takes care of its players,” she added.

For many athletes, the hospitality of strangers can mean the difference between whether they are able to participate or not. Such is the life of players trying to rise through the ranks.

“You become personally invested in how well they do and they are truly so appreciative of it,” Haagsma said.

The Kern Community Tennis Association will again sponsor a kids day that is open and free to the public. Last year, 120 area youngsters took part in the clinics with the pros, learning how to volley and lob from the sport’s rising stars.

“It is the best nine days of the year,” Fredriksz said. “On that Saturday, when all the courts are being played on, I stand between courts three and four and hear perfectly struck tennis balls. It’s wonderful to work together for a common cause which is the love of the game of tennis.” 

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