It's just tennis, so what's the big deal? Never were truer words spoken … at least by me. That was the title of my previous appearance in Community Voices published March 11, 2020. The world as we knew it came to a screeching halt just a few days later. The professional tennis tournament that was that column’s focus was canceled with 48 hours’ notice and would not return to Bakersfield for two years.
However, with people suffering, businesses closing, and confusion reigning supreme; tennis was certainly NOT a “big deal.” Whether you believe the pandemic response was well or mishandled, it is safe to say that we all appreciate the restoration of at least most of our old normal. Many suffered irretrievable losses and lasting damage. There is still much work to be done, but the recoveries in physical, mental and economic health must be appreciated.
This is a glimpse of that progress in our community through a tennis lens. The ninth iteration of the Bakersfield Tennis Open (March 13–19) will again attract top-ranked young professionals from around the world to compete for $25,000 in prize money and tickets to larger stages.
BTOpen alumni continue to make us proud. Last year’s winner, Rinky Hijikata, went on to win the Australian Open Men’s Doubles title in January. Jenson Brooksby won his first professional tournament at the 2019 BTOpen and is now ranked No. 36 in the world. Frances Tiafoe’s first win was the 2015 BTOpen, and his world ranking is now No. 15. Taylor Fritz leads the resurgence of U.S. men’s tennis with his No. 5 world ranking.
These stories (and many more) make the BTOpen the perfect place to see tomorrow’s stars from a courtside seat … with no admission charge. Players of this caliber are attracted because the tournament has earned a first-class reputation. Bakersfield Racquet Club provides a beautiful facility, dedicated volunteers ensure the tournament operation is flawless, generous sponsors provide a strong financial base, and a welcoming community hosts many of the players in their own homes.
The Kern Community Tennis Association sponsors two events during the BTOpen. High School Team Night will treat 250 players to pizza, ice cream and an evening of great tennis. Kids’ Day (open to the public) will provide instruction and lunch to 150 young players. KCTA has been serving our community for nearly 60 years, but the focus since 2018 has been on supporting underserved youth.
Each year hundreds of aspiring high school players were being denied the physical, social and academic benefits of after-school sports because they could not afford the proper equipment. KCTA has donated 1,300 racquets, 1,200 pairs of shoes, and 27,000 practice balls to eliminate that barrier. With the help of KCTA, high school participation numbers in this wholesome activity have rebounded to pre-COVID levels.
Under the leadership of Noel Dalton (WSC 2022 coach of the year) and Marc Gomez, Bakersfield College Tennis is enjoying a renaissance. The women earned a berth in the 2022 state playoffs and are 5-1 in conference this season. The men have their best team in years with two international recruits and the top talent from seven local high schools … including the state’s only father-son combination, Son and Sage Nguyen.
That recipe delivers a competitive squad while providing great development opportunities for local players — approximately 50 percent have interest from four-year schools. The accomplishments off the court are equally impressive with excellence in the classroom being the norm. Team members are giving back through their participation in programs like Read Across America and Special Olympics. They are putting the “community” back in community college.
The BC men will host the second annual Pfister Cup Tournament on March 17-18. This tournament is named for Bakersfield tennis icon and BC Hall of Fame member Hank Pfister. It features six of the state’s top junior college teams in a North versus South format. The matches will be played at local private clubs, and admission is free. The beautiful venues and well-organized tournament have already made this a coveted invitation.
Net (pun intended), there are many good things going on, and we invite you to come out and enjoy some “normal” with us.
Jerry Matthews, following a career in Frito-Lay operations, is devoting his retirement to a quest to find the perfect backhand.