Through the past two decades, Pilot Pen Tennis has given sports fans a chance to see some of the world's top athletes battle on the hard-court surface at Yale. The tournament, which features singles and doubles brackets for men and women, serves as the primary warm-up for the U.S. Open and is unquestionably one of Connecticut's marquee summer events. Past winners have included all-time greats Steffi Graf and Venus Williams on the women's side with Fairfield native James Blake twice taking the men's singles crown.
But the Pilot Pen offers so much more than the opportunity for tennis aficionados to see their favorite players in person; it is also a chance for families to spend quality bonding time together and for parents to further their children's interest in the sport as they enjoy a leisurely day in New Haven.
Up Close and Personal
As is the case with any professional sporting event, one of the most intriguing aspects of the Pilot Pen is that spectators can get an up-close view of their favorite athletes. Madison resident, Jessica Carr, who was attending the Pilot Pen on Aug. 25 with her parents, Michael and Lisa, said that's one of the most appealing things about the tournament for her.
"It's exciting to sit in stadium court and be so near to people who we'd normally only see on TV," said Carr, 14, a sophomore at Hand. "The Pilot Pen has a good mix of famous players and up-and-coming players and it's cool that we don't have to travel too far to see them play."
Like many people in attendance, Carr and her family were most interested to watch James Blake, who won the tourney in 2005 and 2007. Unfortunately, Blake was eliminated earlier that day as he dropped a straight-sets decision to the Ukraine's Alexandr Dolgopolov. But the good news is that several of the world's best were still in contention entering the latter rounds, such as Marcos Baghdatis, the 2006 Australian Open men's runner-up who won a three-setter versus Juan Ignacio Chela that evening; and fellow rising star Caroline Wozniacki, who was the 2009 U.S. Open women's runner-up and went onto post her third-straight Pilot Pen victory this year.
Another premier player that advanced was Russia's Dinara Safina, who was once the world's top-ranked women's singles player as she was twice the French Open runner-up and also took second at the 2009 Australian Open. Safina had defeated Daniela Hantuchová in a grueling match that saw both sets go to tiebreakers and then took questions in a press conference.
"This tournament is a big event for kids to get to see us play," Safina said. "They may admire us so if they get to watch us and be really close, that's a great thing. Families get to spend time with each other and enjoy a great day."
It's a Family Affair
Safina's comments about Pilot Pen's family-bonding aspect were echoed by numerous other people at the Cullman-Heyman Tennis Center. Two of those people were North Haven residents Julie Kohler and Keith Coppins, who were sitting down for dinner with their seven-year old daughter, Sophie, prior to the night session.
"We both like tennis and would like Sophie to develop an interest in the sport so we want her to see it played live," Kohler said. "It's a terrific environment here and there's just something special about enjoying a match on a summer night so this is a great way for us to spend an evening with her."
Also in attendance was New Haven Mayor John DeStefano, Jr., who expressed a great deal of pride in the fact that the Pilot Pen is a means for families to grow closer.
"The Pilot Pen is a world-class sporting event that is affordable, easy to get to, and has talent that is nearly on par with a Grand Slam, which is why families gravitate towards it," said DeStefano, Jr. "The Pilot Pen also has a year-round presence as it runs grassroots programs that sponsor USTA [United States Tennis Association] camps and that's a great way for kids to be introduced to the sport."
Of course, as much as there's a fun and friendly family atmosphere at the Pilot Pen, let's not forget that tennis is still a competition and many families frequently take the court looking to defeat their loved ones. Well, the Pilot Pen offers something for those folks, too, as each year there is the Family Classic, a parent-child tournament that typically features about 5,000 people who compete in regional brackets throughout New England in hopes that they can advance to the finals at the Pilot Pen and then be presented with their championship trophy between matches on stadium court.
"We're a tennis family and that was loads of fun for us," said Madison's Michael Carr, who won the 14-under division of the Family Classic a few years ago with his son, Ryan, who will play as a freshman at UConn. "It was a unique experience for me to get to play alongside one of my kids and then we got to meet James Blake during the trophy ceremony."
The Pilot Pen's Tennis Industry Marketing Coordinator, Matt Fraenza, a Branford resident, discussed why the Family Classic is such an important part of the event.
"It's all part of what we do, which is to use professional tennis as a way to promote community tennis," Fraenza said. "It's an exciting thing for people of all age groups."
I'm in the Zone.
The SportZone, That Is
Among the many fun things for kids to participate in at the Pilot Pen are the activities at the SportZone, an interactive area with free clinics, games, and prizes for people of all ages, including a 24-foot rock climbing wall, a fast-serve contest, and both mini and regular-sized courts. There are also question-and-answer sessions where kids speak with some of the pros and then get their autographs.
"It's great for the kids that they get to be so close to the athletes," said Stacey Brown, who helps run the SportZone. "They can actually reach out and slap hands with the athletes and that inspires them to get more involved in tennis."
Two youngsters having a good time at the SportZone were Branford residents, Mike Russo and Matt Russo, who are in their senior and sophomore years, respectively, at Hamden Hall.
"It's awesome. You get to hang out and play tennis with your friends," said Matt, whose brother posted a mark of 93 miles per hour in the fast-serve competition. "Everyone looks like they're having so much fun."
Yet as much as the locals enjoy the Pilot Pen's pleasant atmosphere, people come from all around to enjoy a day of tennis, people like Sara and Joseph Cotroneo, who are from Vermont and stopped by the event as part of their vacation with their daughters, Bree, 10, and Tali, 6.
"It's really cool to see pro tennis and do all this fun stuff," said Bree Cotroneo, who had recently gotten an autograph from Australia's Samantha Stosur and reeled of a 53 mile-per-hour serve. "We love tennis and it's nice for us to spend some time as a family here."
Working the Tourney
Of course, not everyone gets to spend their time gallivanting at the Pilot Pen, for it takes a cohesive effort of the event's staff to make things run smoothly. Many of these people work behind the scenes, but some workers are on center stage, or rather, stadium court. These people are the ball boys and ball girls, 10- to 18-year-olds who chase down loose balls during matches and return them to the players.
Two Guilford residents-Sarah Walker and Sarah Durno-did so for the third time at this year's Pilot Pen, and though their duties certainly required a lot of work, the two also had their share of fun.
"It's amazing to see these tennis players right in front of you and then it makes you feel good if they say thank you when you give them a ball," said Durno, 16, a junior at Guilford High School.
Walker, 15, who attends Miss Porter's in Farmington, talked about what the experience means to her.
"You get to watch really good tennis and make friends with people from all around the state," she said. "And you always have good stories to tell people afterwards."
The Fifth and Final Set
All in all, Pilot Pen Tennis offers something for just about everyone, whether you're the fanatic who's glued to each second of the action or a casual fan who wants to spend a summer day in the sun. Tens of thousands of people attend the event each year and if you take a moment to look around, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn't have a smile on their face. Everybody is clearly happy to be there and one person who's as happy as anyone about that is Ron Shaw, the former president and chief operating officer of the Pilot Pen Corporation, who retired in 2007 but still comes back to soak in the positive atmosphere.
"This event is a happening and not just in terms of tennis," Shaw said. "It's an experience for the whole family, which is what we intended from day one."