[dropcap]“[/dropcap][dropcap]Tulsa[/dropcap] is a great tennis city.”
These are Vince Westbrook’s words, and he should know.
Westbrook, head men’s tennis coach at the University of Tulsa, is the face of tennis in Tulsa, with 25 years of experience coaching at TU and a 375-263 career record. From May 19 through 30, TU will be host to the NCAA Division I Tennis Championships.
This will be the third such championship held at TU’s premier facility, the Michael D. Case Tennis Center, as the university also hosted the men’s championship in 2004 and the combined men’s and women’s championships in 2008.
Westbrook was part of a team instrumental in bringing the NCAA tennis championship to Tulsa for the first time in 2004. Westbrook says the process was started in 2002, and the Case Center itself was the major playing chip in getting the championship.
“The reason it was built was to bring national championships to Tulsa, and since we’ve built it we’ve had more national tournaments than anyone else in the country,” Westbrook says.
The Case Center, completed in late 2001, is considered one of the finest tennis facilities in the country. It has 12 outdoor courts with abundant seating, large scoreboards and live streaming.
“We also have six courts in the indoor facility in case we run into any kind of weather,” Westbrook added.
Vince Trinidad, executive director of the Tulsa Sports Commission (TSC), also noted the Case Center as one of the finest athletic competition facilities in the country.
“You can see matches up close and personal, and it has great seating capacity,” Trinidad says.
The TSC, which is a division of the Tulsa Regional Chamber, is a founding member of the National Association of Sports Commissions and also helped bring the national championships to Tulsa.
“Coach Westbrook is very knowledgeable in the tennis world. Having him and the athletic department have a great rapport with the NCAA was a dealmaker,” Trinidad says. “You want the right players to put together a successful bid, and our hard efforts were rewarded.”
“We work closely with TU,” Trinidad says. “They really help us make sure the student athletes have a great experience. The championship is a great way to showcase the tennis center we have here in the community.”
[pullquote]The NCAA just doesn’t award these championships to anyone,” Salis says. “The NCAA understands and acknowledges Tulsa’s passion and commitment for tennis.”[/pullquote]The Case Center has 69,000 square feet and a capacity of 2,000 people. Its first match was held on January 19, 2002, when TU defeated Oral Roberts University in men’s tennis. The Center is named for Michael D. Case, a developer and philanthropist, and was designed by architect Larry Kester of Architects Collective and built by the Lowry & Hemphill Construction Company.
“Like any athletic competition facility, you want to make sure you have a high level quality of play, and it’s available here,” Trinidad says.
“What can a student athlete or their family members or fans experience at this kind of event?” Trinidad asked. “It should look nice, have a quality feel, and so, when they go to compete, they can perform at their best.”
Trinidad noted that the Case Center has room for people to enter and leave at ease, “shaded areas to sit in, viewable scoreboards and an indoor facility right next to it. Plus, you have the opportunity to be centrally-located in terms of the TU area with recreational opportunities, shopping and more all right there.”
“These types of events we host are extremely important for us overall, as citizens of Oklahoma, to see competition but also aspire to be a part of these competitions,” Trinidad says. “You can’t be a NCAA tennis champion overnight. The student athlete makes the commitment, along with those who support them, to compete, and when you have a championship like this, it highlights the great things happening in our state.”
Nick Salis, TU’s associate athletic director, served as the championships’ co-director for the 2008 NCAA championship and is again in charge as the liaison between the NCAA and TU. Because of his previous experience, Salis says, “I have a better understanding of what was successful and what areas need tweaking this time around. I think the participants, coaches and fans will be very pleased with the championship’s setup this year.”
“The NCAA just doesn’t award these championships to anyone,” Salis says. “The NCAA understands and acknowledges Tulsa’s passion and commitment for tennis.”
“We are grateful to have such a supportive and knowledgeable fan base. Is Tulsa a ‘Tennis Town’? Absolutely!” Salis says. “We have many families already lined up and eager to serve as team hosts. Many community partners have graciously stepped up to provide items for our sponsorship gift baskets. Lastly, but equally as important, we will have over 200 volunteers sign up to help during the championships. These championships cannot happen without a supportive tennis town.”
The NCAA Championship will involve 16 men’s and women’s teams that will compete for the first six days for the team championship. After that, 64 singles players and 32 doubles teams in both men’s and women’s divisions will compete for the remainder of the tournament.
Women’s head coach Dean Orford doesn’t have quite as many years at TU as Westbrook, but he also has an impressive record. In his first 10 years at TU, Orford posted an overall 263-66 record, and he is now in his 11th year.
Orford’s teams have made it to the NCAA tournament in each of the last nine years. They have won six conference championships, and Orford has more wins than any other women’s tennis coach at TU.
[pullquote]The players make it a lot of fun and they make the job easier,” he says. “We’re keeping focused on each match, one at a time, and are trying not to get too excited and get ahead of ourselves.”[/pullquote]Neither Westbrook nor Orford could comment on individual players making it to the tournament, since that had not been determined at press time. However, Westbrook says, “There are 64 teams on each side to get in, and that starts the tournament. Unless something crazy happens, we make the tournament, and the final 16 is like the final four of basketball.”
At press time, TU’s men’s team had just defeated No. 8-ranked Oklahoma State University and were playing strong overall.
In the OSU match, TU players Dominic Bechard and Dylan McCloskey won their doubles match, as did Carlos Bautista and Majed Kilani. Singles players Francois Kellerman, Kilani and Daniel Santos won their singles matches.
Two days after the OSU match, the team also beat Tulane, ranked 21, with impressive wins from Kilani and Bautista again, along with Bechard and McCloskey.
In singles play, TU’s highest ranked player, Or Ram-Harel lost to No. 1-ranked player Dominik Koepfer. Juan Matias Gonzales defeated one of Tulane’s ranked players, and Coach Westbrook said of him in a TU press release, “Gonzalez picked up a big win for us today. Gonzalez has lost some tough matches, but he has won sets against the best players in college and today he finished it off.”
While the women’s team did not fare so well against OSU, they made up for it with Tulane. OSU, ranked 17, beat both of TU’s doubles teams and continued the streak in singles play, with TU either losing each match or having the match not finish.
TU’s Rongrong Leenabanchong, Martha Matoula and Renata Kuricova all won their singles matches, while doubles teams Leenabanchong and Matoula and Saana Saarteinen and Mahitha Dadireddy also won.
Saarteinen, who entered her senior year with a 65-33 singles record and a 56-29 doubles record, tells Oklahoma Magazine, “We are obviously extremely excited about hosting the NCAA championships here at Tulsa. On a personal note, it’s my senior year, and I couldn’t think of a better way to finish my college tennis here in Tulsa.”
Women’s coach Orford says that lots of fortunate happenings have contributed to the success of his tennis team. Mainly, he says, it’s simply the good players.
“The players make it a lot of fun and they make the job easier,” he says. “We’re keeping focused on each match, one at a time, and are trying not to get too excited and get ahead of ourselves.”
Westbrook says of his team, “We’re proud we have made the tournament 15 times. Both our men’s and women’s teams have been nationally ranked among the best U.S. teams.”
“This is a talented group of guys we have,” Westbrook says. We play eight of the top 10 teams day in and day out and have unbelievable schedules. Our whole hope is to peak at the end of the year. Right now we have played 10 straight tennis championships and have won seven of them.
“We are always considered one of the top three teams in the conference to make a run at the championship at the end of the year,” Westbrook adds.
Women’s coach Orford says of TU, “Being a small university, it’s very family oriented – from our teams to our administrative people to our staff. It’s a gratifying place to work. You have the opportunity to succeed at the very highest level.”
“It’s our job to make sure we’re connected to our community, too,” Westbrook says. “We probably raise as much money as any program in the country. We have the support of the Tulsa community, which has given us the advantage to do this competition on a national level. Tulsa is the best place by far for this championship.”
“The neat thing about the NCAA being here for twelve days is they’re going to fill up four or five hotels downtown, and you can imagine the economic impact of that. It will be huge. We will probably quadruple what businesses normally average just because of the NCAA being here,” Westbrook says.
The staff at the Tulsa Sports Commission will also be working to see that the NCAA officials, players, families and fans have a great experience in Tulsa.
“We have a good experience when it comes to joint meetings, where we get to create opportunities outside the courts for people to take advantage of what Tulsa has to offer,” Trinidad says. “We might have a dinner or some other function that highlights something special about Tulsa. We want to make sure they get a chance to see some of the different things that are uniquely Tulsa.”
TU associate athletic director Salis also notes some things his staff is doing to entertain athletes and guests.
“We will be hosting the team celebration at historic Cain’s Ballroom, an evening filled with live entertainment, local barbeque and dancing. But not too much dancing since teams need to compete early the next morning,” Salis says.
Trinidad says that the TSC is continually working to bring other NCAA championships to Tulsa, and in 2017, it has worked with TU scheduled to host the first and second round NCAA tournament in men’s basketball.
“We routinely bid on these kinds of championships, and with TU as an institution that is also a member, we combine its strengths with our own staff strengths to be successful,” Trinidad says.
“When you get to an NCAA event of this magnitude, the competition will be great,” Trinidad says of the tennis championship. “You are going to see some really good matches when you go out there. Towards the end of the May, you can go out there, buy a ticket and watch a super tennis championship.”
“That’s what I love about the Tulsa community – it’s very supportive of collegiate athletics,” Trinidad says. “You may take a grade school child somewhat interested in tennis and have them see this level of competition with this type of facility, and the hope is that it will inspire them to play at any level they want.”
Westbrook noted the Tulsa Sports Commission’s help in getting major sporting events in Tulsa. “The thing about it is to go back to the whole preface for why the facility [the Case Center] was built: People put up the money to bring other people to the city.”
“For the city, this is a great opportunity to watch kids who are going to go on the circuit, perhaps the pro circuit eventually,” Westbrook says. “But for the pro circuit you have to be 26 or 27, so college has become a minor league system for the pros. College is now like a semi-pro tennis league. And Tulsa is a great tennis city.”
Tickets to the championship can be purchased online at tulsahurricane.com. Adult tickets for the entire 12-day event are $125 and children’s tickets are $75. Individual session tickets can be purchased on the day of the event and are $15 for adults and $8 for children.