Climbing the rungs of the professional sports ladder can make athletes feel like vagabonds.
For the young tennis pros on the USTA Futures circuit, that's definitely the case. Many live out of a suitcase, traveling all over the world playing in small events trying to earn points and money in hopes of ultimately gaining access to Wimbledon, the U.S. Open or other main-stage events.
When Edwardsville entered the Futures Tour in 2011, players began flocking to the new event. Many players stay in hotels, but some need help with housing, bringing about the need for host families.
During the main draw of this year’s Edwardsville Futures tournament, which concluded Sunday, roughly 10 of the 32 players stayed with Edwardsville/Glen Carbon families.
For the last four years, Sharla McGinnis has been in charge of finding housing for those players that need help. Members of the Edwardsville/Glen Carbon community have offered assistance with open arms, she said.
“I go to the families of the boys' and girls' tennis teams and ask. I go to my neighbors and ask,” McGinnis said. “Sometimes it works, but it's summer and people go on vacation, so it doesn't always work.
“I definitely have people that want to house year after year, but people go on vacation and things happen so we're always needing more housing. I always tell people it can be as simple as an air mattress or bed and maybe some bananas and gatorade and breakfast in the morning because they're gone all day.”
One of those Edwardsville residents who has stepped up to help players in need is Pete Fornof. This year, Fornof was fortunate enough to land a return guest in Martin Redlicki.
Redlicki, a UCLA player who teamed with Mackenzie McDonald to win an NCAA doubles national title this season, played in Edwardsville two years ago and stayed with Fornof then as well. Fornof admitted it's nice to have that familiarity.
“You pretty much know what they like, what their food needs are and with the great restaurants in Edwardsville and the area I like to take them there,” Fornof said. “I introduced Martin to toasted ravioli two years ago, so we had to go to Bella Milano and get some toasted ravioli this time. Of course Cleveland Heath is a stop, and he wants to hit some of the news ones like Catrina's.”
Redlicki admitted having the opportunity to make connections with host families is a huge portion of the experience of playing on the Futures Tour.
“Getting to meet people from different parts of the country and different parts of the world, it's just a unique experience that you usually don't get,” Redlicki said. “It makes it really, really special for those weeks out on the road.”
Redlicki, like many of the players that need housing, is a collegiate player. That means he can't accept any prize money due to NCAA rules. It also limits the number of tournaments per year he's able to attend.
“Most of us are college players so we don't really have time to play a full schedule like we ideally would to get points and build our rankings,” Redlicki said. “If we can play 6 to 8 weeks during the summer, that's a pretty good schedule.”
While the housing eases the financial strain, Redlicki pointed out that's not the most important aspect of it. It's about building relationships and having an enjoyable experience.
“The thing about housing is people say, 'Oh, it's great because of the cost.' It helps you financially, which is true and great, but the biggest thing is when you stay with a host family you get to meet people and make connections with people,” Redlicki said. “You're not stuck in a hotel room all day, you're out doing things. It makes the tournament experience totally different and that much more enjoyable.”
McGinnis and her family have housed players in the past, and she agrees with the sentiment of forming lasting relationships.
“(My husband) Kevin and I are from Champaign/Urbana and we know (U of I head men's tennis coach) Brad Dancer and have gotten to know his players over the years, and they've stayed at our house and we've gone to their matches,” McGinnis said. “It's just a great, great experience to have in the house. We've formed some lifetime friendships for sure.”
She said it helps that the players have been so great. None of the housing families have encountered any incidents or problems from the players they've accommodated.
“The players are always gracious and the hosts are always very complimentary of the players,” McGinnis said.
Fornof joked that maybe the only problem a housing family could encounter is feeding a hungry young man. It's something he doesn't mind dealing with, though.
“When I was that age I ate a lot, too, and then you add the grind of tennis on top of that and they're pulling in some calories,” Fornof said with a chuckle. “They do eat a lot, but it's fine. It's worth it.”
Redlicki noted that players attempt to keep their host families abreast of their careers, as well as check for updates from them. It's part of the whole connection.
“We try and keep in touch with our host families as much as we can wherever we stay,” Redlicki said. “We update them on our results and how we're doing and ask them how they're doing. You definitely try to keep that connection alive.”
Fornof believes the people in Edwardsville/Glen Carbon are a huge reason why it works so well for the Edwardsville Futures.
“I think people in Edwardsville are very hospitable, and this is a way to offer our hospitality to people coming in from all over,” Fornof said. “They appreciate and remember Edwardsville because the host families go all out and take care of these guys.”
“It's the little things that make the biggest difference,” he said.