There’s something special – and very Vero – about the King of the Hill tennis tournament, which begins Tuesday at The Moorings.
Maybe it’s the charitable nature of the annual, in-season affair that began in 1996 and, for more than 20 years, has raised money for Youth Guidance of Indian River County.
Maybe it’s the enthusiasm with which current and former teaching pros from throughout the area continue to support the cause, dutifully showing up every year and treating a tennis-loving community to six weeks of spirited, fun-filled and entertaining doubles competition.
Maybe it’s simply the wonderful way so many of us here have embraced this evening event and made it the can’t-miss, small-town happening it has become.
Probably, it’s some combination of all of the above.
“Over the years, little by little, because of the players and the sponsors and the spectators, the King of the Hill has become a traditional community event,” said Gigi Casapu, the longtime local teaching pro who founded and still organizes the tournament.
“Not only do people look forward to it every year, but everybody respects what we’re doing, particularly in the tennis community,” he added. “Nobody schedules things during those weeks that would create a conflict.”
Ask anyone who has attended a King of the Hill night in recent years and they’ll tell you: There is a Rockwellian feel to the event.
There’s the support for a worthwhile cause. There are local pros playing in front of a local crowd that, in most cases, knows them personally. There’s also a social aspect.
“A lot of people go out there to see their friends in the tennis community and socialize,” said Tom Collins, a former John’s Island tennis director whose Vero Beach insurance agency has been a King of the Hill sponsor for nearly 20 years. “At the same time . . . the level of tennis is excellent.”
Mardy Fish Children’s Foundation, which runs the annual United States Tennis Association Futures tournament at Grand Harbor in April, will offer the King of the Hill’s Open Division winner and runner-up a wild-card spot in the main draw of the Pro Circuit event’s doubles competition.
Last year, that berth went to King of the Hill champion James Van Deinse of the Vero Beach Tennis Club and runner-up Andrew Butz, a former St. Edward’s School and University of Florida player.
This year, 32 pros will compete in three divisions – 16 in the Open and eight each in the 40-and-over and 50-and-over divisions. The semifinals in both the 40s and 50s are scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. Tuesday. Play in the Open Division starts Jan. 23.
“Gigi asked me to play in the King of the Hill for the first time in 1997, and I’ve been playing ever since,” said Joe Biedenharn, head pro at John’s Island. “It’s always fun to play in front of a crowd and compete. Everybody takes it seriously, but it’s not like playing a match that means a lot.
“Everybody on the court is a friend and, while we’re trying to win, we’re out there to have a good time, too,” he added. “I enjoy playing. I also enjoy coming out to watch on nights when I’m not playing.
“It’s just a fun event for everyone.”
The King of the Hill raised $2,000 for Youth Guidance in 1997. Twenty years later, it raised $37,000. Casapu said the money is used for recreational, educational and cultural programs, as well as for summer camps and college scholarships.
A small percentage of the funds raised goes to prize money for the pros – $5,000 has been set aside this year – but Casapu said the players often donate their winnings to Youth Guidance.
“They enjoy playing and they’re happy to give something back to the community,” Casapu said. “Besides, the champions also get their name on the trophy.”
That means something, too, even if the pros tend to play down the competitive side of the event. They surely don’t want to play poorly. And you can bet it means something to club members who come out to root for their guys
“They’re competing,” Collins said, “but it’s a friendly competition.”
Which is fitting: Vero Beach is a friendly town, and the King of the Hill is a friendly event.
“This is a special place,” Casapu said. “I tell people all the time: There is no other tennis town like Vero Beach. There are so many clubs, so many people playing tennis, and there’s no other place where the pros work together and help each other the way they do here. Then, you throw in the support we get from the community . . . that’s why we’re still doing this 23 years later.”
That’s why you’ll find a lot of your friends spending the next six Tuesday nights at The Moorings.