URBANA — As D.J. Gurule and other members of the NCAA tennis committee were having dinner one recent evening, they decided to mix a bit of business with pleasure.
With the Division I national championships in its final days, they compared notes on how the event had gone. Had there been problems? Areas that could be improved? Deficiencies that needed to be brought to the attention of the host school?
“The funny thing is nothing jumped out,” Gurule said Sunday on the penultimate day of the national meet at the University of Illinois. “Not one person said, ‘Yes, we need to change this.’ ”
For a first-time host, that’s welcome news. After preparing nearly three years to welcome the nation’s best collegiate tennis players to its campus, the UI was highly conscious of the high standard set by previous hosts like Georgia and Stanford. How would its facilities and organization and hospitality stack up?
Across the board, it seems — from players to coaches to fans — the UI has earned far more than a passing grade.
“From the things that they can control, I think they’ve done a really good job,” said Nik Scholtz, a sophomore member of the Mississippi men’s tennis team.
“Obviously, the weather has been really bad. It’s just unlucky. But everything is clean and well-organized. I think we’re all happy.”
Ty Tucker included. Although a rival of the host Illini on the court, the Ohio State men’s coach clearly is a fan of the job Illinois has done while hosting the 12-day tournament that comes to an end today.
“I feel they knocked it out of the park,” Tucker said. “From the players’ hospitality area, to the parking, to the access to practice courts, to the indoor/outdoor (facilities), I’d rate it right up there as one of the best.
“It’s almost like you have to go to a major professional event as a tennis player to get treated like you’ve been treated here.”
That’s music to the ears of tournament director Holly Stalcup. As the director of event management for the UI athletic department, Stalcup has been the school’s lead figure in preparations for the NCAA Championships since 2010, when Illinois landed hosting rights for this year’s tournament. Since then, Stalcup and her team have been absorbed with the vast preparations for an event of this magnitude.
“Logistically, I think everything went pretty smoothly,” she said. “We might all need a nap and a vacation day after it’s over, but when we look back at it ... the comments and feedback we’ve heard, it makes it worth it.”
Like the NCAA tennis committee, the UI will further evaluate the school’s hosting performance during the next weeks and months. Since the gates to Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex opened on May 16 for the start of the tournament, Stalcup has kept a list of suggested changes if the UI were to host again.
It’s not long.
One would be additional temporary seating at Khan. During the quarterfinals and again in the finals of the team competition, large turnouts left few if any open spaces in the stands. Such crowds were an eye-opener, considering that neither Illini team qualified for nationals.
“Imagine if one of our (UI) teams were in it how crowded it might be,” Stalcup said.
The rain that periodically plagued the tournament figures in another of Stalcup’s recommendations. Although the UI set up a temporary walkway from the team parking lot into Khan, it became a soggy, squishy path during and after rains. It might be time for a paved sidewalk there, she said.
Stalcup also learned that the length and number of shifts for volunteer workers can be downsized in the latter rounds of the individual singles and doubles championships.
In other words, Stalcup is coming up with tweaks, not major changes.
One fan would add to that list, recommending that the UI look into easily accessible seating for the disabled when the tournament is forced indoors. With limited seating at Atkins Tennis Center, fans were standing several rows deep both in the balcony and on the floor — and movement through the cramped facility was difficult — on days when rain sent matches inside.
“With an aging population that we have it would be nice to make sure (disabled access) was ready to go,” said Karis Gibbs of Springfield, Va.
But Gibbs said she appreciated the ample parking areas close to the Khan Complex. That wasn’t the case, she said, when Georgia hosted nationals last year.
“Georgia was harder,” said Gibbs, whose niece, Nicole Gibbs, plays for Stanford. “There were parking lots to deal with and permitted areas. This is a lot easier.”
Van King, father of Michigan player Evan King, said he appreciated the signs in Champaign-Urbana directing visitors to the UI athletic complex and to Khan.
“Georgia didn’t have a lot of signage, so you really had to look around to find the tennis venue and parking on that campus,” the Chicago resident said. “It just wasn’t as easy.”
The friendliness of UI staff and volunteers during the tournament also received high marks.
“I prefer the actual facility at Georgia — the spectator areas were quite large — but as far as the hosting goes, I think Illinois is a lot friendlier,” Gibbs said. “There was a person out on the parking lot chatting us up when we got here and taking us in golf carts, driving our kids and myself to the door.”
The many signs around Champaign-Urbana greeting NCAA tennis fans didn’t go unnoticed by Van King.
“When you run around town, I was surprised to see all the NCAA signs,” he said. “It’s nice to be welcomed. I think everybody made all the players from all over the place feel welcome.”
Once the tournament ends, the UI will be able to tally up the attendance and the bottom-line costs. Stalcup indicated that unlike in some sports, the NCAA Tennis Championships do not require a financial guarantee from bidders. Instead, schools submit a budget that, if accepted, the NCAA covers. In order to make that budget competitive, however, not all expenses that the UI expected to incur were included. There also can be unexpected expenses that develop during a tournament.
“There will be some additional costs that we will have that I can’t submit to the NCAA,” Stalcup said.
Based on how things unfolded, Stalcup said she would recommend that the UI again bid for the national tennis tournament at some point. Her boss is open to that idea.
“It’s something that we definitely would be interested at looking into,” UI athletic director Mike Thomas said. “Certainly we want to assess how things went this year in all areas before we made a determination as to whether we would bid again.”
But like Stalcup, Thomas is receiving flattering feedback on the job his school did as hosts. And, whenever the circumstances are right, Thomas views the bidding for NCAA championship events as an area of emphasis for his department.
“I think it’s extremely important to be able to be on the national stage and you’re the focus of what’s going on for that week or two for that particular sport,” he said. “The exposure that you get and what it does — not just for us, but for this university and this community — I think that’s extremely important. So that’s something we’ll always continue to do.”