Tennis champs win it all after finding warm welcome in Winnetka

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WINNETKA, Ill. — If tennis is your game you might be glued to your set watching Wimbledon this week. But there is also a pro tennis tournament in the Chicago area drawing top seeded players from all over the world.

Tennis rankings change daily and some of the players headed to Chicago for this tournament just left Wimbledon a couple of weeks ago to come here after not winning there.

Players from Australia, South Africa, Thailand, Japan and more are all in suburban Winnetka and leaning on locals for more than just an applause.

The Nielsen Men’s Pro Tennis Championship is the real deal – no small town tournament.

Linda Goodman has been running it for 26 years.

“I think people get very confused and think this is a country club tournament. They get jaded and if Pat Rafter isn’t here, then it’s not important. Well that’s so wrong,” Goodman said. “It’s like having the U.S. Open literally in your backyard.”

The week long competition has drawn big names in the past such as Pat McEnroe, Todd Martin, Jack Sock and Sam Querrey, long before the general public knew how good these players really were.

It’s a $75,000 ATP Challenger this year and for the first time players can accumulate points toward getting a wildcard into the U.S. Open.

70 players from nine different countries travel to Winnetka. They play at the AC Nielsen Tennis Center and this year 27 of them are living with host families — people like Irene Smith. A tennis lover with a few extra bedrooms just down the street from the tennis courts.

Smith’s guests this week are the No. 1 double seeds from Thailand and Indonesia: Sanchai Ratiwatana and Christopher Rungkat.

Ratiwatana usually plays doubles with his twin brother, where in their homeland, they have rock star status. But this tournament, he and Rungkat are partners. They are both bunking at Smith’s who takes care of their meals and their laundry. She even shows them around town.

The pro tennis circuit puts these players on the road for months on end. Nearly90 percent of the time they are living in hotels. Staying in a house, they say, is a treat.

“I am the kind of person who loves to be around people,” Rungkat said. “Being around Irene and Tom, it has actually helped me way more than being alone.”

It helps his head by taking the pressure off and making life a little easier. It also helps their game.

“Yesterday I was playing a guy from here from Winnetka. All the people there were clapping for him. I have somebody to clap for me. That feel good actually,” Ratiwatana said.

For Smith, it’s all a thrill.

“There are some very famous names, but you don’t know that yet, because they are at the beginning of their career,” Smith said.

A traveler herself, Smith loves the international aspect to hosting layers. Calling herself a peacemaker, the worldview is important to her. These pro tennis guests in her home are part of extending that message like only a mother can.

“For me, my main goal for them is to feel comfortable and rested,” she said. “Because these two are seeded No. 1 and they don’t need to be concerned about other stuff. They need to be rested and ready to play.”

Sanchai Ratiwatana and Christopher Rungkat would go on to win the Nielsen Men’s Pro Tennis Championship, so clearly it all paid off!


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