GODFREY – Every year, Lewis and Clark welcomes tennis players from across the globe to campus for the Lewis and Clark Community College Men’s Pro Tennis Classic – and every year, those players need a place to stay for the week.
Host families like Byron and Linda Sutton, of Godfrey, are happy to fill that role.
The Suttons have been hosting international and American players alike for more than a decade, and don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.
Linda Sutton said she wouldn’t describe her family as a big tennis family, although her children played a little and they do enjoy watching.
“We’re just into hosting,” she said. “It’s like having the world come to you. We think it’s fun.”
Linda said she and her husband’s first experience with hosting was with Mexican exchange students from Webster University’s International Business Exchange program. They participated as hosts with the program for about 10 years, and only recently stopped. USTA’s program gives families like the Suttons a chance to not only meet these world-class athletes, but to welcome them into their family for a week.
Many of these players travel the circuit, where money can become tight – so players are really appreciative of their hosts, said Nancy Simpson, who coordinates the host families every year for Lewis and Clark’s tournament.
“The minimum qualification for hosts is a place for players to sleep and shower,” Simpson said. “Some people go all out; some are minimally involved, but I’ve never heard a complaint.”
The first USTA player the Suttons hosted was an Australian back in 2002.
“He liked to go down to the boat and play roulette, and he was very lucky,” Linda remembered.
They have hosted anywhere from one to four players a year since. Most speak English, but a few haven’t. The ones who don’t tend to communicate through body language and gestures, she said.
“We never know who we’re getting until the day before the tournament. We have no idea where they’re from,” Linda said. “We’re empty nesters with three empty bedrooms, so we can host up to four players at a time.”
This year, the Suttons are hosting three players – Ankit Chopra, 24, of India; Christopher Marquis, 24, of India, and Thibault Venturino, 26, of France. All three have been eliminated from the tournament at this point, but are enjoying their time in the Riverbend.
“(The Suttons) are very nice people,” Marquis said. “They are always talking about music and there is always music playing. They actually hang out with us. I have stayed with a lot of host families and never have I stayed with a family like them. They even had a big dinner for us the first night.”
Over the course of the week, all have gotten to know each other fairly well.
“Ankit and Christopher were showing me maps of India, where they live. You find out a lot about their country. I never knew how many languages there are in India,” Linda said. “Thibault and Christopher said they have been doing the European Circuit for awhile, and came to the U.S. in May. It was Thibault’s first visit to the U.S., but Christopher has lived here for a few years.”
One night each year, during the tournament, the Suttons will cook spaghetti and “magic” meatballs for their guests.
“They’re lucky,” she joked. “We invite family and friends to join us. We had 12 people Tuesday night. Everybody always likes to meet the players.”
Thursday night, two of the players cooked the Suttons a traditional Indian meal, to thank them for their hospitality.
When they’re not busy practicing or competing, each player likes to do something different in his free time, Linda Sutton said. And when she and her husband aren’t working, they like to check out the matches.
“I always tell them ‘you’ll have to make the finals so I can come and watch,’” joked Linda, who works as a regional accounts manager for Emmis Communications in St. Louis. “They’re all different. They live and breathe tennis, but some are more serious about their eating and sleeping routines than others.”
When the tournament is over and the players leave for the next tournament, the Suttons stay in touch over Facebook. Sometimes, the same players return to the tournament and stay with them for multiple years. Sometimes, they move on, she said.
“You miss them when they’re gone,” said Simpson, whose family used to host players for the tournament. “Most of them really engage with people, and they do kind of become part of your family.”
Simpson finds host families for main draw players each year, really stressing the key role community involvement plays on the event.
Anyone interested in being a host family next year or in the future can contact L&C’s Athletic Department at (618) 468-6002 and leave their name and phone number.
The Lewis and Clark Community College Men’s Pro Tennis Classic is a United States Tennis Association (USTA) event. The tournament is in its 18th year at the college. Finals are set for this weekend.
Admission is free and open to the public. Covered seating with fans is available to keep spectators cool.
For more information, news, photos or live scoring results, visit www.lc.edu/usta