Relationship With Special Olympics At Heart Of Charlottesville Challenger – ATP World Tour

A tennis tournament at any level becomes truly special when it transcends individual achievement and, at the core of its culture and heart of its identity, represents something greater than what transpires between the lines.

On Sunday, the Charlottesville Men’s Pro Challenger, a $50,000 event on the ATP Challenger Tour, concludes its eighth edition with American teen Reilly Opelka facing Belgium’s Ruben Bemelmans for the title. But it was what happened exactly seven days ago at the Boar’s Head Sports Club, located just outside the campus of the University of Virginia, that set the tone for the entire week of world-class tennis.

Since 2013, the tournament has reveled in a unique relationship with the Special Olympics, partnering with the organisation that encourages inclusion for intellectually disabled individuals through sports. Last Sunday, the Charlottesville Challenger held their annual pro-am, giving Special Olympics tennis players the opportunity to take the court and engage with today’s ATP stars.

“It was fantastic to play with him,” Irish doubles player David O’Hare said of top tennis Special Olympian Jonathan Fried. “He plays so well and he’s 54 years of age. It was just great to talk with him. It’s something different that you don’t get on the tour. Playing for such a good cause and having fun for a couple hours is great. For everything this tournament has done for the Special Olympics is pretty nice. Credit to them.”

Ten years ago, in conjunction with Charlottesville tournament director Ron Manilla and the Boar’s Head Sports Club, a tennis competition called the Xperience was established for the top Special Olympics players. With the local community heavily involved, the tournament became a big success and it soon found a partner in the ATP Challenger Tour event at the same venue. The Special Olympics receives $10,000 of the tournament’s proceeds each year and that money goes towards funding the Xperience.

“I could run all these other tournaments, but there is nothing that comes close to reaching into the deepest parts of my heart,” said Manilla. “It’s beyond rewarding. It not only got me hooked, but the whole club and the community. After a few years, it became a community event. The vibe is unreal.

“A few years ago, we were looking to make this Challenger bigger and better. We decided we needed to partner with somebody and no other name or organization even came to mind. We already had established such a great relationship with the Special Olympics Virginia.”

Manilla stresses that this relationship gives the Challenger its energy and drives its success. The warm, inclusive culture that he and the Boar’s Head staff have fostered has created a strong sense of community through tennis and gives today’s ATP Challenger Tour players the opportunity to grow both on and off the court.

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