Tennis: US college team a boost for tournament

Queenstown brothers Ben (20, front left) and Riki McLachlan (21), along with their fellow University of California, Berkeley, team-mates and coaches, are competing at the annual Wanaka Open. Photo by Lucy Ibbotson.
Queenstown brothers Ben (20, front left) and Riki McLachlan (21), along with their fellow University of California, Berkeley, team-mates and coaches, are competing at the annual Wanaka Open. Photo by Lucy Ibbotson.
The Wanaka Tennis Club is hosting its biggest tournament yet, thanks to an American college team which has significantly boosted both the quality and size of the field.

The University of California, Berkeley, has sent its 12-strong men's tennis team - plus coaches, a manager and support crew - to the annual Wanaka Open tennis tournament, which began on Saturday and finishes today.

Queenstown brothers Riki (21) and Ben McLachlan (20) - who won the New Zealand men's doubles championship in Auckland last month - are on tennis scholarships at the university, where they spend nine months every year, returning home to Queenstown for their holidays.

Ben is Berkeley's top player and Riki is team captain. Yesterday morning, the pair welcomed the rest of their team-mates into Queenstown Airport for a week-long stay in the resort, where they are being billeted with local tennis families.

''Our team usually takes a big trip every three or four years, usually to Hawaii or something,'' Riki said.

This year, New Zealand was the chosen destination because of the McLachlan brothers' connection and because of a Berkeley link with their Queenstown coach Lan Bale, who was assistant coach at the college 12 years ago. The Wanaka tournament was also an ideal way of easing the players back into some pre-season competition after their Christmas holiday break, head coach Peter Wright explained.

''The stress level isn't so high [compared with other tournaments] ... but the competition is always high.''

After experiencing flight delays in San Francisco, the American team, which includes two Danes and a Frenchman, was expected to land at Queenstown at 4.30pm on Saturday, just in time to play matches in Wanaka at 6pm. However, they were unable to get a connecting flight south from Auckland, so spent Saturday night in a hotel before flying into Queenstown at 9am yesterday morning before

driving to Wanaka for the first of the players' games at 11am. The series of travel disruptions left no time for pre-match warm-ups. None of the players had been to New Zealand before, and all were impressed by their brief look at the country before taking to the tennis court, Mr Wright said.

''You land at Queenstown Airport and it's just the nicest place in the world.''

Wanaka Tennis Club president John Lyness said this was the first year the tournament had been held over three days, which was partly because of the larger field of entrants the Berkeley contingent had attracted. Last year there were 24 players in the men's single competition, which had increased to 39 this year.

''This year we've got them from all over the country because of the Berkeley guys ... it just brought down a few more from the North Island,'' Mr Lyness said.

The field also included two other top international players from Hungary and France.

''This would be the strongest singles tournament played in New Zealand apart from the Heineken Open ... that's what some comment has been.''

The Wanaka club's coach Perry Crockett agreed the inclusion of the Berkeley team had been a huge boost for the event.

''It's just increased the strength of the tournament. I'm even thinking along the lines that it's something we should carry on doing every year, inviting colleges to bring their teams down as a pre-season tournament.''

After the tournament the American college team will split their remaining time in Queenstown between training and adventure tourism activities.

lucy.ibbotson@odt.co.nz