Southern Hospitality: Families Play Hosts to Stars

Above: Abigail Spears and Lynne Mozley, Jack and Dot Sharpes’s daughter. Photo provided.

Jack and Dot Sharpe had been coming to the Volvo Car Open for years when their friend, Betty McMahon, approached them with a proposition.

“She wanted us to keep a player in our home,” Dot said.

It was an easy enough decision for the two tennis enthusiasts who, each spring, attend the Cup from the very beginning of qualifying through the final day of competition.

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They began hosting in the year 2001, when the tournament moved to Daniel Island, and met doubles specialist Abigail Spears in 2009 when she came to stay with the couple.

“We became acquainted with Abi and have become good friends,” explained Dot. “Ever since, we keep up with her travels on the tennis circuit.”

Bernie and Diana Cignavitch first hosted American Bethanie Mattek-Sands in 2007, when their daughter Luann was a senior in high school. (Bethanie had to pull out of the Cup this year due to injury.)

“My mom and I were visiting Swarthmore College when we got the call that we were going to host a player,” remembered Luann, who now works in D.C. “We live on Johns Island, so because of our distance to the tournament site, we were not top picks to host.”

But Bethanie had requested housing last-minute and the Cignavitch family was the best option. Turns out it was fate.

“Hosting Bethanie is not a once-a-year event,” Luann said. “Bethanie – and now her husband Justin – we are all family.”

The Cignavitch family has stayed with Bethanie in Wimbledon, Birmingham and Cincinnati, and has traveled all the way to Rome to visit her. Luann makes a point to fly home each year during the Volvo Car Open to cheer Bethanie on.

“They spoil me and I have such a blast when I’m there,” said Mattek-Sands, the world No. 51. “They have also come and visited me in Arizona, they’ve come to other tournaments and that’s all thanks to the Volvo Car Open. They’re my second family.”

Last year, 27 families hosted Volvo Car Open players. Over the past 14 years, some 400 players have been guests of host families in one-way or another.

“The players tell us that the housing system is unique and very important to them,” Jack Sharpe said. “They enjoy the friendly family atmosphere by staying in locals’ homes.

Some stay a few extra days before traveling to the next event.”

For the Cignavitch family, the week revolves around Bethanie’s schedule: when she practices, plays and what time she can eat. Meals at a family table are rare for a traveling WTA star.

“When I go there I’m so spoiled with the food,” said Mattek-Sands, laughing. “Bernie’s meatballs are to die for! I think the breakfasts that he and Diana have come up with have been pretty epic, too.”

Beyond the meals, players get to enjoy local culture with their host families, share transportation duties to and from the tournament and live life outside of the traveling grind for a week – mostly.

“What people do not understand about this sport is that players are constantly on the road, and it’s harder than

it looks, especially if you are not in the top ten,” Luann Cignavtich said. “For a majority of the players, life on tour is not all first-class flights, five-star restaurants and top hotels. My dad’s meatballs are fantastic, but I don’t think that’s what keeps Bethanie coming back. When she comes to our house, it’s not another destination; it’s another home.”