Lara Schneider Allie Gretkowski

Key Biscayne, Fla., National Level 2 doubles champions Lara Schneider (left) and Allie Gretkowski

The road to the Volvo Car Open is a tough one for all but the top tier of women's tennis.

But now, more lower-ranked players have a chance to qualify for the big WTA Tour event on Daniel Island, thanks to a new local tournament for aspiring professionals.

The new tournament is officially named the Volvo Car Open Wild Card Event. It's also known as the initial Universal Tennis Rating event, one that uses the UTR ranking for entry.

It's a long road from UTR to the VCO main draw, although all three tournaments will be played at Family Circle Tennis Center.

Just the same, the winner of the 32-player UTR tournament will receive a wild card into the official VCO qualifying tournament.

Of course, you've got to be pretty good just to get into the UTR tournament that starts Thursday at Family Circle Tennis Center. It will take five wins to take the UTR title and advance into the March 30-31 VCO main qualifying event.

Three wins in main qualifying would put you in the main draw of the Volvo Car Open. All you need is a total of 14 straight wins to bring home the big prize at the VCO.

This particularly "you" could be any one of five local girls or 27 others scheduled to appear in the first round of the UTR tournament. Anna Ross, Lara Schneider, Emma Charney, Sophie Williams and Abby Cotuna are the local juniors.

Any of the 32 UTR players lucky enough to win eight straight matches would join Shelby Rogers and Emma Navarro in the main draw of the April 1-7 Volvo Car Open. Rogers and Navarro already have secured their spots in the main draw.

Rogers accomplished the feat through her outstanding career WTA Tour performances before falling to a knee injury almost a year ago at Indian Wells, Calif. The VCO was generous enough to award Rogers a wild card into the main draw.

Sometimes it helps to be local. But Shelby is well deserving, being the face of local professional tennis for so many years. Even non-tennis fans identify with a simple mentioning of "Shelby."

Navarro, just 17 and currently the No. 1 U.S. girls 18 player, also earned her way into the VCO main draw by winning seven straight matches and the wild card that went to the winner of last summer's girls 18 national clay courts at LTP Tennis.

These three VCO-connected events make up just 60 percent of the local fan opportunities over the next five months. A $100K International Tennis Federation World Tennis Tour tournament is scheduled for April 29-May 5 at LTP Tennis, followed in July by another girls 18 national clay court championship at LTP Tennis.

All of this means an almost continuous line of great viewing opportunities for local tennis fans.

More good news for fans is that three of these events, UTR, LTP $100K and the girls 18 nationals, are free to the public. That's a great deal and a great opportunity to see the futures of the women's game.

These girls coming to Family Circle Tennis Center for the UTR event are some of the most talented players anywhere, although most of them are still young.

All five of our locals in the UTR field are still teenagers. You would never know it by their level of play and skill level.

Talented Abigail Forbes, a Raleigh product bound for UCLA, is the UTR top seed.

The lone non-American in the UTR field is third seed Ksenia Laskutova of Moscow, a 22-year-old who played four years for the Tulsa University women's team.

"The draw looks very strong. I am looking forward to some great matches," tournament director Rob Eppelsheimer said. "I don't see a bad matchup."

The semifinals and final will be held next Saturday at 9 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Gretkowski missing

It's too bad that Allie Gretkowski didn't increase the number of UTR locals to six. Gretkowski is just 15 years old and looking like a future pro. She has an 11.28 UTR rating in doubles.

Fresh from winning the doubles title in a National Level 2 tournament in Key Biscayne, Fla., with Schneider, Gretkowski will head for San Jose, Costa Rica, this coming week to compete in the ITF Costa Rica Bowl.

The Costa Rica trip was already in the works for Gretkowski when the UTR tournament was announced, her mother Debbie said. It's not a vacation, she said, just a chance to allow Allie to play for the first time in another country.

Of course, Allie is disappointed about missing the UTR event but thrilled by her success with Schneider in Florida. She also was a quarterfinalist in singles, while Schneider was a semifinalist in singles. Both Gretkowski's and Schneider's singles losses in Key Biscayne came against U.S. girls 18 No. 3 Zoe Howard.

"Lara and I had a great win in Key Biscayne," Gretkowski said. "I was not playing my best in the semifinals, but she picked me up and we got through that match. Everything was working (in the final) and we were just swinging. It's always easy playing with her (Schneider) because we practice together (at LTP) and we work well together.

"I'm obviously disappointed to miss the UTR tournament because it's a great opportunity for a wild card, but I'm excited at the same time to be going out of the country to play an ITF for the first time."


-- The former MW Tennis Academy from Family Circle Tennis Center has switched to Greensboro, N.C. The academy, which originally was named after founders Bryan Minton and Jeff Wilson, switched from the Family Circle complex to Wild Dunes last year after the Randy Pate Academy took over FCTC. Several local juniors made the move to train in Greensboro with Wilson.

-- The popular Tri-County Elementary and Middle School Tennis League is planning to start its league season the week of March 4.

-- After only a limited schedule in this past week's unpredictable weather, the boys high school season should move into high gear the next two weeks. Bishop England and Porter-Gaud, two defending state champions, are scheduled to square off March 4 at Porter-Gaud, which also is scheduled to travel to Pinewood Prep on Tuesday and play a home match against Summerville on Thursday.

-- In one of the few matches thus far, SCHSL Class AA powerhouse Philip Simmons posted a 6-3 win over Porter-Gaud last week. The showdown scheduled for last week between Philip Simmons and BE was rained out. Philip Simmons is scheduled to play in the Florence tournament next weekend, but will be missing top two players Coy Simon and Max Smith, who are scheduled to play in key junior events.

Reach James Beck at See his latest columns on the Grand Slams at