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VanOpen's touch of home

Housing program sets West Van-based pro tennis tournament apart

West Vancouver's Carlota Lee has a very specific set of skills and assets that help her do her job co-ordinating housing for the players in the Odlum Brown VanOpen tennis tournament held annually at Hollyburn Country Club.

She's persistent, organized, good at matchmaking, possesses a huge batch of FWHs (that's Friends With Houses) and, probably most importantly, is willing to badger those friends until they agree to provide players a place to stay during the tournament each year.

When June and July roll around each year, Lee's friends, many of whom are fellow members at Hollyburn, know that when they see her she's going to be hitting them up for housing.

"They say, 'Oh, there's Carlota. Let's turn around and go the other way!'" she said with a laugh when the North Shore News caught up with her a week before this year's tournament. Her persistence has paid off though — in the eight years she has held the job she has increased the pool of potential billets from around 20 to more than 50. "I asked anybody that I knew had spare rooms.... Almost every (player) that requests housing gets it. I try my hardest to find them a family."

The VanOpen offers players the chance to stay with a local family rather than rack up a hotel bill that would essentially wipe out most of their winnings. It's the same at many tournaments at the Challenger level — one step below the big leagues where Federer, Raonic and Sharapova ply their trade — but not many tournaments can offer housing like a West Vancouver tournament can offer housing. It turns out that Carlota Lee has a lot of friends with some very nice houses.

"The word is out with the players," she said, laughing again. There is a bit of a hierarchy to it all with top players, such as this year's headliners Marcos Baghdatis and Vera Zvonareva, getting placed in some of the North Shore's finest properties.

"Those ones I try to showcase the best homes in West Van," said Lee. "Marcos is staying at a gorgeous home with a spectacular view.... His house is spectacular. I put him with a friend of mine. I want to be housed there!"

Lee is quick to point out, however, that not every player gets housed in a mansion. All that a host family needs is a love of tennis and a spare room. Lee said she hosts players in her house each year and they aren't living a life of luxury.

"No pool, no anything," she said with a laugh. "I always house three players and I always tell them, every year, you're getting the short end of the stick. I say you're staying with me, it's the most modest house of all of them! But it's the most fun."

Speaking of fun, Lee is also in charge of organizing the players' party every year. At most tournaments these parties can be awkward affairs held in hotels or rec centres, but for the VanOpen Lee has a rotation of three or four friends who take turns hosting a big house party.

"At first nobody used to come — they'd say 'Ah it's just going to be a hamburger and salad and that's it.' But we always make a full course meal. Last year we made this tenderloin and salads and all kinds of things. Sometimes they have DJs. They have games. It's a lot of fun."

So with a big party, fancy houses and passionate young athletes mingling with wealthy socialites each year, there must be some intriguing stories floating around, right Ms. Lee? Does it ever get a little wild up there in the West Van hills?

"I see nothing, I hear nothing," she said with a laugh. "I know you want to get some dirt, but I'm not giving you any.... There isn't any. We're always perfect!" Joking aside, Lee said she marvels at the dedication to their sport that the players show.

"Players have fun but they are all professionals," she said. "All these players are athletes. They know their plan.... These players' lives are incredible. Just tournament to tournament to tournament every week."

The schedule can actually be quite a grind for the players, which is all the more reason Lee and the rest of the VanOpen crew do all they can to make their tournament stand out. It seems to be working, as more and more players are coming back again and again, finding a way to fit the tournament into their calendars.

"They love this tournament because of the hospitality of the host families," said Lee, adding that the gorgeous setting up at Hollyburn makes a big impression as well.

There are some challenges that come with the job too though. Players and host families both make special requests and Lee does her best to form pairings that work well for everyone.

"It's a matchmaking procedure," said Lee. "I know my friends, what kind of people they are, what kind of players they would like to house. I've got all these pieces of paper on my desk and it's kind of like a puzzle.... I just try to make sure everyone has fun, the families and the players."

There's a lot of last minute work to do as well.

"My cutoff for housing requests is on the 18th but the kids, I don't know — they don't read the fact sheet very well," she said with a laugh. "They're still requesting today. I just turned on my computer and there are quite a few requests. They've been popping up all weekend."

Over the years Lee has found that she only has to do a little bit of badgering to get host families on board. If they do it once, they're usually keen to keep coming back for more.

"Some people have signed up every year because they enjoy it so much," said Lee. "Through the grapevine, friends of friends, they found out how fun it was. Watching a tennis match when you have someone to cheer for — it's just always different.... It's like watching your child at a competition. It becomes more fun."

And there's always a chance that to host the next Milos Raonic or Eugenie Bouchard. In fact, one of Lee's best friends hosted a young player a few years ago who is now on her way to superstardom. Who was it? Eugenie Bouchard, of course.

"Oh my goodness, who would have known," said Lee, recalling the astonishment her friend had when she realized the player she hosted was now playing in the Wimbledon final. "Yep, this is what happens."

• • •

The tournament starts this weekend with qualifying rounds Saturday and Sunday that are free for spectators. The main draws begin Monday.

Zvonareva, a former world No. 2-ranked player, headlines the women's field that includes other notables such as Canadian Sharon Fichman, currently ranked No. 85, and former top-30 player Urszula Radwanska of Poland.

The men's side is anchored by Baghdatis, a former world No. 8 who won the VanOpen in his only other appearance back in 2009. Other notables include India's Somdev Devvarman and Russia's Alex Bogomolov Jr., both of whom have been ranked inside the top 100 in 2014.

For updated schedules, player lists and ticket information visit