From the June 2016 issue of The Rotarian
Eugene McNease had competed in world championship tournaments of the International Tennis Fellowship of Rotarians in such illustrious cities as Vienna; Barcelona, Spain; and Salerno, Italy. So he felt a bit brash when he proposed that the first one in the United States be held in Thomasville, Ga., population 18,700. But the retired Social Security Administration executive and self-appointed ambassador for Rotary loves the charm of his historic hometown, and he was convinced the friends he had made in the fellowship would appreciate the city as he does and enjoy its Southern hospitality.
As it turned out, he knew his friends well.
“I love the place. I want to live here,” says Daniela Macias, a member of the Rotary Club of Quitilipi, Argentina, who attended the weeklong tournament last August with her 13-year-old son, Mariano.
The 44 competitors had traveled from nine countries, including Italy, Romania, and Paraguay, and from U.S. states as far away as Connecticut. They arrived to play tennis, but they came as much for the fellowship and camaraderie.
“Where else in Rotary can you spend an entire week with other Rotarians from around the world and make friends whom you see year after year?” says McNease, the tennis fellowship’s vice chairman. “Even the international conventions are only five days.” When the day’s matches were finished, the players and their family members remained courtside late into the evenings, playing tennis pickup games with gusto and laughing and enjoying one another’s company.
The southern Georgia site exposed the international visitors to a slice of American culture overlooked by most tour packages. Véh Balázs, a member of the Rotary Club of Veszprém, Hungary, joined a tour of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, one of several excursions to regional cultural sites such as a plantation and a state park with alligators and other wildlife. He remarked on Thomasville’s cleanliness, its old mansions, and the oak trees with hanging Spanish moss that canopy some streets. “It’s slow and relaxed. People are so friendly,” he says.
Most of the international visitors and their spouses spoke excellent English, making communication easy. But the players were creative in finding ways to overcome any language barriers. Jim Lowry of the Rotary Club of Moultrie, Ga., used an app on his cellphone that translated English to Portuguese to communicate with his doubles partner, Claudemar Andrioli from the Rotary Club of Matão-Terra da Saudade, Brazil.
“I’d speak into the phone and then he’d speak into the phone,” says Lowry, laughing.
The week wrapped up with a gala on Saturday, just in time for some of the players to move on to New York City to watch the U.S. Open at the beginning of September.
According to Thomasville Rotarian Joe Brown, who organized the cultural experiences for attendees, the tournament raised more than $25,000 through sponsorships and fees. That money supported the event and will benefit The Rotary Foundation and the Georgia Rotary Student Program, an initiative founded by Thomasville native Will Watt that provides scholarships to students from around the world to study for a year at Georgia colleges and universities, with Rotarian families providing local support.
The championship tournament was the fellowship’s 11th. Since the group’s founding in 2004, its tournaments, including the championships, have raised more than $300,000 for Rotary projects, according to fellowship Chair Mladen Novaković. The group has grown quickly, to 1,494 members from 72 countries.
Reflecting on the week, tournament director McNease waxes on about the fellowship experience.
“This fellowship deal, it’s a part of Rotary that 90 percent of Rotarians know nothing about and don’t have an idea of what they’re missing,” he says. “It’s an unbelievable opportunity. There’s nothing better than being hosted in a foreign country by fellow Rotarians with whom you have a connection not only through tennis but through friendship. They show you what the real country is, what the real food is, the real average, everyday events and life.”
The avid tennis player is already looking forward to the 2016 world championship in August – at a Black Sea resort in Albena, Bulgaria, where Russian czars once vacationed.
Find out more about Rotary Fellowships at www.rotary.org/fellowships.