By MIKE McCOMBS
When Bob Brown handed out the trophies Sunday afternoon after the final match of the seventh annual Bluffton Today Open tennis tournament, it took several minutes for even the girls to realize he had mistakenly given the champion's trophy to the runner-up and the runner-up's trophy to the champion.
They were helping to prove his point.
Anna Vanderboom, a 14-year-old home-schooled student from Rincon, Ga., and Moriel Williams, a McCracken Middle School eighth-grader, played in the final of the girls 14-under Division II bracket at the Bluffton High School tennis courts.
After splitting two sets, Vanderboom outlasted Williams, 12-10, in the tiebreaker as rain drops began to dot the courts. Funny thing was, Brown had to tell the girls the match was over.
"This is what the tournament is all about," said Brown, the tennis coach at Bluffton High School. "You had two girls fighting for match points with no regard for the score."
This was what Brown was hoping for when he changed the tournament's focus solely to junior players and away from adults. He added a second flight for beginners to give players who normally might not play in tournaments a chance.
"If these kids play in the tougher tournaments, they might play one match, get hammered and be done," Brown said. "We don't want that. We want to encourage these players to play in tournaments and continue to learn and enjoy tennis."
Vanderboom may be an example of the kind of player Brown is after. She played in this tournament last year, and according to her, "lost really bad."
This time around, Vanderboom won two matches on Saturday before a tight final Sunday against Williams, a junior varsity player on the Bluffton High team. The tiebreaker was well-played by both players, involved several long rallies and saw Vanderboom come back from being down 5-1.
"I've improved a lot," Vanderboom said. "My forehand is my best shot. My backhand, I've had to work on it a little more."
Just because Brown has chosen to provide an tournament opportunity for the less-polished players doesn't mean there wasn't some top-level junior tennis being played Sunday.
About 30 minutes after winning the 18-under boys doubles title as a team, the Hilton Head Island High duo of Roman Battistelli and Brad Malool faced off against each other in the boys 18-under Division I final.
Since they were playing their fourth match of the day, the boys played a single pro set with Battistelli, the Seahawks' No. 1 singles player, topping Malool, the team's No. 3, 8-4.
Katie Cram won the girls 14-under Division I final on Sunday, a day after winning the girls 18-under doubles title with partner Katie Rankin.
"It's a very homey tournament," the Hilton Head Island High sophomore said. "You know all the people and you get to see old friends. It's not quite as stressful as the big tournaments, but you still face tough opponents."
The 50 entrants were "exactly what I hoped for," Brown said, calling the field a good mix of Hilton Head Island, Beaufort and Bluffton kids with a handful of kids from Georgia.
Brown still calls the tournament the "oldest and the biggest in Bluffton," though sometimes he'll slip "only" in there as well.
And the goal, he said, is still the same as when it started, to support public tennis in Bluffton. The organization's funds are available for worthy public tennis projects, and the proceeds from the silent auction go directly to its Junior Benevolence Fund to help junior players with expenses.
Brown says eight years ago, before the tournament, there were just four usable public tennis courts in Bluffton. The Bluffton Today Open played a part in changing that, he said.
"There was nothing here before we got this started," Brown said. "I think we've got a pretty good reputation."