Every August during the tournament in Toronto, athlete driver Ken Tower gets the opportunity to live a tennis enthusiast’s dream.
An avid fan of the sport and a 30-year professional in the transportation industry, he’s been part of the tournament transportation committee for 24 years. As a volunteer at the National Bank Open presented by Rogers, Tower is tasked with getting some of the world’s greatest athletes to and from hotels, to matches and wherever else they need to go in the city. Having the opportunity over the years to mix with the likes of Raphael Nadal and Roger Federer, Tower says he’s the “luckiest volunteer” at Tennis Canada.
“I’ve always liked driving,” said Tower. “I think it’s probably the one position as a volunteer that you can sort of get close to athletes because you get them in the car with their team. It gives you that opportunity to sort of get close to professional tennis.”
Tower is one of those people who naturally loves to drive. When he and his wife Angela’s two sons were growing up, he enjoyed making the 20-hour drive to Orlando, Florida for the family’s summer vacation each year. He started driving professionally in 1991 working in the school bus industry where today he works as a manager. In his current professional role, he doesn’t get the opportunity to get on the road anymore, so working the tournament each summer has become a special treat, he says.
There are several drivers in the regular tournament pool and if any player has somewhere to go they can book with the transportation department through dispatch. A driver on the roster will be there to pick them up. The highest-ranked players and previous tournament winners, however, will usually have an assigned private driver for the duration of the tournament. Tower has served in that position throughout the years he’s been a volunteer.
Usually when a driver gets assigned to a player, if they stay in the rankings, the driver will get that athlete every time they come to the city, giving the player and the driver the opportunity to build familiarity. Normally the name of the game is about getting them to practice or matches and back to the hotel, says Tower. Occasionally they’ll need a ride out for dinner to a store, or request that a driver take their family to an amusement park.
“They might want to take their family to Canada’s Wonderland which I’ve done before,” said Tower. “But the typical role is hotel to tournament site because they’re here to play and win.”
This year, Tower was assigned Rafael Nadal who pulled out Tuesday due to a foot injury. Over the past decade Tower has been assigned to Justine Henin for the women’s tournament and four times has been assigned his favourite player of all time, Roger Federer.
“One year that Roger Federer got eliminated (early in the tournament), he wanted to go to Niagara Falls because he had free time. He got to see the city a little more and do some things.
“When you get the same player over and over again, you get to know that person a little. The person gets comfortable with you and talks to you a little more, and you get to kind of know them. To get to know a Roger Federer and to get to know a little bit about his family is probably the coolest thing.”
The tournament transportation sponsor this year is BMW who have provided well-equipped vehicles for the drivers to transport athletes where they need to go.
Once the tournament starts, the schedule is really dependent on when the player is playing that day or when they are practicing. On match days, players get picked up several hours beforehand to allow time for them to go through their full warmup and preparation routines. They might arrive onsite three to four hours before their scheduled start time. After an evening match a driver might stay until 10:00 pm or 11:00 pm to take the athlete back to their hotel. In the cases where a private driver is assigned, the athlete or someone from their team would contact the driver directly when they are ready to go.
“Through WhatsApp or texting, they usually just give you that notice of when they might be ready to leave,” explained Tower. “You kind of get to know how long they’re going to be based on when they play, and the time it takes to go through media and get massaged after. Communication is typically through the coach where I’ll get a message like, ‘We’ll be ready to leave at five o’clock. I’ll text you when we’re close to getting ready.’ It usually works like that.”
With all the safety protocols in place due to COVID-19, the players are not allowed to do much outside of the tournament. Typically, it’s rare that a player eliminated early in the tournament will leave the very next day. In many cases, they will stay in the city so they can continue to practice and prepare for the next tournament which is just 800 km away at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Tower takes a week’s vacation every year to work the tournament and says he will continue to do so for many years to come. He looks forward to seeing the friends on the volunteer transportation team that he’s built throughout the years. More than being able to get close to some of the world’s best in tennis, he wants to make sure the athletes have a good time and are able to appreciate the beauty and positive spirit the City of Toronto has to offer.
“You just want to promote the city,” said Tower. “You want to make sure they have a great time and want to come back every year.”