Until Walt Disney World opened in 1971, most vacationers to Florida gravitated to the Sunshine State's beaches, especially in winter. WDW changed all of that, turning Orlando and its environs into the quintessential family destination. Last year, the Magic Kingdom attracted some 20,395,000 visitors. And it's no longer the only game in town. Within a 10-mile radius of the Magic Kingdom you'll find Universal Island of Adventure (think "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter"), Universal Studio, SeaWorld Orlando, Disney's Hollywood Studio, LegoLand, Discovery Cove, EPCOT Center, Gatorland Orlando, and Aquatic Park, to name the most prominent. Disney was, of course, quite happy to have you stay at one of the themed villages it built to handle guests of the Magic Kingdom, but soon an appealing alternative arose as resort hotels began cropping up. These were, far enough from the parks to afford a break from the crowds but near enough to make daily visits easy. They added yet more dimensions to a Greater Orlando visit in the form of tennis courts, golf courses, and other resort diversions.
One of the first was the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress, which opened in 1986. With 12 courts, one of them a stadium, the Hyatt significantly raised the region's tennis profile by hosting both ATP and WTA events. Among those who competed there were Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, and Martina Navratilova. Then early this year, Orlando's tennis cred took yet another giant leap forward with the opening of the USTA National Campus at Lake Nona.
"Campus" is indeed the most evocative word to describe what the U.S. Tennis Association has carved out of the pasteurlands at Lake Nona, an easy 15-minute drive southeast of Orlando International Airport. One hundred lighted tennis courts—"the largest tennis facility in the world," notes campus Chief Executive Kurt Kamperman—fan out across the 65-acre property. Courts are clustered in neighborhoods—Collegiate, Family, Team USA, Tournament and League, Player Development—each with lockers, showers, shade, and relevant amenities. Six are indoor, six are European red clay imported from Italy, the rest a mix of hard, clay, and Rebound Ace. Two—one clay, one hard—are configured as 500-seat stadiums. Fully 84 of these courts have Playsight technology to live stream on-court action, so that college alumni can login to watch their teams compete, grandma and grandpa can see how their children are doing in junior matches, and your friends can follow you progress if you're playing in one of the sectional or senior events that rotate through the new campus. Of those, 32 have Playsight's SmartCourt technology to record and analyze matches. And scattered throughout are phone and tablet charging stations and 25 hydration stations, or water-bottle fillers, delivering filtered water. There's a pro shop managed by Fromuth with a "Racquet Bar" where you can not only get your racquet restrung but also consult with experts about customizing it to meet your needs. Finally, if you get hungry, food is as close as the Netpost Grill in the welcome center and two cafes elsewhere on the grounds.
A number of top American players have already visited the campus to train, among them Madison Keys, Frances Tiafoe, Reilly Opelka, and CiCi Bellis, but the USTA's aspiration obviously went far beyond creating a world-class professional training facility. Coaches with top juniors are encouraged to bring their players to the campus for short-term stints—it is emphatically not a residential academy—to take advantage of the expertise within player development. The sprawling camp will host some 100 tennis tournaments in this first year alone, most of them junior, senior, NTRP, league, and state and local championships. There are ongoing clinics for adults and children and though these are designed as multi-week packages for locals they are also available on a drop-in basis for visitors. You can also book private lessons and court time.
But what they had not done until this fall was offer adult tennis camps. They've begun by scheduling ½-, 1-, and 3-day camps on selected dates. Several aspects make these unusual: all the camps include Playsight analysis (including the ability to access the information once you're back home) and free racquet demos. Three-day weekend camps start with a social mixer Thursday night and end with a two-hour racquet skills session Sunday morning with 9½ hours of on-court drills, instruction, and match play in between. Friday and Saturday lunch is included as are a tour of the campus, unlimited ball machine use, and free court time. Lodging is not, but the modern Courtyard Orlando Lake Nona, 2 miles away, has reasonable rates as does the 900-room Caribe Royal Orlando, whose suites and villas all have mini or full kitchens.
As an avid tennis player, you owe it to yourself to visit the campus even whether or not you're taking a camp or enrolled in one of its many tournaments. It's an easy detour from the airport before continuing on your way to a more traditional tennis resort and Orlando's theme parks.
Of those, the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress, fresh from a $90 million renovation, retains the aura of a tournament venue, even though its stadium now sees little but recreational play. The hotel's glass-walled elevators soar upwards in two banks: one inside the sunlit atrium lobby, the other outside, where it affords views across a swimming pool and lake toward Walt Disney World Resort, four miles to the west as Peter Pan flies. That proximity to the worldâ€™s best-attended attraction and the others that have grown up around it is at once an asset and, especially if youâ€™re the resortâ€™s tennis director, a challenge.
"I've got so much competition here—Shamu, Harry Potter, Cinderella—so we work around whatever else youâ€™re doing," Lynn Bottger told me as we sat in the shade of an awning-covered pavilion at the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress beside one of the dozen Har-Tru and hard courts she has managed since 1990. We'd come specifically for tennis, so she'd arranged some mixed doubles with two local players for later that morning. We'd spent the previous afternoon indulging in some of other activities the resort offers, among them 45 holes of Jack Nicklaus golf, an 850,000-gallon swimming pool with twelve waterfalls spilling down from a man-made rocky outcrop, a 9-hole pitch-and-putt golf course, and a lake with such watersports as standup paddle boards, kayaks, and Sunfish. All that recreation, coupled with a fitness center in a grotto beneath that rocky outcrop and a modest spa off the hotel lobby, makes this an appealing complement to days spent at WDW, EPCOT Center, or Universal Studios, all of which are within an easy drive.
Star Island Resort & Club had its own dramatic entrance into the in 1997 when the tennis complex opened as a Vic Braden Tennis College complete with six ball-machine-fed hitting lanes and nine hard courts, one of them an exhibition court. A few years later it began to host an ATP Futures event called the "Star Island Tennis Classic." But after Braden sold the college and the futures events moved elsewhere, the hitting lanes came out and the resort lost its once prominent place on tennis maps.
Then along came Kevin Brandt. He was drawn by both the resort's low-key, family friendly atmosphere and the location of its tennis courts. The nine hard courts—one of them a sunken stadium with low terraced seating—shared space with the swimming pool at the very core of the resort. To generate excitement, he began by staging tennis tournaments —now more than 30 adult, junior, and wheelchair events each year—and by hosting part of Spring Break Tennis, a collegiate team competition.
Meanwhile, for resort guests he has put together a weekly roster of weekly activities, including clinics, Cardio tennis, and after-school programs for local kids open to any guestâ€™s children who want to join in. When it come to those adult clinics, he weaves in video analysis, using the ball machine to feed so that he can show each player the video and analyze what he sees. And because he's an equipment editor for Tennis magazine, he can offer professional advice about racquets and stringing.
The context for all of this is low-key timeshare/resort rental hybrid. Ranging in size from one-to-three bedrooms, the accommodations occupy 3-story red-roofed buildings that surround a central swimming pool, playground, the tennis courts, and a small lake. Amenities include a fitness center, spa, golf driving range (over a lake) and 9-hole course, a room filled with arcade games, a lakeside BBQ and picnic area, sand volleyball court, and Parcours trail. Thereâ€™s a bar poolside and a cocktail lounge on the second floor but no actual restaurant. Instead, there is a mini-mart/deli for basic provisions as well as sandwiches, salads, burgers, and the like. And all of this is within a 15-to-30-minute drive from Walt Disney World, EPCOT Center, Sea World, and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios.
Reunion, A Salamander Golf & Spa Resort is the most removed from the maelstrom of theme park activity, not so much in distance as i ambiance. Although there is an 11-story, all-suite hotel at its core, the remainder of the lodging—consisting of villas and homes, the latter as large as 13 bedrooms—sprawls through 2,300 acres of neighborhoody tracts including one anchored by a water park, another by a handsome tennis complex with six clay courts, a boutique pro shop at its core, and a swimming pool and playground adjacent. We showed up there at 9 a.m. having booked a clinic with director Jamie Feagan, a lefty who'd played for the University of North Florida and is nationally ranked in the 40s. As guests, we expected an easy hour of drills. It turned out to be rather more intense.
"You're not on vacation on my court," Feagan announced as he kept us and three local members moving throughout the hour with rapid feeds and well-orchestrated patterns, including playing situations in which he sometimes took part. That clinic runs daily—we like it so much we came back the next morning—supplemented by Cardio tennis, programs for kids as young as 4, monthly exhibitions, round robins on busy weekends, and customized camps for groups.
With terraced seating along one side of the main clubhouse court and a covered veranda in front facing lawns, trees, and flowers, the club feels intimate and welcoming, a sense abetted by the boutique pro shop. And Feagan delivers personal service. When the couple who'd done drills with us couldn't stay for mixed doubles, Feagan offered an alternative.
"I donâ€™t have a lesson coming, so the two of you can stay and hit on this court," he told us, referring to the show court adjacent to the clubhouse. "Do you want some music? I have speakers in the roof I put in for Cardio tennis and I have several kinds of music on my iPod. What do you like?"
Tennis aside, the resort has a wealth of amenities, including that water park—which has a lazy river and a beach—three designer golf courses, one each by Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, and Jack Nicklaus; a spa in a repurposed Florida Colonial-style house; a dozen swimming pools, including on the roof of the hotel; bike paths; and several restaurants, chief among them the steak-centric Eleven next to that top-floor pool.
These three resorts are all within a near orbit of the Orlando theme parks, but a fourth, the Mission Inn Resort & Club, though farther afield, also deserves mention, partly for its historic qualities, and partly for its location, off to the northwest in what for Florida is a picturesque landscape of rolling hills, citrus trees, and lakes. This quiet, low-key hacienda-inspired resort covers 1,100 acres. Ten years ago, former world No. 1 Justine Henin set up a branch of her tennis academy here, drawn by the peacefulness of the setting, which provided an ideal place to relax when off the tour. Once she left competitive tennis and returned to Belgium, however, the academy lapsed, but her noted fitness guru, Pat Etcheberry, who'd followed her there, remains, working with professional and amateur athletes willing to make the trip, among them Frances Tiafoe and the University of Virginia tennis team.
Former Bolivian Davis Cup player and WTA and ATP coach Cesar Villaroel runs the tennis programs on the resort's eight courts—six of them Har-Tru. He has the usual roster of weekly clinics and drills, supplemented by customized camps for groups. Intriguingly, he's begun videoing matches for those groups using a drone.
"It's a much better way to see patterns," he explained, "and if you couple it with video on court it's almost like getting it in 3-D." And for stronger players who want it, he can bundle in a fitness evaluation from Etcheberry.
Off court, the amenities of this family-run resort include 174 spacious rooms in lowrise buildings' two championship golf courses, among them the 100-year old El Campeón; a spa and fitness center; heated pool; a marina; trap and skeet shooting; and easy access to popular, and, for Florida, unusually hilly, bike routes. Orlando and its theme parks, meanwhile, are a world away but reachable on a 35-minute drive.
GREEN MOUNTAIN TENNIS ACADEMY is an ADULT TENNIS CAMP at Bridges Resort that compliments an already well-rounded tennis program. For the winter, there are clinics 7 days a week on the resort's two indoor Har-Tru courts—the only indoor Har-Tru courts in Vermont—as well as a 3-hour adult academy and two round robins weekly. All of this can be part of your stay in this tennis lovers paradise! bridgesresort.com/tennis
William J. "Bill" Kellogg, the fourth generation of the family behind the iconic La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club, has just been inducted into the Southern California Tennis Association Hall of Fame. A former professional player and umpire (at Wimbledon), Kellogg has played an active role in promoting tennis, especially in Southern California. He helped bring Davis Cup, Fed Cup and ITF's Seniors World Championships to San Diego. He has also served on the USTA Board of Directors, the ITF's Senior Committee, and the Acvisory Board for the International Tennis Hall of Fame. He's also a past president of the San Diego District Tennis Association, Youth Tennis San Diego, and the Southern California Tennis Association. He currently serves as the Southern California Tennis Association delegate.