Saddlebrook Tennis (Hopman)
Wesley Chapel, Florida
By Roger Cox, Editor
I've probably participated in the Saddlebrook tennis program a dozen times of the years, so on my last visit I knew what to expect. For five hours a day, Saddlebrook Tennis serves up a grueling regimen designed at once to improve technique and push the envelope of your stamina and endurance. That I'd come in July—a period of 80-degree days and high humidity—intensified the demands. The format owes everything to the training techniques of the legendary Australian Davis Cup coach Harry Hopman. Partly for that reason it draws current touring pros—think James Blake, Bob and Mike Bryan, Mardy Fish, John Isner—aspiring juniors, and committed adults with its blend of rigorous workouts and full resort amenities, the latter furnished by the resort community of Saddlebrook, where the tennis academy is headquartered.
Saddlebrook Resort garnered awards for its design when it opened in 1982. The 480-acre layout, 25 miles north of Tampa, places the hotel, restaurants, shops, a lakesize swimming pool, tennis courts, spa, golf clubhouse, and meeting rooms at the center of a halo of golf fairways, condos, and residential neighborhoods. Centralizing all of the major amenities creates what they call a "Walking Village."
This is hardly the setting you'd expect for the mother of all hard-core tennis camps, but having all those amenities provides relief from the rigors of the daily regimen while its guard gate provides privacy and security. Its juniors, both live-in and short term, hope the program will set them on the road to greatness (or at least a college scholarship), while adults come looking to get in shape, test their physical mettle, or perhaps search for a magic elixir to cure, once and for all, the flaws in their game. It is also often true that the adults frequently underestimate the physical demands a program like this makes, and that even though they have never in their life played five hours of tennis a day they somehow think they are ready for five hours a day of drills.
The very philosophy of the program is to push you to the point that your game breaks down, find what is salvageable in the rubble, and rebuild from there. That said, after my last visit I came away thinking that this approach has mellowed somewhat in recent years. In my early participation in the Hopman program, as it was known then, I remember being chastised for ignoring a feed too wide for me to reach, only to have the next fed wider until I learned that it was crucial to make an attempt even when you thought you had no chance of reaching the balls. I remember, too, the so-called "bucket of ball" drills and "kamikaze" drills that had you scampering right and left and back again until you pleaded exhaustion or the pro was convinced you'd had enough.
My sense is that while the regimen remains demanding the boot-camp approach has been abandoned. My pro on this latest visit, John Fritts, did run drills that taxed us physically but never adopted a drill sergeant's demeanor. On my last few visits, the approach has been less in your face while still pushing you to you limits. And the syllabus has evolved, too, with more emphasis on technique and an adherence to so-called "modern game": open stances, shorter backswings, aggressive putaways, swinging volleys.
In general you stay with the same pro throughout your stay (barring his or her days off), so they oversee your progress first-hand. They tailor the work to the abilities of the campers they oversee. Rather than stand in one place and hit picture-perfect strokes, you pretty much have to run for every ball. Like the pros, you'll do a lot of two-on-one drills, and if your skills permit it live-ball drills with the other campers on your court. The process can be exhilarating, demoralizing, or both, but you will come away from this program knowing where you stand with respect to your aerobic conditioning and what you really need to do to take your game to the next level.
Pro Shop: 800-729-8383
If courts alone were the measure of a great tennis resort, then Saddlebrook would rank near the top. It has 45 courts altogether, including hard, clay, red clay, Rebound Ace (the surface formerly used at the Australian Open) and grass, all of which—the grass included—are available to guests. The major complex is near the center of the resort, which is also where the pro shop and Hopman office are located. There is a secondary complex a 10-minute walk (or free shuttle ride) away in Lakeside Village, which is also the site of the 3,000-square-foot fitness center and high-performance complex. All of the courts are laid out in clusters of two to five separated by an awning-covered patio furnished with chairs and a refrigerated water fountain.
Tennis Staff. Although Harry Hopman, the legendary Australian Davis Cup coach, died in 1985, the organization he built survives. It is administered now by one of his former staff, Howard Moore, who was a camper himself at New York's Port Washington Academy during the era when Hopman ran that program and aspiring juniors like John McEnroe and Peter Fleming were there. Moore is very much a hands-on director, greeting everyone possible, handling the morning and afternoon warm-up exercises, participating in demos, and sometimes teaching. The junior and professional programs are overseen by Alvaro Betancur. A Columbia native, Betancur has over 30 years of elite tennis experience, including 11 years on the ATP pro tour. He's been with the Hopman organization for more than two decades.
Saddlebrook puts its new instructors through an apprenticeship program. Among the most important skills they have to learn is the ability to work four people very hard while giving each individual attention. The nature of the program means that instructors must have not only solid tennis skills but enthusiasm as well.
Tennis Programs. Although the resort itself offers some perfunctory stroke-of-the-day clinics (run by tennis-academy staff), the real reason a tennis player would come here is the Hopman-inspired camps.
The program begins with an excellent series of stretching exercises conducted by Howard Moore himself. That is followed by a 3-hour session, a break for lunch, and then a 2-hour afternoon session. Campers are divided into groups of no more than 4 (and often fewer) and assigned a pro, who works with them throughout their stay (barring his days off, of course). There are breaks for fruit, bottled water, or Gatorade. Moore and his staff devote a lot of effort to ensuring not only at getting the on-court groupings right—not just their playing levels but even their personalities and work ethics—but also matching the players to the pro. The premise is that the pro acts as your coach, knows what you're working on and what kind of progress you're making, and thus provides continuity.
Once the drills end, at 3 or 3:30 p.m., there is sometimes a group gathering, which could be anything from drinks with the pros at TD's Sports Bar or a serve contest or, in high season, quick clinic on the grass and red-clay so you can experience how different those two surfaces are.
If you're here on your own and looking for company at dinner, those after-drill sessions are your best shot at hooking up with other campers in the same situation. Unlike some other dedicated facilities and college-campus programs, Hopman's does not include any meals other than breakfast in the package, so for other dining you're left to fend for yourself at the quite good but pricey restaurants at the resort itself or pile into cars for trips beyond the resort.
Courts Fees. $14/hour for singles,$18/hour for doubles, but complimentary to those in the Hopman program or on tennis packages.
Caveat: The Saddlebrook program is among the most physically demanding of all the camps, so start a workout regimen weeks before you come down. Bring two pairs of tennis shoes, several changes of clothes (washers and dryers are available in each lodging cluster), a hat, sunblock, two racquets if you have them (broken strings are commonplace), and overgrip.
Golf Courses. Saddlebrook has two 18-hole courses, both designed by Arnold Palmer, and an Arnold Palmer Golf Academy. Tee times for any of the following courses can be reserved by calling 813-973-1111, ext. 4653.
Palmer Course: This course is characterized by open, undulating fairways, and an abundance of lakes, streams and ponds. Par: 71. Length: 5,212-6,469 yards.
Saddlebrook Course: Though flatter than the Palmer course, this one is also tighter, with tree-lined fairways and water on most of its holes. Par: 70. Length: 5,183-6,603 yards.
Spa & Fitness Center.The 7,000-square-foot Spa in the walking village has 12 treatment rooms offering massages, hydrotherapy treatments, and some beauty services. Campers who can still walk at the end of the day are welcome to use the 3,300-square-foot, state-of-the-art fitness center in Lakeside Village, a 10-minute walk from the Superpool. It has a full line of Cybex equipment plus treadmills, stair steppers, recumbent bicycles, elliptical trainers, and rubber-encased freeweights all in rooms with views of a swimming pool or volley ball pit. Personal trainers are on hand to help you craft a workout regimen. There is also an adjacent high-performance sports center, which offers specialized training programs often to professional athletes.
And ... The centerpiece of the resort is its half-million-gallon, amoeba-shaped Superpool, said to be the largest in Florida. At 270 feet long, it is vast enough to contain a 25-meter lap pool, water volleyball and water basketball courts, and a diving area. Around it are children's wading pools and two heated whirlpools. There is another swimming pool near the Sports Village & Fitness Center. Otherwise, recreation run to bike trails around the property and bass fishing in the privately stocked lakes.
The S'Kids Club operates year round providing supervised activities for kids ages 4-12.
There are a total of 790 rooms and suites at Saddlebrook, most of them in 50-unit clusters variously arrayed near the main clubhouse and pool, or out along the golf fairways. Each cluster has an ice machine and washer/dryer. The most basic accommodation is a hotel room with two double beds and a private balcony or patio. The alternatives are one- and two-bedroom suites (which anywhere else would be called condos). These have full kitchens (with coffee makers and dishwashers; most have microwaves, if not you can request one), separate living and dining areas, and one or two bedrooms, each with a full bath. The living areas have televisions and so do the bedrooms. All of this lodging has recently been refurbished with new furniture, drapes, and bedding. High-speed internet access is available throughout the resort (for a fee).
The Cypress Restaurant in the hotel serves Pacific Rim-influenced Continental cuisine, while the more casual Dempsey's Steak House offers up both steaks and fresh seafood and pasta as well as burgers, chicken wings, and pizza.
Assuming you've chosen Saddlebrook for its Hopman clinics, you also ought to look at the following dedicated camps for comparison's sake:
- IMG Academy Bollettieri Tennis Program, Florida, the other so-called "boot camp"
- John Newcombe Tennis Ranch, Texas
- Total Tennis, New York
- Van der Meer Shipyard Racquet Club, South Carolina
As an alternative, especially during Florida's hot, humid summers, take a look at these programs:
Rates and Reservations
The room rates quoted below are special discounts for those who also enroll in a Saddlebrook International Tennis Academy (at least one guest must be taking the tennis-instruction series). By booking tennis and lodging together, you get a deluxe guest room, 5 hours/day of intensive tennis, complimentary court time, daily breakfast, and access to the fitness center and spa. One- and two-bedroom suites with full kitchens are also available (call for rates). Mention Tennis Resorts Online when you book and you'll receive an upgrade to a one-bedroom suite (subject to availability) and a complimentary Saddlebrook Amenity Basket. Other packages and room rates are available.
Jan. 6-Apr. 26, 2014
Single: $275-$315/night; Double: $170-$220/person/night
Apr. 27-May. 10, 2014
Single: $235-$275/night; Double: $150-$200/person/night
May 11-Sept. 27, 2014
Single: $175-$205/night; Double: $120-$155/person/night
Sept. 28-Dec. 6, 2014
Single: $235-$275/night; Double: $150-$200/person/night
Tennis Instruction Rates
Saddlebrook Tennis Programs (instruction only): 2 days, $440/person; 5 days, $775/person
5700 Saddlebrook Way
Wesley Chapel, FL 33543-4499
Seasons. The resort and its Hopman tennis programs operate year-round; however, given the grueling nature of these clinics, you should think twice about coming in summer—unless, of course, you want to work out in hot, humid conditions. Principally for that reason, the camps are generally two to three times larger during the fall, winter, and spring than in summer.
Travel Instructions. By Air: Saddlebrook is 25 miles north of Tampa International Airport (TPA). Shuttles and rental cars are available. By Car: Take I-75 to the SR 54 exit and continue east 1 mile. The entrance is on the right.