Sea Island, Georgia, Gets "Jensenized"
By Roger Cox, Editor
November 2012. Murphy Jensen is giving each of us a choice as we attempt to return his serve.
"Which do you want?" he asks. "Mama's Meatloaf? The Mercy? The Monster? The Salmon Killer?" though he also threw in, without warning or request, the underhand serve he calls "The Michael Chang."
When I visited Sea Island in Georgia in November, Murphy had been tennis director for just over seven months, but he had already infused new life into the on-court programming. The weekly calendar, even in what is technically a slower, shoulder season, was awash with daily tennis drill sessions and pro doubles workouts for adults and sessions of the Murphy Jensen Tennis Academy for kids ages 4 to 18, beginners to tournament players. Parlaying his coaching skills—he has taken the Washington Kastles of World Team Tennis to a 32-0 record—and outsized personality, he'd grown the local junior tennis program from a few kids to over 50, not by promising them greatness but by seducing them with his infectious enthusiasm for the game.
I'd come down for a mini version of a Jensen Brothers Weekend—minus his brother Luke, who is the resort's touring pro and was off coaching the Syracuse University women's tennis team. It not only afforded a chance to see the significant changes that had taken place at the resort since my last visit a decade ago, but also to explore their plans to, as Murphy put it, "bring a little Jensen excitement to Sea Island."
Sea Island had undergone an wide-ranging makeover since my last visit a decade ago. The original Cloister—a pink palace designed by Addison Mizner back in 1928—had been replaced by a handsome new hotel, also called the Cloister, built in Spanish Mediterranean style and situated to overlook the Black Banks River and the salt marshes beyond. Where the old hotel had stood now rose a fabulous 65,000-square-foot spa and the best-equipped and most appealing resort fitness center I can ever remember seeing. Just beyond, an arched portal framed by two wrought-iron gates leads into the Cloister Tennis Center and its eight Har-Tru courts. A long covered deck with a beam ceiling extends along the entire length of the main show court: a sunken stadium with terraced seating on both sides and green, ivy-like vegetation covering both back walls. A central walkway of inlaid brick leads to the remaining courts, which have been framed in weathered wooden posts and soft, semitransparent netting.
I first caught up with Murphy at Tavola, an Italian restaurant in the Cloister whose chef, Paola Bugli, is of Italian descent. When the conversation got around to those courts, Murphy took off in an unexpected direction. "When the tykes and super tykes see the clay courts, they want to make sand castles," he told me. "So I just get down on the ground and make sand castles with them."
At 6'4" and completely bald, he must look like a jolly giant to those little kids. But if building sand castles with them is what it takes to get them interested in tennis, then he's perfectly happy to get down in the dirt. What I remember from meeting Luke years ago—and now reinforced from meeting Murphy—is how much these brothers genuinely care about getting people to love the game of tennis as much as they do. You can't be around either of them without catching their infectious enthusiasm. Both love the stage and love the attention, but most of all they love tennis and want everyone else to love it, too.
And that's what attracted management to them as well. "We really, really liked their energy, and the fact that not only are they incredible tennis players and teachers, but they have these very engaging, outgoing personalities, and are very hospitality driven," Managing Director Rick Riess told me. "Murphy had a TV show, he travels around, he knows lots of people, he's very, very well connected in the tennis world, very well connected in a lot of different worlds," he continued. "The more time we spent with them, the better it felt and the better the fit felt so we brought them on board. And since coming on board they've re-energized tennis at Sea Island. We've got not only our resort guests excited about it, we have our members excited about it and they're doing all kinds of fun events. They started this event called Friday Night Lights with cocktails and rock-and-roll music and they do a bit of teaching and it's just a breath of fresh air."
After a very busy summer—which is high season at Sea Island—Murphy finally has time to begin to plot out a direction for the resort tennis. "It's a marathon and not a sprint," he told me. "I'd rather build a great foundation slowly put the pieces together correctly. There's so much tradition here with the opportunity to expand and build on this because there's a blank canvas and a challenge to it. " His goal is nothing less than making this the premier tennis resort in the country. Beyond what he has already done, he hopes to lure ATP and WTA players to train here; add a tennis concierge to arrange matches; stage Jensen Brothers Tennis Weekends that mix instruction, competition, and socializing on and off court; introduce technological tools to enhance instruction, like 3-D cameras; run junior tournaments; and even show current or vintage tennis matches on a bigscreen in the stadium court. But he and Luke feel they can make the greatest impact by starting their own adult academy devoted to doubles.
"If I'm not making it fun out here and at the same time you're learning the game at a high level, I'm not doing my job."
"People tell me, 'I want to hit a forehand like Roger Federer,'" Murphy said during our Tavola dinner. "And I tell them, 'So do I.' I'm not going to teach you how to play like Roger Federer, but I can teach you how to play doubles like the greatest doubles players in the game. My feeling on that is there's never been a camp or an academy where we specialize in doubles, where we take the tools and the tricks of Leander Paes, John McEnroe, Rick Leach, the Jensen Brothers, Peter Fleming, you name it. Doubles, doubles, doubles. I can become the premier doubles destination, almost we're calling it Doubles Heaven." (I've posted a short video of Murphy discussing his approach on Tennis Resorts Online's Sea Island web page, where you'll also find details about the other recreation and amenities at the resort.)
For those of us participating in the mini Jensen weekend, the morning of doubles drills culminated in that face-off against Murphy's serve. In round 1, you simply needed to get a racquet on the ball to survive. In Round 2 you had to get the ball in play, and if you survived to Round 3, if you got the ball in play, you played out the point. Murphy claims in a comment on my blog that in that second round I returned a ball hit at 150 mph. Half of that was true. I did luckily block back a hard, flat serve but it was nowhere near 150 mph and in any case that wasn't really the point. Murphy knows that it's a thrill for most of us to face a Grand Slam winner across the net and that opportunities like that are rare. He and Luke used to high five their spectators and sign autographs until their hands cramped because they know that that's all part of getting people excited about the game. Hitting a few serves and filling in in the 3.5 doubles round robin (which he does) and getting down in the dirt with kids are just other ways to celebrate the game, something Luke and Murphy have made a career of doing. And really, says Murphy, that is their ultimate goal: "If I'm not making it fun out here and at the same time you're learning the game at a high level, I'm not doing my job."
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