Officially, Texas Hill Country encompasses some 25 counties in central and southern Texas, but the region of greatest interest to vacationing tennis players is a quadrant roughly defined by Marble Falls, Austin, San Antonio, and fredericksburg. It's a place of tall, rugged hills, shot through with limestone and granite and tufted with yucca, prickly pear cactus, cedar shrub, and Texas live oak. Tennis aside, the draw is a melange of natural, man-made, historic, and cultural attractions from the panoramic views atop the pink-granite dome of Enchanted Rock to Gruene Hall, Texas' oldest dance hall, in New Braunfels. It includes Austin—the "Live Music Capital of the World"—which is home to more than 100 live music venues not to mention authentic barbecue at James Beard award-winning Franklin Barbecue and year-round swimming in the spring-fed, three-acre Barton Springs pool. The lure continues at Marble Falls to the north, a region with five picturesque lakes and some of the state's top wineries—yes, wineries: the Lone Star State has more than 400 wineries, making it the nation's fifth largest wine-producing state. And if you follow the wine trail in spring you can delight in fields of bluebonnets, the state flower whose bloom Texas celebrates with a festival in April.
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Bluebonnets and other wildflowers make spring one of the most appealing times to visit. So do daytime temperatures, which are typically in the 70s and 80s—ideal for hiking, birdwatching, kayaking, golf, tennis, and other outdoor activities. It's also a time of festivals: bluebonnets aside, there are others devoted to chili, quilting, hot-air ballooning, flyfishing, and even Celtic music and dance. And on top of all that, the Texas Hill Country is home to a trio of notable tennis resorts, one of which hosts two annual fantasy camps with some of the legends of the game. So if you routinely travel with a tennis racquet, here's an overview of the best tennis the Texas Hill Country has to offer.
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When it comes to tennis camps, the John Newcombe Tennis Ranch, in New Braunfels, is an Old School tennis camp, in the best sense of the word. Days spent drilling and competing are followed by nights of shared meals and camaraderie. Tennis matters but so does spending time with your mates. That Aussie formula persists year-round at the Ranch, but for a few days in October and again in March the atmosphere gets supercharged by the presence of Newk himself and a collection of other legends.
The October men's-only event draws upwards of a hundred, racquet-wielding competitors for a fantasy week of coaching, competition, banter, and world-class trash talk with some dozen tennis Legends, including Newk, Roy Emerson, and Owen Davidson. (My friend Terry Kahn has written wittily about his participation several times on Tennis Resorts Online's blog.) The March co-ed camp follows a similar format and headlines several of the same Legends—Newk, Emerson, Davidson, and Ross Case—but in deference to a mixed audience sheds the locker-room shenanigans.
When I attended last year, the group of 50+ participants consisted of both couples and individuals, a little more than half of us Fantasy Camp rookies. Organizer Steve Contardi greeted everyone as they arrived, handing out a swag bag containing a sweatshirt, two T-shirts, and a hat before getting us checked in and off to our rooms before a 3 p.m. gathering to introduce the Legends and camp pros and review the week's schedule. There we learned we'd be drafted onto one of two teams: the Wallabies, captained by Newk and Ross Case (a.k.a "Snake"), or the Kookaburras, led by Roy Emerson ("Emmo") and Owen Davidson ("Davo"). From there, the old hands went to upper courts to drill and play, while the rookies were parceled out to other courts—men in one direction, women in the other—with Ranch pros for rounds of forehands, backhands, approach shots, volleys, and overheads as team captains watched to decide whom they wanted to recruit. As we headed out, Newk set the bantering tone for the week: "Don't be nervous just because players with 150 Grand Slam titles are checking out your strokes."
Happy hour and snacks in the Ranch's Billabong Bar followed before a dinner of dinner of steak, salmon, salad, green beans, penne pasta, red or white wine, followed by a dessert of cheesecake. Afterward we gathered in a conference room for a rap session, where the legends assessed the futures of a variety of players, men and women, then playing at Indian Wells, and then continued on to the big event: the draft.
I was recruited onto the Wallabies, and as his first act as captain Newk gathered the team together to explain he expected us to have the fierceness of a Maori warrior and to that end taught us the his Wallaby war chant. This is a peculiar amalgam of "My Boomerang won't come back," the old Witch Doctor song (you know, the one that begins "oo ee oo ah ah"), a cry of "family, liberty, fight," accompanied by gestures too complicated to explain here. I'm not sure it terrified opponents so much as made them wonder about our sanity.
The next two days typically began with a legend giving tips—Newk on the lob, Emmo on volleys—followed by matches, men's or women's doubles mostly (only one round was mixed), occasionally interrupted by the rain. The legends roamed the courts, at times shouting encouragement or suggesting tactics. I don't know whether the war chant or taxidermied wallaby played a role, but the team competition came down to an entertaining women's doubles match, which the Wallabies pulled out in a third-set super tiebreaker.
But the chance to play for, and to some degree be coached by, the legends is only one aspect of what makes a camp like this so memorable. The nightly rap sessions wander widely from—often funny—reminiscences about their own crucial matches, insights about being on the tour, and enthusiasm for up-and-coming players. The Legends are approachable at the courts, sometimes give off-hand personal tips, and sit with you at dinner. It's impossible to imagine that you'll ever be able to do something similar with a Roger Federer or Rafa Nadal or Novak Djokovic, but you can with these legends, who like their modern counterparts were among the greatest players of their era. This year's Co-Ed Fantasy Camp takes place March 5-8.
Red clay is a rarity at resorts, especially west of the Mississippi, so the six at Horseshoe Bay Resort would stand out even if they weren't attractively situated next to a kind of peaceful Oriental garden comprised of trees, ponds, sculptures, and wooden walkways. They're part of a larger complex that includes an additional eight hard courts as well as eight pickleball courts. All of that points to a dedication to tennis, as does the enthusiasm-infused program of tennis director Michelle Stallard, a personable former University of Texas standout, who's been there since 2006.
Her weekly roster includes cardio tennis classes and mixed tennis clinics as well as services like game matching. But beyond that, she peppers the calendar with a dozen USTA-sanctioned adult tournaments on the red clay as well as Ladies' Tennis & Wine weekends, which include a visit to a local winery, and Ultimate Doubles weekend camps, both with Sunday morning mimosas and bloody Marys.
All of this takes place at a family-friendly resort/residential development on the shores of Lake Lyndon B. Johnson, 45 minutes northwest of Austin. At its core is a 400-room hotel supplemented by rental villas and private homes. The amenities radiate out from the hotel, taking in the tennis courts, three 18-hole golf courses, an 18-hole grass putting course, a spa, a fitness center, several swimming pools, a marina and yacht club, bicycle rentals, watersports activities (fishing, kayaking, sunset cruises), a jungle kids' club, seven restaurants and lounges, a collection of exotic birds, and a private airport and jet center. During peak family-vacation periods, the resort adds junior tennis camps and tournaments, teen activities, and interactive kids programs to an already busy schedule that may include live music and other entertainment and tours of the nearby wine country. Tennis, solid though it is, is only the beginning.
Omni Barton Creek is not exactly new, though management by Omni Hotels & Resorts is and so, to a degree, is the hotel itself. It reopened in May 2019 after a $150 million expansion and renovation. Now expanded to 493 rooms, the hotel at its core anchors a 4,000-acre property set in the rolling hills 10 miles northwest of downtown Austin. Much of that acreage is devoted to the four championship golf courses, variously designed by Ben Crenshaw (an Austin native), Arnold Palmer, and Tom Fazio (who was responsible for two). The latest renovations, however, also benefited tennis players, who now have a brand-new, spaciously laid out complex of 10 hard courts, all with individual LED lighting. Though now promoted to director of sports, Monte Williams continues to be in charge of the tennis operations, a position he's held since 2008. And what tennis players can now look forward to, in addition to weekly clinics, junior programs, and private lessons, are such welcome off-court amenities as an 11,000-square-foot fitness center and a new Mokara Spa, the latter with an adult-only pool and rooftop deck.
With seven restaurants and lounges, it's easy enough to settle in and never leave. On the other hand, all of this is just 10 miles from the pink-granite capitol building in Austin and from the music and comedy clubs along East 6th Street, the fabled Broken Spoke dance Hall, Franklin Barbecue, the Barton Springs swimming pool, and from mid-March into early November the nightly sunset spectacular as more than a million Mexican free-tail bats take flight to forage from beneath Congress Bridge. You can have your tennis and everything Austin offers, too.
Though located in Dallas to the north of the Texas Hill Country, this Four Seasons has to be part of any conversation about tennis vacationing in Texas. Set in the posh residential development of Las Colinas 13 miles northwest of Dallas near DFW airport, the luxury resort stands out for its phenomenally impressive 176,000 square-foot sports club, whose features include not only seemingly every possible means of working out but also eight outdoor hard tennis courts and four more indoors, the latter impressive for their shock-absorbing surface and high-quality indirect LED lighting.
Still, great tennis facilities, no matter how impressive, nonetheless depend on the quality of programming available to guests, and this Four Seasons has a long history of delivering a stellar tennis experience. Athletic Director Robin Scott oversees all the athletic programs and services for the club and resort. A former No. 1 player in Scotland, he has over 25 years of teaching experience. His head tennis professional Jerome Millet, who played the satellite tour in his native France, coordinates the on-court activities. Those include Tennis 101 and 201 programs, Cardio tennis, Early Bird workouts, evening drill sessions, several levels of junior tennis, and, most important of all if you just want to play, excellent game matching. In addition, the Four Seasons has a long history of connecting with former ATP tour players and coaches: Craig Kardon, former coach of Martina Navratilova among other WTA No. 1 players, contributes his expertise on a part-time basis. Former ATP Tour player and Grand Slam doubles champion Mark Knowles trains at the Sports Club, which is also home to current ATP Tour player Tim Smyczek. In an annual survey of members, the tennis staff ranks higher than any other Sports Club department, for overall service and quality of instruction.
The Sports Club aside, creature comforts abound. Lodging options include handsome rooms in a nine-story tower or large Tuscan-inspired light-filled villas. Add to that two golf courses—foremost among the TPC Four Seasons Las Colinas—an expansive spa, several swimming pools—one of those indoors—a Kids For All Seasons program, four restaurants and bars, and live weekend entertainment. If you're attending early next month, you can catch the RBC Tennis Championships of Dallas, held indoors, Feb. 3-9, at the TBarM Raquet Club.
The International Tennis Hall of Fame has posted a digital history of tennis racquets called "Smash Hit" on its website. It's a diverting retrospective, especially for anyone who's played the game for decades, since what you're also likely to see is a digital evolution of the technology you yourself used. But even if you're new to the game, it's fascinating to see the ancestors of the racquet you're currently using.
Tennis Resorts Online has once again secured four tennis vacations to give away in our annual drawing. Every review you file between now and April 30, 2020 gives you chance a winning one of these great tennis vacation prizes: