When I set out to research material for this newsletter last fall—a trip originally scheduled for April of 2020—it felt like a return to normalcy. Yes, I had to wear a mask in the airport and on the airplane; yet despite that, as that flight took off I had an optimistic sense that the virus was losing its grip on our lives and that this trip would be the first of more to come. My hopefulness was probably colored by a visceral need to get back on the road, not only for the joy I take in travel but also for the professional duty to personally check out, and report back to you about, changes to the tennis resort and camp landscape. I can only do so much by phone and email. Neither of those approaches is a substitute for interviewing a new tennis director or experiencing a new or enhanced program or staying in a new hotel or simply revisiting a place to refresh my information and impressions. So my plans are now to get back on the road on a regular basis—Omicron variant permitting—to update the material on my website and to publish these newsletters to let you know what I find. First stop, Florida to visit two classic tennis camps: IMG Academy Tennis Program in Bradenton and Saddlebrook Resort in Wesley Chapel.
During a morning break on the first day of an adult tennis camp at the IMG Academy Tennis Program, the legendary, 90-year-old Nick Bollettieri drove up to the courts in a golf cart to check on our progress. "I go watch courts, I give speeches, I give tips," he said of his role now that he's no longer feeding balls on court. He handed each of us a card, reading out the inspirational saying he had written on it. "We don't stand for making champions. We stand for making you as good as you can be." Or "Not I'm going to try to do it. You have to do it." He then posed for a photo op and we went back on court as the always-pumped-up adult director Roger Blackburn bellowed out his rousing mantra, "Fire it up."
Founded by Bollettieri more than 40 years ago at the defunct Colony Beach & Tennis Resort, the IMG Academy has a track record of producing champions: Monica Seles, Jim Courier, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Maria Sharapova, to name a few from a long list. Many of the juniors lured there to train full time no doubt hope to join that elite roster, though that's not what the academy promises. "We don't stand for making champions," the academy's tennis director Jimmy Arias—himself an early pupil of Bollettieri's—told me. "We stand for making you as good as you can be."
As adults, I don't think that any of the dozen of us enrolled that week had any higher expectations than to make modest improvements in our strokes, develop some consistency by hitting hundreds of balls, get a good workout, and have fun while doing it. At five hours a day, it's an intensive program but not an exhausting one. Blackburn and his solid staff complement their enthusiasm with demonstrations of how to hit the various strokes and personal attention to the issues each of us had. "We want to give you simple tips, one for each stroke," Blackburn said of their approach. Nowhere was that more evident than in the daily video sessions. With his phone on a tripod, he put four of us through forehands and backhands in roughly 5 minutes. As we hit, he focused on a single tip. "Catch it with your left hand," he repeated each time I hit a forehand. "Throw your Frisbee" on my backhand. Later in the day, that video showed up on a CoachNow app we'd been asked to download so we could review those tips at home as useful reminders of Blackburn's advice.
The implementation of that app was new since the last time I visited, and so is the option of staying at the Legacy Hotel. Built at a cost of $28 million, the 160-room lodge near the entrance to the sports complex has a restaurant and bar, swimming pool, fitness center, and spa. Staying there affords an opportunity to get together with your fellow campers off court, something that had not been easily possible when staying in a villa and eating steam-table dinners. The rooms are very comfortable, outfitted with a queensize bed, desk, two-person convertible sofa, a Keurig coffee maker, and walk-in shower. The menu at the restaurant, which is just off the lobby, runs to pasta, fish, steak, salads, sandwiches, tacos. There is one communal table framed by tables for two, four, or six and a six-stool bar that serves beer, wine, and specialty cocktails. The hotel and all its amenities round out the camp by adding a social dimension—and a very relaxed one since everyone attending the camp had had to arrive with proof of a negative Covid test. The tennis has always been good, but now a stay at the IMG Academy feels less like a boot camp and more like a vacation—at least as long as hitting tennis balls for five hours a day is your idea of fun. It is mine.
Saddlebrook Resort traces its tennis roots to the legendary Australian Davis Cup coach Harry Hopman. A notorious taskmaster, he invested the the junior program at the resort with some of same philosophy he used in training some of the Aussie legends. Some of that initially spilled over into the adult program. I still remember the first time I attended. Doing forehand and backhand drills along the baseline, the pro fed a ball seemingly out of my reach. When I didn't go for it, he hit the next one wider. "You don't know what you can get to until you try."
Over the years, Saddlebrook has softened its boot-camp approach, but it retains a pro-as-coach methodology. Rather than move from court to court and work with a variety of pros during the camp sessions, Saddlebrook has you work with the same one throughout your stay. He or she thus develops a strong sense of what you're trying to accomplish, where your strengths and weaknesses lie, and how hard you want to work.
Director Bill Heiser explains their approach. "If you come with a group of four, we can tailor a program precisely to your group's needs because we know all of you will be here together for several days," he told me. For individuals, who might attend for as little as a day or as much as a week or more, the others they're grouped with on the court might change from day to day. For them, Heiser says, "We ask what you want to work on" and then he does his best to arrange pairings based on playing levels and how many days campers will attend.
Covid has impacted the numbers of people in camp, especially those from Canada or overseas, but that has led to an unexpected benefit. "We've been able to be more individualized," he continued. That was true of my last visit, which also coincided with a slow month. There were only five of us in the camp that morning, so the two pros split us into two groups—two on one court, three on the other. It meant we received a lot of personal attention, and, as it happened, I ended up with the same coach who'd worked with me some 15 years ago.
As a resort, Saddlebrook has a broad range of amenities. The 480-acre layout, 25 miles north of Tampa, places the lodging, restaurants, shops, a lake-size swimming pool, 45 tennis courts (variously hard, HarTru, red clay, and grass), a 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." Foliage is lush, ponds and lakes dot the property, and birds are abundant, including several endangered species for which this is a refuge and a rookery. Tennis players are typically lodged in spacious rooms or one- and two-bedroom kitchen-equipped condos just off the walking village within an easy stroll of the courts.
As a gated community, it is a comfortable place for pros to train. These days you might encounter John Isner, Alexander Zverev, Hubert Hurkacz, Dennis Kudla, or top Canadian doubles specialist Gabriela Dabrowski, or Olympic bronze medalist Luisa Stefani, who came out of Saddlebrook's junior academy, while in the past it could have been Jim Courier, Pete Sampras, Martina Hingis, James Blake, Mardy Fish, Andy Roddick, Jack Sock, or Bob and Mike Bryan. It's obviously hit or miss whether that happens, but tennis is deeply ingrained in the resort's history. Even if the the adult program has adopted a softer version of Hopman's training methods, five hours a day of instruction and drills remains a demanding regimen; it's just that here it comes packaged with the creature comforts of an amenity rich resort.
If your vacations take you to different tennis resorts, the odds are you've encountered staff and programs under the direction of Cliff Drysdale Tennis (CDT) or Peter Burwash International (PBI). For decades they have operated as separate tennis-management companies, collectively providing staff and services to more than 60 clubs and resorts world wide. Now, however, they have been brought under the same corporate umbrella, after Troon®, the world's largest golf-management company, added PBI to a racquet-sports portfolio that since 2018 had also included CDT. PBI will continue to operate under the Burwash brand and be run by the same culture and leadership that has existed since its founding, according to the press release. Its President, Rene Zondag, says "This relationship brings immense support to our existing clients without compromising on the standard we have delivered for decades." And Don Henderson, CEO and President of Cliff Drysdale Tennis, is similarly enthusiastic about the benefits to tennis players. "We are very excited to welcome PBI to the Troon family," he says, "and I look forward to working together to grow our racquet sports business." By bringing CDT and PBI, together, Troon becomes the number one tennis operator in the world.
Former Saddlebrook Resort adult tennis director Howard Moore is now teaching and overseeing tennis operations at the impressive Sarah Vande Berg Tennis & Wellness Center in Zephyrhills, FL. Known at Saddlebrook for his extraordinary people skills, he is capitalizing on the club's extensive amenities to enhance the usual tennis getaway with a variety of supplemental options, including salt or cryotherapy, padel, horseback riding, and skydiving. Some meals at the club are included; however, players are on their own for lodging.
Job de Boer, the face of Sea Pines Racquet Club's tennis for decades, has retired, and Patrick O'Keefe, a former student and instructor at the Smith Stearns Tennis Academy, has taken over his position. … Wintergreen Resort in Virginia has a new tennis director, Steve Campbell. He hs 30-plus years of coaching experience at clubs and resorts. Early on he worked for Vic Braden at Coto de Casa in California and later ran the programs at Kapalua Tennis Garden on Maui in Hawaii. He's joined by his wife, Colleen Patton Campbell, a former touring pro whose championships included the Israel Open, Athens Open, and Caifornia's long-running Ojai Open. To that she adds 30 years of teaching and coaching experience. … Sundial Beach Resort & Spa on Florida's Sanibel Island continues its dual pursuit of tennis and pickleball under Josh Jeffcott, who is certified in both. … Curtain Bluff, an all-inclusive resort on the Caribbean island of Antigua has reopened following extensive renovations. Its four tennis courts, one of the resort's principal amenities, have a long history of generating tennis enthusiasm. … The Buccaneer on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands has a new tennis manager, Dean Minagami, who is keeping up the resort's tradition of putting together games and events that mix guests with locals.