The Algarve, the historical province along Portugal's Atlantic-washed southern coast, lures four million visitors annually. They're drawn by the sunny climate and a collection of dumbfoundingly beautiful beaches: broad boulevards of soft sand often bordered by ocher-colored cliffs. In summer, parts of it rival the beach-centric party atmosphere of a St. Tropez, yet head inland just a few kilometers and you'll find yourself in a medieval castle town or white-washed village of narrow streets, or head west to the undeveloped coastline favored by surfers. Nature lovers can explore the marshes, creeks, dunes, beaches, and hiking trails of Ria Formosa Nature Park, an 18,000-hectare sanctuary for flora and fauna in the Algarvian capital of Faro, itself the home to the gilded, 13th-century Sé Cathedral. Whatever you do, expect to dine on freshly caught seafood, taste spicy piri piri chicken, and sample delicious—and inexpensive—wines from unfamiliar grape varieties. And all of this is very accessible:from the U.S., from New York City I flew courtesy of TAP Portugal into Faro, the Algarve's airport, after connecting in Lisbon.
Woven into this remarkable landscape is an exceptional collection of golf courses—some 42 in all if you count both 9-hole and 18-hole layouts—several designated as world-class and must-play by the PGA. What you don't hear as much about are the opportunities for tennis players, even though, as I found on a visit in October, there are exceptional facilities located right alongside some of the fabled fairways. So what follows is an overview of the best tennis the Algarve has to offer.
With 10 hard and four artificial red-clay tennis courts and three padel courts set on a handsome campus of trees, lawns, and flowers near the heart of the 1,100-acre resort, Vale do Lobo boasts having the largest resort tennis complex in the Algarve. Photos of John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Stefan Edberg, and Sergi Bruguera, and others line the walls of the clubhouse, a reminder of the Grand Champions tournament that took place there from 2001-2010. Though still the host site for some ITF junior and Portuguese national tournaments, it stands out now for its well-established tennis holiday program. A one-week package available to groups or individuals bundles 10 hours of on-court drills with doubles and mixed matches, video analysis, and a BBQ and concludes with an exhibition, weekly prize giveaway, and a cocktail party. The clubhouse has a pro shop, fitness center, small cafe and bar, a swimming pool, and massage rooms and lockers. There is lodging in a kitchen-equipped apartment or villa so close as to be within walking distance, and guests can otherwise get around on a free on-demand shuttle to the beach, its two championship golf courses, an elaborate mini-golf layout, or any of 15 restaurants, bars, and nightclub.
Vale do Lobo tennis is so popular in summer as to require 14 coaches, with adult and junior clinics taking place at the same time. That success can be traced to manager Pedro Frazao, who rose to the Top 10 in Portugal before the army interrupted his career. In his 20 years at the club, he has expanded the junior programming and introduced padel, on the one hand to lure more families, on the other to increase participation. "We are known for our tennis holidays," he told me as we sat on the deck watching the semis of an ITF under 18 tournament taking place just below us. "Our clientele comes mainly from the UK. The academy runs year round but is busiest in summer." During other times of the year he stages special events, like this junior tournament, the National Veterans Magnesium OK Championships, which draws Portugal's top players, or the Padel Nations Cup. It's not enough to have the Algarve's largest tennis complex, he also wants it to be the busiest.
Quinta do Lago has been a synonym for exceptional golf virtually since it opened 46 years ago thanks to its three award-winning golf courses, golf academy, and TaylorMade Performance Center. But late in 2018 it added an entirely new dimension in recreation and training with the debut of The Campus, a €10 million, state-of-the-art multi-sport complex at the heart of the resort. Designed to accommodate every level of athlete, it consists of not one but two high-performance gyms, an aquatic center, facilities for physiotherapy, a bike shed, a hybrid football pitch, four Padel courts, and six tennis courts, two of them synthetic red clay. And then to make it easy to hang around, there is a small cafe overlooking the courts and a vast sports bar and grill. The depth and quality of the facilities has allowed it to lure entire professional teams, like the soccer's Glasgow Rangers and the Irish National Rugby Union, who come specifically to train. For the rest of us there are daily programs in the various activities, supplemented by guest appearances of professional athletes on hand to run camps and clinics. Which is how I ended up on court with Judy Murray.
She first started coming down even before The Campus had fully opened and liked what she found. "It has a lovely vibe to it," she told me as we sat in a small cafe overlooking the courts. "It's quite small. It's nicely laid out. It has great staff, so friendly, great dishes and coffees, you can sit out and watch the tennis and see everything that's going on. So they asked me to come out for a few days and do some training with their team of Portuguese coaches and then to commit to a number of weeks where I would host holiday camps for both kids and adults and promote the facility." That led to visits three times a year: at Easter, in summer, and during the fall school break.
The Campus markets those holiday camps year-round, with programs for kids starting with the red ball up to adults. Most are run by local staff, but a few will be headlined by celebrities like Murray (she couldn't say whether she herself would be back next year). A big part of that effort will be to lure teams and groups of friends during the less-trafficked shoulder and off seasons, with packages that bundle lodging in villas or in the Magnolia Hotel, a former motel with an engaging Palm Springs vibe and a pool, fitness center, restaurant, and bar. And the tennis and Campus facilities aside, Quinta do Lago has one other unusual characteristic: the property abuts Ria Formosa Nature Park, with direct access via hiking trails and a long boardwalk out to a pristine beach, bereft of any development but a seasonal seafood restaurant and beach shack. Admittedly, it takes more effort to get there, but the benefit is that even at the height of summer, it remains crowd-free.
Where Vale do Lobo and Quinta do Lago sprawl over thousands of acres, Pine Cliffs adopts a smaller footprint, albeit one spectacularly set among the pines atop a cliff high above one of the Algarve's most photogenic beaches. At its heart is an elegant 217-room hotel, with white walls and terra-cotta floors and accommodations notable for their elaborate hand-painted tile headboards. The hotel is supplemented by another 148 luxury one- and two-bedroom apartments dubbed Ocean Suites, between them enough to house as many as 3,000 people in high season. Overall, the amenities extend to nine swimming pools—one of them indoors and heated—a spa, fitness center with ocean views, high-end retail, a culinary school, a large kids' club with its own swimming pool, and 11 restaurants and bars. A nine-hole golf course winds through the property, its most dramatic hole requiring a cliff-top shot across a ravine with the beach in view 200 feet below. Access to that beach is via a glass-walled elevator down the face of the red sandstone cliff to the sand below.
Tennis, too, occupies a significant place in the resort with a five-court complex that is home to the Annabel Croft Tennis Academy. British-born Croft won the Australian and Wimbledon junior titles and quickly rose to a career-high ranking of No. 24 in the world before abruptly retiring, at age 22, to pursue a career in broadcasting. Her academy, which debuted here six years ago, is run by Gonçalo Salles Portas, a personable and highly animated figure whose lengthy resume includes almost two decades as a traveling coach with IMG Academy and work with a number of top-ranked players, among them Maria Sharapova, Caroline Wozniaki, and Kei Nishikori. Here he spearheads a year-round program of holiday camps, for adults and juniors, on the hotel's two red clay and three hard courts, all of which have lights. From March to October, the calendar also includes a "Winner's Cup" tournament—with a division for juniors if numbers merit it—whose modest entry fees are donated to a local foundation. Each week's victor is invited to come back in February for a playoff and the chance at some fabulous prizes, including a paid a vacation at another Luxury Collection hotel, perhaps Dubai or Paris, while junior winners take home bikes, iPhones, racquets.
In summer, the courts are busy from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., when as many as eight other pros join Portas to handle the demand for lessons and clinics. There's a pleasant patio beneath some trees between the red-clay and hard courts, a padel court, and a tiny pro shop with little more than a desk and some accessories but crucial as a staging area for all the on-court activity. There's also a board for those looking for a game. When I asked whether there were other social tennis events, for example Cardio tennis, Portas replied, "We don't have Cardio classes because my sessions are all aerobic." No doubt as someone who helped train Sharapova and Nishikori, he has no trouble making sure you get the workout you need, too.
The Penina Hotel near Portimao and its Sir Henry Cotton Championship Golf Course opened in 1966. Considered a masterpiece of design, at once challenging and beautiful, the course would eventually host 10 Portuguese Opens, and helped to establish the Algarve as a golf destination. The resort later added two additional 9-hole courses and a golf academy and a complex of five tennis courts.
"Twenty years ago the resort was known for its tennis, too," Joao Pinheiro, the resort's marketing director told me. "Then the former management focused on golf, bringing in large groups who left no rooms available for the tennis groups who wanted to come." The current management, JJW Hotels & Resorts, wants to change that. Now the host site for the Portugal Tennis Tour Under 16s, the hotel is seeing a renewed interest among tennis vacationers. It has resurfaced two of the five terraced hard courts and will resurface the remaining three by Easter of 2020 and has begun to promote the resort as a destination for groups.
The hotel, while very traditional in its public spaces—the original owner had ties to the British royal family—has handsomely updated the 188 rooms, all of which have balconies. The swimming pool is one of the largest in the Algarve and its also has a amenity-rich, dedicated kids' club which has its own swimming pool and has the added benefit of being complimentary. There are five restaurants on site, and its location several kilometers inland means you can escape the crowds that throng places like nearby Portimao while still having access to a beach and beach club, which is a free shuttle ride away. Says Pinheiro: "Here they can hear the sound of birds in the morning" rather than those of revelers who've been out all night. The junior tournament has contracted for another two years and there is a local teaching professional on call for lessons. When it comes to tennis, this is, truthfully, a work-in-progress, but, says Pinheiro, the exposure they're getting from the tournament has led to a rediscovery of Penina's possibilities as a tennis destination and inquiries from groups about coming down. And, indeed, a tennis group from Great Britain was checking in as I checked out.
With nearly 30 years in the business, Jonathan Markson Tennis is a synonym for tennis holiday, with destinations in England, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, South Africa, and the Canary Islands. Unsurprisingly, his Portugal sessions take place in the Algarve: at Praia de Luz—which also offers some singles weeks—and Amendoeira. These are typically week long sessions with three hours of tennis each morning and free time the rest of the day.
John Woods has just retired after more than four decades as director of tennis at Resort at Longboat Key Club on Florida's Gulf Coast. He is the virtually only director the club has ever known, having started out in 1978 at what was then a six-court facility with a tiny pro shop at the heart of a nascent real-estate development. With the opening of a resort hotel in 1983, tennis began to extend its footprint, eventually comprising 38 courts: 18 at what was known as Islandside, another 20 at Harbourside. In 2009, the focus shifted to Harbourside, with the construction of a $4.5 million state-of-the-art 20-court tennis facility with an underground watering system and a stadium court, a complex Woods helped to design and one that solidified the resort's Gold Medal ranking in our annual list of the Top 100 Resorts and Camps.
He traces his passion for tennis to his older brother David, who convinced him to take up tennis at age 13 in order to play in the upcoming Midland Open Tennis Championships, which were just two weeks away. A baseball player who'd never picked up a racquet, Woods nevertheless couldn't say no to his brother and spent the next fortnight of summer days learning to play and becoming passionate about the game. It would take him to a scholarship to play for Texas Tech University and then to a three-year- stint with Roy Emerson and Rod Laver as part of their Laver-Emerson Tennis camp program. Woods plans to stay with the club through the Joey Gratton Boys and Girls Club Benefit Tournament, which will be held Oct. 18-20. On Nov. 12, the Tennis Association will honor Woods and his wife, Beth, at the annual Fall Frolic event. After that, he wants to spend more time with his family in Texas, but he may not disappear entirely from the courts at Longboat Key. "We've always had a pro-member at the club and I'm sure Sammy Aviles will invite me back for that. I'm not looking to get away from the club, just looking to retire."
Taking over for Woods is Briana Harris Francois, a former WTA touring pro with 20 years experience, which included eight years at the Resort's summer camp director.
In what has become, for him, a nearly annual tradition, E.J. "Terry" III made his way back to Texas for another gathering of Tennis Legends at the John Newcombe Tennis Ranch. As he has for seven of the last nine years, blogged about his experiences, with wit and self-deprecating humor. He provided daily reports from the front lines as he mingled with a stellar collection of tennis greats—among them John Newcombe, Roy Emerson, Owen Davidson, Marty Riessen, Mark Woodforde, Johan Kriek, Charlie Pasarell, Ross Case, Dick Stockton, Brian Gottfried, Rick Leach, Luke Jensen, and Murphy Jensen. The men's-only Tennis Fantasies has been going on for more than 30 years and attracts nearly 100 less-that-legendary participants, bent on a week of competition and camaraderie. If you'd like to hear about how the Aussies feel about the proposed changes to Davis Cup, or what Newk learned about Kate and William's tennis games while sitting in the Royal Box at Wimbledon, or what Mark Woodforde did when he broke his only four racquets, or why, after seven years, Kahn finds the experience grows richer and richer, then start with Arrival Day: Ritual? Pilgrimage? Both.
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