Not long after arriving at the resort, I boarded a shuttle to Racquet Park, whose 23 Har-Tru courts—one of them a sunken stadium—sprawl through a forest of live oak trees, their branches dripping with Spanish moss.
Built during the tennis boom, the complex not only benefits from a generous layout but its own set of amenities, among them a fitness center, indoor lap pool and Jacuzzi in a greenhouse–style building, and even a newly renovated restaurant and bar, the Verandah. I’d arranged to meet up with Cliff Drysdale Tennis’ director Scott Colebourne and his assistant director Sal Barbaro.
I’d met Colebourne before at Stratton Mountain Resort in Vermont after he launched a branch of Cliff Drysdale Tennis there. Tall and personable,he’d played junior tennis in his native New Zealand, competed in a few ITF tournaments and then played college tennis first in the U.S. and then back in New Zealand. Returning to the U.S. he got his start with the Drysdale group at the Southampton Racquet Club on New York’s Long Island and then with a club in Miami before moving to Vermont in 2009. Barbaro, who was born in Mexico but moved the U.S. at age 5, was introduced to tennis as a camper at the John Newcombe Tennis Ranch in Texas. “My parents would send me there for months at a time,” he told me, adding “I’m not sure whether that was a good thing or a bad thing.” He eventually took a job at Newk’s teaching juniors and ultimately rose to the position of co-director of the adult camps.
The most obvious change since my last visit was the amount of on-court activity. Although it was the middle of the afternoon—traditionally a slow time at warm-weather resorts—there was a lot going on. A group of four- and five-year-olds were giggling and running around getting an introduction to tennis via a Quickstart program. Matches were taking place on several of the courts—including the sunken stadium—and some early arrivals were warming up prior to a social round robin. Two women were working out on a ball machine. Colebourne had been there less than a year but had already made an impact, reinvigorating the local membership and beefing up the roster of weekly tennis activities. Five couples from Indiana—who knew Barbaro from Newk’s ranch—had signed up for five days of tennis school, their numbers supplemented locals.
“When I first arrived, I was surprised the local members only came to the courts to play,” Colebourne told me. “Then didn’t think about signing up for clinics because clinics and drills hadn’t been offered until we arrived.” He wants to encourage everyone, resorts and locals alike, to get more out of their tennis, whatever that means for them. “Our goal is for more people to play tennis and we understand that not everybody wants a clinic. So by helping people to find matches and offering clinics, then we’re really helping more people to play tennis.”
That isn’t idle talk. When I first walked into the tennis shop, Freda Morton was behind the desk, where she’s been for 15 years. Though she didn’t know me, her first question was, “Are you looking for a game?” After I introduced myself, she showed me the form they use to gather guest’s tennis information and preferences. “That goes to Scott and he tries to set them up using our list of locals and members.” There are also several round robins each week that afford guests a chance to meet other players.
I was drafted to make an even 16 players for the three-hour morning tennis school, which included those 10 players from Indiana. For most everyone else on court this was day two and the drills, focused around the transition game and characterized by a lot of movement, wasted no time in getting our heart rates up. With four players on the court and the pro often feeding to two at a time, these were fast-paced drills—faster than is typical of resort camps—that tested footwork and stamina as well as stroke production. Comments about faulty technique, both general and individual, tended to be pointed and simple. And instead of making us move from court to court, as is typical, the pros switched, giving us a few minutes to towel off, chat, and hydrate between sessions.
The second hour differed from the first by switching to more live-ball drills and competition, playing out the point after the pro’s initial feed. The third hour comprised king-of-the-court competition, pairing us for doubles with players from other courts and then for mixed doubles. When the pairings turned out to be uneven for mixed, Barbaro drew the short straw and was drafted as a woman, pulling a skirt on over his shorts and earning the nickname, “Sally,” very different from the nickname he relishes, “Ironman,” a moniker he frequently brings up himself, calling it “an obvious reference to my physique.”
It was a great morning. Temperatures were comfortably in the high 70s though that didn’t keep me from consuming three bottles of Gatorade and one of water (all kept on ice at courtside). Later, after a relaxing lunch, I stood up to find I was very sore—not injured, but that satisfying pain that comes after your first really good workout of the outdoor tennis season, coupled in this case, with a few solid tips on improving strokes.
If I’d been there on vacation—as opposed to an assignment—I could easily have done the camp (or at least the first two hours of drills) each morning and a round robin, pickup match (Colebourne phoned me twice to see whether I could fill in), or a lesson in the afternoon. Instead I spent some of the rest of that time walking the four miles of beach, taking a nature tour by bike, checking out the Saturday morning Farmers’ Market, and eating well. The official grand opening is still a few weeks away but the Omni Amelia Island Plantation has already hit its stride. A new open lobby with views of the ocean and a vast pool deck with 600 lounge chairs are the most obvious differences since my last visit, but service, too, in much improved and so is the food in the nine restaurants.
But it’s the tennis that matters most to me—and, presumably, to you—and Colebourne’s goal is nothing less that making this the No. 1 resort in the nation.
“I openly talk about this with staff and other people at the resort,” he told me. “My goal is for the Omni Amelia Island Plantation to be the No. 1 tennis destination in the country by 2015, and we see that as a very feasible goal. Our daily clinics
are one part of it, game matching, our Quickstart programs and summer junior camps (for kids 4-12), our Legends weeks with Cliff Drysdale. We have a Men’s and a Women’s Futures event, we’ve got plans for a men’s professional event later in the year, so there’s all these different parts that will make the plantation becoming a true tennis destination.”
He’s well on his way.