Welcome to Florida Week! As the tours head southeast for the Miami Open, TENNIS.com and Baseline will feature all things Sunshine State. You’ll learn about the personalities, stories, teams and venues that have made Florida one of the tennis capitals of the world. We’ll also be reporting from the Miami Open in Key Biscayne.
As you’ll learn this week, when it comes to tennis, Florida isn’t just a state—it’s a state of mind.
The Colony. It was an appropriate name, once you dropped the “Beach & Tennis Resort” tag that once appeared in the ads. In those pre-internet days, those ads ran in travel publications and what once were called “women’s” magazines. But first and foremost, they appeared in tennis magazines.
The Colony. It was a nice and simple name. It also was the perfect name. The noun “colony” implies a like purpose for the constituents. For the Jamestown colony, established in 1607 in what is now Virginia, that purpose was establishing the first English settlement in the new world. Yaddo is an artist’s colony, where creative souls bivouac to create art (and drink lots of white wine) undisturbed. The Colony Beach & Tennis Resort, on Longboat Key near Sarasota, Fla., also boasted a mission. It was never declared and it certainly wasn’t a mandate. The Colony, while open to all, was for tennis players.
Like the Jamestown Colony, The Colony resort is gone, the victim of changing times. In recent years, a complicated, bitter, protracted and costly war between the operators of The Colony’s resort portion and the property’s condo owners ran the place into the ground. The big winner in the end was Unicorp National Developments Inc., an Orlando-based developer that bought the entire property last July. The new owners will raze The Colony and create a luxury resort more to their liking.
For over 40 years, The Colony was the grand dame of vacation destinations for devoted tennis players. It didn’t offer the Angeleno gloss of La Costa, in California, with its celebrity head coach, Pancho Segura. It wasn’t floating on the cushion of a massive development plan to fund it, as was Sea Pines Plantation on Hilton Head Island, S.C., where the figurehead pro was Stan Smith. It didn’t boast that it was the home, or at least the second home, to many of the best tennis pros in the world. That honor went to Lakeway, the community/resort affiliated with the World Championship Tennis tour.
What The Colony had was street cred with no-nonsense tennis players. It was authentic. It had a vibe, one that developed organically, not out of some MBA’s data-driven business plan.
And The Colony had the man who had helped create and tune that vibe for millions of tennis nuts at a time when tennis in the U.S. was booming. That was Bud Collins, the late journalist and television commentator. The Colony is where Bud and a few of his NBC television-network cronies came up with a revolutionary idea while debating when to broadcast the men’s Wimbledon final because of the tricky time-zone difference.
The result of Bud’s breakfast at the Colony was “Breakfast at Wimbledon,” an annual broadcast that helped put tennis on the sporting map in the United States.
It was a perfect storm during the most exciting period in American tennis history. The Colony featured the following: a Florida setting consisting of equal parts tennis courts and beachfront; on-site proprietors (the Klaubers) who shared the enthusiasms of their guests; dedicated, if not celebrated, teaching pros; and Collins, who knew everyone by name and winged it successfully if he didn’t.
Among other contributions, Collins created and ran an annual “hackers tournament” for years.
“That event was thought up by Bud and (Colony founder) Murf Klauber when they were trying to figure out how to fill up empty rooms between Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Anita Ruthling Klaussen, Bud’s wife of over 25 years, recently told me. “The hackers tournament went on for over 20 years, attracting all levels of players who wanted to have fun. And boy, did Bud make it fun.
"A week of playing tournament tennis at various levels. There were some excellent players as well as beginners. Bud loved them all.”
The early days at the Colony were the best days, but I guess that’s what people say about places like the Colony, or CBGB (if you were a New York punk rocker) or the top of Mount Everest (if you climbed it before that Jon Krakauer book). I stayed at The Colony a number of times, usually because I was interviewing a tennis player who lived nearby or was passing through.
It’s hard to overstate the degree of obsession some people developed during the tennis boom of the early 1970s. They were greedy for the game, partly because so many of them came to the game as adults. They did everything they could to achieve the impossible, which was to wind up with a game that looked as if they had been hitting tennis balls regularly since age 8.
In the backwash of the 1960s, people were still experimental and sometimes hedonistic. People threw tennis parties, where hitting balls and hitting on others consumed most of an evening. The men wore tighty-whities, gold medals nestled in their chest hair or puka shells strung around their necks. The women tied their hair back with bright yarn, and their socks had little pom-poms poking out of the heel cups. They were almost all white, at least at The Colony, and gloriously tanned from the tops of their ankles to the hems of their tiny white or pastel tennis skirts.
Sometimes, at the post-hackers tournament dinner or in a lounge, Colonists would hit the dance floor and incorporate shadow tennis strokes into their moves, wriggling their palms through forehands or punching out replica volleys in time to the music. That’s how crazy they were about the game. But plenty of the Colonists were there on family vacations, too, the entire brood taking lessons and participating in clinics until they were all ready to drop.
I was last at The Colony on behalf of TENNIS Magazine in early winter of 1994, shortly before the comeback of Monica Seles. If memory serves, she was giving me the first long, sit-down interview since the terrible stabbing incident that interrupted her career. Seles lived nearby, and she was also playing an exhibition during the hackers tournament, her opponent a 13-year-old Russian kid named Anna Kournikova.
The tournament’s closing banquet was that evening. I was seated at the same table as Kournikova and her minders, led by her mother, Alla. Also with us were Bud and Anita Collins. When the music came on, Anna bolted onto the dance floor, utterly unselfconscious. She began to fling herself around with abandon, inspiring a few other bold souls to drift onto the dance floor as well.
All the while, we had all been enjoying the food and free-flowing drinks. When Alla Kournikova decided to dance, there was no stopping her. We hit the floor. She wanted to stay for the slow dance, too. I pretty much had to hold up her entire body weight as I shuffled us around and tried to navigate my way through a whispered conversation. I occasionally darted glances over her shoulder at our table and the two tough, fit-looking Russian guys who could not be mistaken for English tutors.
Ultimately, though, Anna noticed what was happening and it seemed to upset her. She suddenly wanted to leave. But Alla wanted to stay. Anna grabbed her mom and practically dragged her to the door. Maybe that helps explain why I always had a soft spot for Anna, even when she contracted celebrity disease.
There was a sedate, idyllic side to The Colony as well. The beach was, if not secluded, quiet and usually sparsely populated. Bud and Anita swam there every morning.
“People would wonder about us as we were going out swimming in the rain,” Anita recalled. “If they said something, Bud would reply, ‘Isn’t it awful? Rain! I hate to get wet when I swim.’”
Sometimes there were jellyfish, which Anita hated. She laughs when she remembers the time that she removed her bathing suit back at the condo to find a dozen jellyfish lodged inside. It’s about the only unpleasant memory she has of The Colony, which is a pretty good track record for the place.
If a guest finds a jellyfish in his or her swimsuit when the projected five-star resort—to be built on the site of the old Colony—opens on New Year’s Eve of 2020, it will probably be the closest thing to a carryover tradition from The Colony days. There will be no tennis component at the new resort; not a single court. The developers seem almost proud of that.
"I don't think, in today's market, the upscale client is looking for what The Colony once offered," Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County, told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. "There's a generational change, so to see a new product in its place absolutely makes sense."
Haley is probably is right. She says it all when she calls the place that used to be the Colony “a new product.”
The new guys will probably put up a sign that reads: “Danger! No Swimming—Jellyfish!”
All photos above are courtesy of Anita Ruthling Klaussen.
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