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.
Just off Highway 417 sit two cream-colored marble pillars trumpeting the entrance to Lake Nona, FL. Perhaps the town should add tennis racquets to the décor, given its new designation as the gateway to American tennis.
A couple of miles to the north, a freshly paved road leads to the USTA National Campus, a 64-acre, 100-court facility that sparkles like newly-whitened teeth and is the culmination of a four-year project to merge American tennis at all levels.
“This place really is the future of tennis, not just American tennis,” says Kurt Kamperman, the USTA’s chief executive for community tennis and the USTA National Campus. “We’d like this to be for the next generation of tennis players, as well as the last generation.”
It’s easy to understand why the USTA chose Lake Nona for its new home. Since the fall of 2007, its Player Development program shared space with the Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton. But with limited court availability, a dearth of surface options and nowhere to grow, it became clear that it was time to move on.
In Lake Nona, huge and open spaces abound, an international airport is close by, housing is relatively affordable and, importantly, the land was a good deal. Among other financial incentives, Orlando alone gave the USTA $25 million in tax abatements.
Such savings allowed the USTA to add every bell and whistle imaginable to the facility. Just beyond the massive Welcome Center are tennis courts of multiple surfaces. The adidas Performance Center, home to the Player Development Program, features 20 courts, eight DecoTurf II and six European Terre Davis red clay. Thirty-two Har-Tru green clay courts are housed within the Team USA/Tournament Headquarters/League area, while six indoor Rebound Ace courts are available in order to ensure that no day goes without tennis.
Youngsters new to the game, along with their parents, have their own section of the National Campus, the Nemours Family Zone, complete with eight 36-foot and eight 60-foot hard courts, all of which are free to the public for use. Developing juniors and adults pay a nominal $12 for full-court usage, unless they are top-ranked within their section. Those players are invited by the USTA to come down to Lake Nona and train during designated camp weeks throughout the year.
But while there is housing for up to 40 residents, no juniors are allowed to stay at the National Campus for more than two weeks at a time. The goal is for players to come, learn from the best and return home to practice.
“The biggest change we’re making here is that we’re taking a more hands-on management approach,” says Martin Blackman, general manager of USTA Player Development. “This is a concerted, intentional outreach to the private sector that we are now calling Team USA. Our goal is to turn Orlando into the center of the universe, make it a world-class resource and home away from home for American players.”
“While this is the home of American tennis, we are not a tennis academy,” adds USTA president Katrina Adams. “This is not a place for players to live indefinitely.”
Top juniors may find themselves returning to the National Campus for college tennis, which has its own dedicated area. With 12 Plexicushion courts, two dual matches can be played at once. Some 300 matches will be contested this year, as well a live-streamed College Match Day series. The same courts, which are lighted for night play, will be used to host USTA League Championships at every age and ability level.
The biggest takeaway from the National Campus, however, is its array of advanced technology. The most impressive innovation centers around the 26 PlaySight SmartCourts, which feature five video cameras installed above each court. Beside each court is a kiosk that allows players and coaches to pause a practice and watch instant replay, from five different angles, as well as monitor stats from every point in a match or drill.
Kamperman expects to host more than 100 tournaments with 30,000 participants at the National Campus this year. And while the USTA would be open to discussing the future of the Miami Open, should it need to relocate from Key Biscayne, it has no intention of uprooting either the USTA National Championships from Kalamazoo and San Diego, or the US Open from Flushing Meadows.
“We’re not going to touch the tournaments that are well-run and have been successful,” insists Kamperman. “We’re not trying to tilt the table so that all events come here. We’re just trying to raise the bar for all the other tournaments.”
While the USTA seeks to develop players at all levels, leadership is acutely aware that success at the top of the pro ranks can motivate future generations.
“Obviously we’re trying to work within a benchmark of creating Top 100 players,” says Blackman. “We know we are being held accountable, so we’re trying to be flexible in our approach and engage both players and their coaches in every way possible.
“While there’s still much we don’t know, we’ve learned that the best 12-year-old rarely [turns out to be] the best 18-year-old,” adds Blackman. “When we do try to identify a child at a young age, we do more harm than good by pulling him or her away from his or her parents and local coaching situation.”
Not long ago, former world No. 1 Jim Courier and USTA coach Jose Higueras stopped by the National Campus to do a lunchtime Q&A session with younger players. Days later, Mike and Bob Bryan worked on strength-and-conditioning drills with American pros Bjorn Fratangelo and Frances Tiafoe before they departed for Australia. Madison Keys rehabbed at Lake Nona following year-end wrist surgery, and within the same week, hundreds of public parks players were flooding the facility’s courts.
For Adams, it would be a dream come true if the USTA National Campus was responsible, in some way, for consistently producing Top 10 players on the ATP and WTA tours. But to her, it would be even better to know that millions of participants of all ages and levels had found their way to Lake Nona.
“This place is designed for everybody who plays tennis,” Adams says. “We’re not trying to keep it to ourselves. We want to cover everybody from A to Z. We want to be the most talked-about game in town.”