How Florida became the tennis capital of the world

by: Steve Tignor | March 24, 2017

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Chris Evert, Nick Bollettieri and Kei Nishikori. (AP/Wikimedia Commons)

Welcome to Florida Week! As the tours head southeast for the Miami Open, 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.

If you drive south from Georgia into Florida along the Atlantic coast, the first town you come across is Fernandina Beach. “The Isle of 8 Flags” is its nickname; that’s how many times the island has changed hands since 1562, when it was first settled by Europeans. During that time, France, Spain, England, the state of Florida, the Confederacy, the U.S. and even a group of Mexican rebels have taken their turns ruling tiny Fernandina. No other municipality in the States can say the same.

But that’s Florida for you. Geographically, historically and demographically, it has always stuck out from the rest of the country, and it has always been a place that many different people have claimed as their own. From Cuban refugees in Miami to Midwestern retirees on the Gulf Coast, the Sunshine State is a land of transplants. Put those two things together—a blazing sun and an ever-diversifying population—and you’re bound to end up with a few tennis players, too. Four decades after the state’s first homegrown legend made her name on the pro tour, Florida has established itself as the world capital of the sport.

Tennis in the U.S. got its start in the grass-court clubs of the Northeast, but it was popularized on the hard courts of California. That’s where most of the country’s great champions—Jack Kramer, Pancho Gonzalez, Maureen Connelly, Billie Jean King, Pete Sampras and many others—developed their games. It wasn’t until the Open era, and the advent of the private tennis academy in Florida, that top prospects stopped going west and started heading south.

Jimmy Evert was a pioneering figure in Fort Lauderdale, where he created an informal junior academy on the Har-Tru courts at Holiday Park. In 1971, his daughter, Chris, put the town and the state on the tennis map when she reached the U.S. Open semifinals as a 16-year-old. A thousand “Chris Clones” started swinging two-handed backhands, and they needed courts and coaches who could help them hone their labor-intensive craft. The tennis factory was born.

Nick Bollettieri started the first and most famous academy near Sarasota in 1977. Eventually he was joined up the road by Saddlebrook Academy. South Florida became home to the Evert Academy; another run by Rick Macci, who coached Andy Roddick and Venus and Serena Williams; and another headed by Nick Saviano. This year the USTA has pulled up stakes in Boca Raton and moved to a brand-new, 100-court facility near Orlando.

Bollettieri’s early successes—Brian Gottfried, Jimmy Arias, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier—were made in the USA. But the world soon saw the success of this former paratrooper’s militaristic approach to the game, and the best young international prospects have been flocking to Florida, on full scholarship, ever since. A short list of international players who have lived and trained in the Sunshine State includes Martina Navratilova of Czechoslovakia; Maria Sharapova of Russia; Martina Hingis of Switzerland; Mary Pierce of France; Tommy Haas of Germany; Kei Nishikori of Japan; Monica Seles and Jelena Jankovic of Serbia; and Ivo Karlovic of Croatia. While Andy Murray and Monica Puig won their Olympic gold medals last summer for Great Britain and Puerto Rico, respectively, they did most of their training in Miami.

Since the end of the Cold War, these globetrotting transplants have tended to remain citizens of their birth countries and represent them in international competitions. That’s where their families and their roots are, after all. But the fact that they don’t claim the U.S. doesn’t mean the U.S. can’t, at some level, claim them—or at least be proud of having been the country that helped them pursue, and achieve, their dreams.

We’ve heard the question many times over the last decade: Where are the great U.S. players? Maybe we should narrow that question to: Where are the great players from Florida? Then the answer would be a happier one, and one that would more accurately reflect the state of the game in this country. With its world-class academies and year-round warm weather, there’s never going to be a shortage of star players who call the Sunshine State home, even if they don’t all carry U.S. passports. There’s still room for many flags in the world capital of tennis.

Starting Tuesday, March 21st, watch Tennis Channel Plus for the biggest WTA matches of the day from the Miami Open!​

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