The Delray Beach Tennis Center hosted the Delray Beach Open in February, with American Taylor Fritz (far court) defeating Miomir Kecmanović of Serbia for the title. The stadium will have Team USA vs. Austria in the Billie Jean King Cup in April, with hopes of landing the 12-nation finals in November. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
City part of international event with local players set to compete
By Brian Biggane
Five years after turning professional, Coco Gauff plans to play her first significant hometown tennis event when the Delray Beach Tennis Center hosts a Billie Jean King Cup qualifier April 14-15.
The matches between the U.S. team and Austria are a big catch for Delray Beach. What would be bigger — much bigger — is for the center to land the 12-nation finals, scheduled for November.
Formerly known as the Fed Cup, the largest women’s team event in the world annually plays a weeklong final tournament. Prize money awarded last year totaled $11.4 million, with $2 million going to the winning team.
Gauff, ranked No. 6 in the world in women’s singles, isn’t the only local tennis star who will play for the United States. Boca Raton’s Jessica Pegula, 29, ranked No. 3 in the world, committed to play on Feb. 21, although U.S. captain Kathy Rinaldi said she would not finalize her team until mid-March.
Gauff and Pegula could handle the two singles matches each day, then team up in doubles — as they have done for the past several months — if necessary.
The Austrian team will face a daunting task. Its only player ranked among the top 100 is No. 91 Julia Grabher, and Austria has never advanced to the finals of the BJK Cup.
Crowds arrive for a match at the men’s Delray Beach Open last month. Women will take over the courts in April for Billie Jean King Cup matches. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
City is a tennis hot spot
Delray Beach, which has built a worldwide reputation as a tennis hub, has previously hosted qualifiers in 2005, 2007 and 2013 as well as Davis Cup qualifiers, the male equivalent of the Billie Jean King Cup.
City Manager Terrence Moore said a full stadium in April would send a message to the International Tennis Federation, which will pick the finals site in late April after the qualifiers are complete, that the city and stadium are up to the challenge to be finals host.
“That would be fantastic,” Moore said.
DBTC manager Jeff Bingo said the facility did $2.6 million worth of business last year, up from $700,000 just five years ago.
The crowds for the 2023 Delray Beach Open played last month were another indication that the region is ready for a major tennis event to go along with the Miami Open, which starts March 19. Attendance for the week was a tournament-record 63,072, with four of the individual sessions sold out and all box and veranda seating also sold out for the week.
City officials teamed with the Palm Beach County Sports Commission to land the April matches after they were held three of the past five years in Asheville, North Carolina. The economic impact of the first two years in Asheville registered $8 million, giving Delray Beach an expectation the qualifier will bring an impact this year in the $4 million range.
Sports Commission Executive Director George Linley said the partnership with the city and Tennis Center could be renewed during future opportunities.
“Our Sports Commission will look at every opportunity to bring sports to this county,” Linley said. “It’s always based on the amenities and facilities we have. So, we will work to bring the best tennis events we can.”
Coco Gauff (right) of Delray Beach with doubles partner Jessica Pegula of Boca Raton. Photo provided by WTA Tour
Gauff eager to play at home
Gauff, who turns 19 on March 13, said the April event will be special and the prospect of Delray Beach’s hosting the finals would be even more so.
“Delray Beach has truly been a home for me and I’m always happy to come back here,” Gauff said. “It gives me an opportunity to represent my country at home.
“There was a lot of support when I was here (as a fan) in 2013 and I hope there will be even more this time.”
Asked about the prospect of hosting the finals, Rinaldi, a Palm City native who has been captain since 2017, added her support.
“Obviously, how great would that be?” she said. “Coco is super-excited to play in her backyard and have her family and friends come to support her.
“It’s nice to play at home in the United States; it gives us an opportunity to share tennis with the community, and get out and grow the sport, and everybody gets so excited when they can root for the Unites States.”
Last year’s Billie Jean King Cup finals were staged at Emirates Arena in Glasgow, Scotland, where the capacity of 8,200 is identical to that of Delray Beach. Gauff, who made her debut in the event when the U.S. failed to advance past the Czech Republic and Poland in group play, said that the indoor arena felt smaller than Delray Beach’s outdoor stadium.
Bingo said Delray could “absolutely” meet any criteria it would get from the ITF to serve as finals host.
“We have the stadium court plus five practice courts, and for the ATP 250 we turn a pickleball court into another practice court, so we have six,” Bingo said, referring to the Delray Beach Open. “And if they told us ahead of time, we could convert clay courts as well.”
As for housing tennis fans coming from all over the world to see some of the game’s brightest stars, Delray Beach Chamber of Commerce CEO Stephanie Immelman said the timing of the matches in November would be a plus. She said Delray boasts 1,400 hotel rooms and that Boca Raton and other nearby coastal cities could handle any overflow.
“That’s our shoulder season and we’re just starting to get busy in November,” she said.
“I’m sure the city would be delighted to host the finals, and I know the USTA is very friendly toward Delray Beach, probably because Coco lives here, but they like working with the city.”
U.S. is an 18-time champion
Launched in 1963 as the Federation Cup and changed to the Fed Cup in 1995, the annual event was rebranded the Billie Jean King Cup in 2020, when it was expanded from a two-team final to the 12-team format featuring nine winners of qualifiers, the top two finishers from the previous year and a wild card, which often is the host country.
Last year 110 nations competed. While the U.S. has hosted six times, its last such experience came in 2010 in San Diego.
The U.S. has been champion 18 times, including seven straight from 1976-82, but its last title, in 2017, was its first since 2000. The Czech Republic has won six times in the last 11 years and is second to the U.S. in overall wins with 11. Switzerland won for the first time last year. Russia, which won for the fifth time in 2021, and Belarus have been banned from competition since the invasion of Ukraine.
Gauff, who traveled from the WTA Finals in Fort Worth, Texas, to Glasgow last year to play in her first BJK Cup finals, said the Miami Open will be her previous event to the April qualifier, so she should be better rested.
“Home court is definitely an advantage,” she said. “The crowd can really sway the way the matches go, especially in this type of event.”
“We’ve played in all different spots — Hawaii, Washington, San Antonio, Asheville, Tampa — and all have been sold out,” Rinaldi said.
“It’s an incredible experience for our team, our staff, and for the fans because whether you’re a huge tennis fan or just want to come support the USA, it’s been a lot of fun.
“When you’re representing your country it’s a whole different emotion. Anything can happen because everyone’s playing for your country, and there’s no greater honor.”
Single- and two-day ticket packages are available through ticketmaster.com. Visit usta.com/billiejeankingcup for more information.