The Coastal Star

Game! Set! Perfect match!: Sunny skies, ocean views and rich tennis history attract marquee players to Delray

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Fans seek autographs from Chris Evert during the 29th annual Chris Evert/Raymond James Pro-Celebrity Tennis Classic last month at Delray Beach Tennis Center. Martina Navratilova celebrates with Jon Lovitz (Saturday Night Live) after they defeated Evert and Chris Noth. Serena Williams shoots a commercial at the center a couple of weeks earlier. Gulf Stream resident Kevin Anderson has called the center his home court since 2012. Evert, from Boca Raton, and Noth discuss their match with Navratilova and Lovitz. Noth takes a photo among fans, and the singer Seal does the same.

Photos by Tim Stepien and Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star

By Brian Biggane

It’s not just anywhere that a promising junior tennis player can go for a workout and wind up getting advice and encouragement from Serena Williams.

It’s not just any South Florida tennis facility that Naomi Osaka, the 21-year-old prodigy from Japan who defeated Williams in September’s U.S. Open final, visits on a regular basis to hone her game.

And it’s not in just any town that one of the most famous players in the history of women’s tennis has raised millions for charity, staging her event on its stadium court.

All of that happens in Delray Beach, which over the years has established itself as a mecca for the sport.

“Between the professional tournaments and my charity event, the word is getting out,” said Chris Evert, whose Chris Evert/Raymond James Pro-Celebrity Tennis Classic celebrated its 20th renewal at the Delray Beach Tennis Center in November. “It just continues to grow.”

Delray Beach’s Coco Gauff, seen winning the Junior French Open in 2018, trains at the Delray Beach Tennis Center.

Serena Williams helped establish the area’s tennis reputation, and 14-year-old Delray Beach native Cori “Coco” Gauff continues to expand upon it. Serena and sister Venus moved to Delray in 1991 to train under coach Rick Macci at both Pompey Park and the 40-court facility south of Linton Boulevard now known as ProWorld Tennis Academy.

And when Serena came to the Delray Beach Tennis Center to shoot a commercial in late October, she saw Gauff, the No. 5-ranked junior player in the world, and struck up a conversation.

“She just came over to congratulate Coco on her success,” said Gauff’s father and coach, Corey Gauff. “Coco has always looked up to her and continues to look up to her, so it’s nice she took the time to come over and say hello.”

And Serena, a 23-time Grand Slam singles champion, isn’t the only world-class player you might spot at the tennis center. Kevin Anderson, 32, who is No. 6 in the world ATP rankings and reached the finals of the 2017 U.S. Open and 2018 Wimbledon, moved to Delray in 2012 and over to Gulf Stream in 2013 and trains at the center on a regular basis.

“The facilities are wonderful and accommodate players from beginners all the way up to my level on the ATP Tour,” Anderson said.

“I’ve brought players from other parts of the world to come down and train with me in Delray Beach. With the facilities coupled with a great town it’s an easy sell. People know Delray Beach for its wonderful restaurants, beaches, friendly residents and gorgeous weather.”

U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka is among other top players who train in the Delray Beach area. Photos provided

Osaka, who is No. 5 in the WTA rankings, trains at ProWorld. So do a number of other up-and-coming women’s players such as 20-year-old Sofia Kenin, who is ranked No. 52 in the world and sixth among Americans.

“These young, emerging players are creating a lot of talk in the tennis world,” said Lorenzo Cava, 32, who bought the resort six years ago and plans to modernize it. “We’ve been getting contacted a lot because of these players. In the (tennis) magazines the words ‘Delray Beach’ always show up.”

The renaissance of Delray Beach tennis actually began on the same site more than 40 years ago.

In the late 1970s Ian Laver, a second cousin to the legendary Australian star Rod Laver, opened Laver’s International Tennis Resort, and in 1985 launched the Lipton International Players Tournament — offering $1.8 million in prize money, exceeded at the time only by Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

The tournament moved to Boca West in 1986 and to Key Biscayne in 1987, where it ran until this year. In 2019 the Miami Open will move to Miami Gardens’ Hard Rock Stadium.

After the 8,200-seat stadium court was built at the Delray Beach Tennis Center in 1992, the Virginia Slims tour staged women’s events there from 1993 to 1995, Steffi Graf winning all three titles. But a ban on cigarette advertising by the U.S. Tennis Association ended the tour, and the stadium court soon lost its only high-profile tenant.

Brahm Dubin, the husband of Evert’s sister Jeanne, got to work, first persuading Chris to move her charity event there in 1998, then calling Mark Baron, who was mulling a change in venue for an ATP event he had staged in Coral Springs since 1992, to come take a look.

“When I got the call, I had never heard of Delray,” said Baron, who lived in Plantation at the time. “So I drove up, and before I met with anybody I came to the stadium, went to the very top, sat down and saw the ocean. That did it. It really did.”

Turnaround took time

Baron recalled that the Delray Beach downtown of 26 years ago was a long way from achieving the All-America City status it would receive in 1993, 2001 and 2017.

“The town was not really in a good situation,” he said. “People were not coming to Atlantic Avenue then. A lot of stores were boarded up and there was crime.”

He got an inkling of just what he was up against when he staged his first tournament in early 1999.

“The first day, the first hour, I was outside and I heard gunshots. Called the police,” he said. “It took us five years before we saw the light. But we worked hard.”

With just under 69,000 residents, Delray Beach is one of the smallest cities to host an ATP event. The 2019 Delray Beach Open will be Feb. 15-24.

While its prize money and prestige fall short of tournaments such as the Miami Open, its list of past champions is impressive, including Juan Martin Del Potro (2011), Anderson (2012), Sam Querrey (2016) and rising American star Frances Tiafoe (2018).

Margie Walden, a member of the Palm Beach County Sports Commission, who is a native of Argentina, said Del Potro’s victory put Delray Beach on the map in the country in which both were born.

“I have cousins who had never heard of Delray Beach, but once Del Potro started playing here they all wanted to come here,” she said. “It’s amazing. The winter in Argentina is summer here, so that provides us the ability to market to a whole country at a time we need people to be here.”

Dubin wasn’t done with his marketing efforts. He forged a relationship with USTA executive Jeff Ryan, who is in charge of team events, and got to work on landing Davis Cup and Federation Cup bids.

“So Jeff Ryan came down and fell in love with the city,” said Sharon Painter, CEO of the JCD Sports Group, which has run the tennis center since 1994.

Delray Beach hosted the second round of the Davis Cup in 2004, in which the U.S. defeated Sweden 4-1 on its way to a runner-up finish to Spain. The following year brought a first-round match in the Federation Cup, at which the U.S. defeated Belgium 5-0. The U.S. women blanked Belgium again 5-0 in another first-round Fed Cup meeting in 2007 in Delray.

Painter feels Dubin, who died at age 56 in 2006, deserves much of the credit for making Delray Beach a household name in tennis circles.

“Golfers know Pebble Beach, they know Torrey Pines,” she said. “In tennis that’s Delray Beach. What is that worth?”

Getting a summer boost

Walden, of the county Sports Authority, has some answers to that question.

Walden reported that data reported to the county in 2016-17 revealed tennis events were responsible for close to 6,000 hotel room nights and an economic impact exceeding $10 million. Much of that came in the typically slow summer months, when Baron’s group, Players International Management, runs a steady flow of junior events from May through October.

This past July it staged the USTA Boys 16 and 18 Clay Court Championships at six venues in Delray Beach and Boca Raton. With each player typically bringing along parents, siblings and coaches, Walden said that produced another $5 million economic windfall.

“The hotels love us, the restaurants love us,” Baron said. “Where the tournament goes, so does all these events. If we were to ever move, we have a great economic and marketing package for anybody to change their whole city.”

Baron would prefer to move forward than move out, however, and has been in contact with city, county and state officials about a bold plan: tearing down the 26-year-old stadium and building a new one with a retractable roof and adding a hotel and office building on the property.

“The city has been stagnant over the past few years, and this could be the biggest force of change for the next 15, 25 years,” he said. “A stadium with a retractable roof would allow us to do other things, to book it for events 50-100 days a year. It could be the biggest force to change this city.”

Other forces are at work, meanwhile, to expand on Delray’s love of tennis into other racket sports. Walden said a racquetball facility has been approved at Veterans Park and a new sport, beach tennis, is being played on the beach volleyball courts near the east end of Atlantic Avenue.

Then there’s pickleball. Courts have been installed at the tennis center, and Walden said a tournament hastily put together last year drew more than 400 participants and accounted for 254 hotel room nights. A bigger tournament is planned for 2020.

For all that, however, with more than 60 courts east of Interstate 95 serving everyone from recreational players to the world’s best, it’s tennis more than anything else that has given Delray Beach its reputation.

“It’s great that people all over the world can turn on their televisions in February and see our great town on display during the Delray Beach Open,” Anderson said. “The fact it has continued to attract some of the top players in our sport year after year is a testament to our town as a whole. Delray Beach loves tennis and tennis loves it right back.” 

Tennis stars rally for Grand Slam Cause for the Paws

Sebastien Grosjean, brothers Bob and Mike Bryan and comedian Michael Kosta are scheduled to join world No. 6-ranked Kevin Anderson of Gulf Stream at the second annual Grand Slam Cause for the Paws on Dec. 15 at Boca Grove Plantation Tennis Center.

Grosjean reached No. 4 in the world and played on France’s championship Davis Cup teams, while the Bryans are the winningest doubles team in tennis history. Kosta, who played collegiate tennis with Anderson at Illinois and formerly played on the ATP Tour, is a regular on the Daily Show on Comedy Central. Anderson, who reached the finals of the U.S. Open in 2017 and Wimbledon earlier this year, raised over $34,000 at his one-night charity event in Chicago last year. He is moving it this year to south Palm Beach County, where he has resided with his wife, Kelsey, since 2012.

The Andersons adopted a dog from Dezzy’s Second Chance at the Delray Beach Green Market in early 2017, and all proceeds will be donated to that shelter. For more information, contact Jennifer Jolly at Boca Grove Plantation, 487-5300, ext. 186, or visit www.andersoncause.org.

— Brian Biggane

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