Centre court of world game

Simon O'Hagan examines the health of a service industry in the Sunshine State
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The Independent Online
IT GROWS oranges by the million. Disney World does good business as well. And the drug economy is a fact of life. But there is another commodity that Florida deals in that has left its tramlines all over the Sunshine State: tennis.

When the world's best players gather there this week for the Lipton Championships, they will be at the geographical hub of the international game. From Tallahassee and Amelia Island in the north to Miami and Naples in the south, Florida is one big tennis court. Almost everyone who is anyone in the sport seems to live or train there, and for those aspiring to tennis stardom there is nowhere else like it.

The Lipton, which takes place in Key Biscayne, about 40 miles south of Miami, is the high point of the Florida tennis year - so high, in fact, that only the peaks of the four Grand Slams look down on it. When it began in 1985, as a two-week tournament in Delray Beach that ambitiously brought together men and women in a 128-draw, the threat felt by the established order was a factor in the upgrading of the Australian Open. And while Butch Buchholz, who founded the Lipton, says he never wanted to move in on Grand Slam territory, his event, which now lasts 10 days and has a 96-draw, has great prestige - derived in part from its location.

What appealed to Buchholz about Florida was its position in relation to the rest of the world. "The West Coast of America is only three hours behind," he said. "Europe is only five hours ahead. It's convenient for Latin America. That makes it easier to sell to television."

Players have other benefits in mind when they pitch up, as they do in increasing numbers, in the state that boasts more than 600 tennis clubs, dozens of tennis academies, and thousands of courts. "The weather, the weather and the weather," said Tracy Wildey of the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton on the west coast of Florida. "You can play here the whole year round . . . Nowhere else in the States has this concentration of facilities."

Although Gardnar Mulloy, an American great of the immediate post-war era, was a noted Miamian, it is Chris Evert, born and brought up in Fort Lauderdale, now living in Boca Raton, who perhaps did most to put Florida on the map as a cradle of the world game. But the modern era - in which the state has become a magnet not just for Americans - dates from 1978, when Nick Bollettieri launched the academy that has provided the blueprint for many others.

Bollettieri was a law graduate from the University of Miami who had started out 10 years previously by giving tennis lessons on South Miami beach. He operated from a Pepsi stand and charged $1.50 an hour. Among the first professionals he worked with were Mike DePalmer, Jimmy Arias and Carling Bassett, and his academy has now expanded into a complex with 55 courts. He has his detractors, but the number of top men and women he has influenced speaks for itself. Among them are Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, Monica Seles, Mary Pierce and Iva Majoli.

Tennis academies became big business. There was Harry Hopman's, in Largo, which is now the Saddlebrook Academy in Tampa. Jennifer Capriati, a resident of Saddlebrook, is a product, and Pete Sampras and Greg Rusedski train there. Largo is also where Bobby Stearns, a former coach of Goran Ivanisevic, runs a successful academy. In the Miami area, academies sprang up which tended to have a more Hispanic flavour. Those bearing the names of Gary Kesl, Rick Macci and Patricio Apey - with whose academy Gabriela Sabatini has had a long association - are the most prominent.

But in an industry in which the process of attracting good young players is almost as competitive as the game itself, academies come and go or just evolve. Having seen how Bollettieri did it, Carling Bassett went on to found her own academy in Boca Raton with her husband Robert Seguso. Only two weeks ago Chris Evert bought into it.

While the main business of academies is young unknowns, Florida is the place to have a base if you are a star. Ilie Nastase, John McEnroe and Vitas Gerulaitis all lived there on and off. Of today's players, Sampras (Tampa) and Steffi Graf (Boca Raton) fall into this category. Monica Seles has lived in Florida since she arrived from Yugoslavia 10 years ago. The family home is a compound in Sarasota complete with basketball court. Mary Pierce still spends much more time in Bradenton than she does in Paris.

"For these people it's nice to have somewhere they can escape to when they are not on the Tour where they can train but generally relax," said Norman Palmer, founder of the Palmer Academy in Tampa and father of Jared Palmer, a former top-50 player. "Sampras has his own private life in Tampa, and he needs that."

The tennis fraternity expands with the players who come through the college system. Women's tennis is particularly strong at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Then there are the various tennis bodies which operate from Florida. The Association of Tennis Professionals is based in Ponte Vedra; the Women's Tennis Association has an office in St Petersburg; the United States Tennis Association headquarters are in Key Biscayne. The agents IMG keep tabs on the talent from their Boca Raton vantage point. Tournaments in Florida, other than the Lipton, include a big women's event in Amelia Island, and the Orange Bowl in Miami - in effect a world championship of junior tennis that takes place every December. There is a monthly magazine, Florida Tennis.

In spite of the extent of tennis activity in Florida, Brian Gottfried, a former top-10 player and the ATP's director of tennis, thinks a sense of community among those involved is somewhat lacking. "I grew up on the public courts of Fort Lauderdale," he said. "That's how you met people. Now there are so many private clubs it doesn't happen so much." Now if they all had to pick oranges for a living . . . .