LAKE NONA – A Nirvana with Nets

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Photo courtesy of the USTA

Bill Simons
 
Nirvana: “an ideal or idyllic state or place.” – Oxford Dictionary
 
Climb atop the All-England Club’s Court 18 and you can see the gorgeous green glory of Wimbledon. From Courte Centrale at the French Open you spot the Eiffel Tower. From row Z of Ashe Stadium you can take in the stunning Manhattan skyline.

In Orlando, when you walk up the 20 stairs to Lake Nona’s Courtside Cafe, you can look out and all you see is the future: the future of American tennis.

The new epicenter of the sport, the USTA National Campus, is nothing less than nirvana – a nirvana with nets – a gleaming tennis-only mecca like no other.
 
Never mind that just five years ago the vast 64 acres were pastures with nothing but cows – no people, no running water. Now you see a huge campus framed by flat Florida woods. Endless lawns, assorted fountains and four ponds with “watch out for gators” signs are the striking setting for this singular center. From the cafe I look out on 104 courts – hard courts, red clay, green clay and indoor – everything but grass. Below, giddy kids run free while energetic seniors stretch to reach yet another backhand. Out on a back court, mighty Madison Keys strokes her (best in the game?) forehands, while two courts away, giant killer CiCi Bellis grooves her backhand. College teams from Davenport, Iowa and Haverford, Indiana practice hard. Andy Roddick’s brother John leads his University of Central Florida Knights through late morning drills, while Michael Mmoh wonders when he’ll come back from his injury and Hall of Fame chief Todd Martin details his latest plans.

Here is a stunning mix of stadiums, courts, TV studios, cafes, gyms, pro shops, racket-stringing bars, continuing education classrooms, dorms and techno-charged office spaces.
                                       
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Far more than a century ago, the USTA ­­– with only an executive and his secretary – opened shop in a dusty office in New York on Broadway. Decades later the USTA would venture to preppy Princeton and eventually settle into a rather snazzy White Plains, NY office. But while its upscale suburban site was within a lob or two of Madison Avenue, Wall Street and the US Open, it was far removed from the sunbelt pulse of the game.

So when an inviting tract of land became available near Disney World, USTA movers and shakers were enticed. Why not take advantage of financial incentives, governmental help, inexpensive land near fast-growing Orlando and its handy airport, with the idea of transforming tennis? Can you spell game-changer?

USTA Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer Gordon Smith proclaimed American tennis would “no longer be run out of a glass tower.” Instead, it would consolidate in a single center that soon was dubbed “the Home of American Tennis.” It took only 37 excuse-our-dust months to build the campus. Now, just 16 months after its opening, Lake Nona feels like home. As lean athletes mix with coaches and kids, and wheelchair players and seniors share tales of battle, the old adage that tennis is a sport of a lifetime has never been more apropos. An unmistakably tennis-friendly ethos prevails. Certainly it’s not in the least religious, so why does it kind of feel that way? Looking out on this tennis dreamscape, Chris Evert simply sighed, “Are you kidding me?”
 
But this place is no joke. Just when you’ve caught your breath after encountering Rod Laver, the Bryan brothers, Ivan Lendl, Jim Courier, Jack Sock or Frances Tiafoe, you come across a collegiate battle, a heated league playoff, or a patient father teaching the basics to his six-year-old daughter with her flowery dress, big pink bow and little racket. Happy and good, she’s a natural.  
 
This is the Baskin-Robbins of tennis. Choose your flavor: familiar legends, wannabe pros, wide-eyed collegians in from the prairie, league zealots from Brooklyn to Burbank, seniors from Philly or France, juniors, gays, straights, coaches, disabled vets and umps and officials of every stripe.

This hub is many things: utopian center, mecca, intentional community, tournament site, R&D Center, and corporate headquarters. Like no other place, the tennis tribe gathers here. Kids try to hit their first winners. Aspiring prospects learn from tennis gurus and compete against others in a sports science world of ice baths and water treadmills. Some mingle in a sparse players’ lodge. The message is clear: we will not pamper you. All the while, learning is paramount and there’s more than enough cutting-edge technology to impress the snootiest of nerds.
 
The attention to detail is off the charts. Any match of significance is livestreamed; 450 tons of Italian earth were shipped from south of Milan just to give a Euro-authenticity to Lake Nona’s red clay courts. Over 200,000 players visited Lake Nona last year. More than 100 tournaments, attracting 17,000 participants, were held last year. The NCAA Championships will come here in 2019 and 2021.
 
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All the while, behind the scenes, the central engine room of American tennis powers on with a breathless dynamic. When you’re granted entry to the second floor of Lake Nona’s administrative building you imagine you’re in the war room at Apple or Google. Here a stunning, low-profile inner sanctum is defined by a hierarchies-are-so-passé open office space with scores of paperless work stations, thought-provoking motivational signs and a buzz that somehow shouts, “Quiet, please – we’re quick-starting the game.”

As scores of dedicated staffers work on their keyboards with hushed intensity, key influencers of the game meet and mix in intense huddles in mahogany-free conference rooms.

Insiders know the line-up. There’s the much-celebrated USTA president Katrina Adams, longtime CEO Smith, and Lake Nona’s Big Man on Campus Kurt Kamperman, who runs the place. Aussie Craig Morris passionately promotes the critically important Net Generation initiative. Former WTA CEO Stacey Allaster oversees professional tennis, and an adept gentle wizard, Martin Blackman, heads Player Development. Task-savvy lieutenants – who oversee everything from schools and pro circuits to league and adult play – are everywhere.

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Over the years the language of our game has changed. “Tennis Anyone?” and “Well played!” gave way to New Age jargon like “Bounce, hit.” Then came rants like “You cannot be serious!”, passionate calls like “C’mon!” and marketing slogans such as “Image is everything” and “New balls, please.”
 
Of course, in today’s PowerPoint world, where passwords, quarterly reports, seminars and retreats are critical, communication has been well-scrubbed. Not surprisingly, Lake Nona gives us a new universe of intentionality with its own language. We hear of stakeholders, pathways, umbrella brands, assets, marketing platforms, centralized messages, collaborators, athletic model development, team members, local providers, inclusivity, hubs of innovation, and vision.

Many words, yes – but there’s just one intention. At the center of the theme park capital of the world, Lake Nona’s theme is simple. Grow the game – all hands on deck. Everyone has to buy in. We’re in this together. These days the ambitious Net Generation initiative is the core vehicle. It’s driving the USTA forward.
 
But guess what: Lake Nona is more than the USTA. It’s not just that locals love it – thousands of Floridians drop by, and the Lake Nona High School team practices here. More to the point, the USPTA, the PTR, the USTA Florida section, the Tennis Channel and the University of Central Florida all have significant bases here – what a cluster!
 
Beyond this, the USTA Campus is part of an urban growth surge that includes a medical city and a wide-ranging sports and entertainment district that will feature wow-worthy soccer, golf, volleyball and rugby facilities. Created by Britain’s innovative Tavistock Corporation, Lake Nona is said to be the fourth-fastest growth area in the world. It will soon sport a knock-your-socks-off five-star hotel at the edge of a well-planned, tech-happy, utopian “city of the future” which already features a stroll-everywhere village that meets your every need. Here a new house is finished every day.
 
Meanwhile, every day at the USTA is its own adventure in growing tennis. No one has gone so far as to suggest that Wimbledon should move here. Still, there’s no tennis facility in the world with anything like the dazzle of Lake Nona. The place astounds. “Rarely does a facility exceed the expectations that its planners put down on paper,” says Kamperman. “But surely this campus does.”

When all was said and done, this visitor left Lake Nona with an iconic tennis phrase ringing in his ear – “You’ve come a long way, baby.” In the past there have been a zillion ideas on how to grow American tennis: form a solve-everything blue-ribbon committee, launch a revolutionary website, convince some Michael Jordan-like kid to play, or create another Connors, a new Agassi or a third Williams sister.

All of which begs a question: if a gorgeous, impeccably planned, touch-every-base, $63-million, 64-acre, 250-employee, tournament-hosting campus with a training hub and critical mass for competition that drew 200,000 folks last year can’t provide a hefty, much-needed boost for American tennis, what on earth can?

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