Life is good on campus: USTA's bustling Lake Nona facility a beacon for 'all things tennis'
The USTA National Campus opened just over two years ago, and the world’s largest tennis facility has already had more than half a million people pass through its gates. This year alone it will host more than 120 local, regional, national and international events.
All that activity has executives reaching for a thesaurus to explain what it has become: The campus’ chief executive, Kurt Kamperman, calls it “the hub of American tennis,” while Bob Whyley, senior vice president of production and executive producer at the Tennis Channel, goes for “the epicenter of American tennis,” and Iain Pound, Wilson’s national sales director, chooses “the heartbeat of American tennis.”
Regardless of the language used to describe its impact, this spot in the Lake Nona area of Orlando is the one place where on any day of any week one might see young kids in tennis camp; adults taking lessons or playing USTA league championships; juniors playing tournaments; top prospects in training; players from 300 colleges in team matches; WTA and ATP stars like Madison Keys or Frances Tiafoe practicing; the newest World TeamTennis squad — the Orlando Storm — hosting its rivals; or John McEnroe or Chris Evert visiting.
Gordon Smith, the U.S. Tennis Association’s CEO and executive director, knows that everyone is talking about whether this National Campus will produce a new American champion. He believes it will help, thanks to the resources and cutting-edge technology for all aspects of the game, but also because having more space means that more talented young players can be helped than ever before.
The 64-acre campus has space for as many as 40 of the top juniors to be training at once, although their stays are short-term as opposed to the classic tennis academy approach. At tennis academies, players live there full time, devoting most of their days to tennis year-round, while using only the academy’s coaches. Part of the revamped USTA development philosophy aims to reduce pressure and isolation, increase self-esteem and encourage multisport participation. The USTA also is now inclusive of more players and of the players’ private coaches.
But ultimately training the next American champion is the “wrong thing to focus on,” Smith says. “Our mission is not just to produce champions but to grow the game of tennis in America. [Before the move to Orlando] we were asking why were we based in a little glass building in Westchester. The National Campus can promote tennis at all levels. It is all things tennis.”
“We called it a campus, not a tennis center because it’s not just about the next generation of American champions, but it’s about player development for all and about everything that tennis provides for people,” Kamperman says.
Smith says the campus already is changing the game around the country, with section associations looking at it as a template as they seek to replace aging infrastructure, although those projects will be done on a smaller scale.
“This is a special place that brings a lot of credibility to the sport,” says Jason Collins, Wilson’s global product director. “It also brings energy and excitement and can advocate for tennis, to create a new generation of fans and people who participate.”
When planning for a unified home started in 2014, the area “was mostly cow pastures,” Kamperman says. The $63 million campus transformed the space into a facility unlike any other. There are 100 courts (hard courts as well as green and red clay; indoor and outdoor). The 50,000-square-foot USTA Welcome Center is LEED certified with a Pro Shop, Racquet Bar and Innovation Lab to help visitors understand everything from racket customization to how to incorporate new technology into improving their game.
While the campus was originally “on sort of an island” geographically, Kamperman says, the Lake Nona area is booming in Orlando, one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities. He points to the new KPMG facility next door and the planned 1,500-student private school and projected 1,270 hotel rooms at every price point within a five-minute drive. “So we’re still on the ground floor here.”
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The campus has been busy from day one, even exceeding expectations, Smith says. The site has hosted more than 750 Pro Circuit matches (these are the low-level tournaments such as the ATP Challengers for up-and-coming players).
A total of 375 college teams visited from February through April, with weekly college matches drawing 1,200 people. Kamperman says Northern schools used to travel south each winter to prepare for the season, visiting schools in Charlotte, Atlanta and other Southern cities. Now they mostly congregate in Orlando, playing different teams every day without having to pack up and move. This year also featured the NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Tennis Championships, attracting nearly 12,000 fans over the 10-day event, while the Tennis Channel aired more than 50 hours of the event live.
Kamperman believes the USTA National Campus can help restore some of the luster that has faded from collegiate tennis with dramatic program cuts over the last decade.
“We didn’t realize how big this would be,” Smith says. “We thought we’d get a few college matches but it’s now a mecca for collegiate tennis.”
The NCAA Division I tournament will return in 2021 (and the following year will bring the Division III championships and the tennis competition of the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games). But some would like to make Orlando the permanent home, to become what Omaha has become for the College World Series, to help boost branding and visibility for the game.
NCAA spokeswoman Gail Dent declined to comment on the idea, but Lele Forood, head coach of Stanford’s powerhouse women’s team, which won the national title again this year, is a strong supporter of the idea. “Other facilities can’t adequately handle all the needs of the teams and at the campus you could even have a bigger draw,” she says. “The old model of moving it around is outdated and if people know the USTA National Campus is where the NCAA tournament is every May, that would help the game.”
There is the potential for more media attention in Orlando with the opening of a Tennis Channel production control center on the campus to provide year-round coverage. “We felt we needed to be a partner and be part of this,” Whyley says, explaining that Tennis Channel will be televising matches at every level but also producing instructional and profile pieces. “There’s so much potential short-form storytelling outside of just match play here. It’s limitless.”
In addition to events like wheelchair tournaments, junior tournaments, USTA leagues and training for pros and player development for aspiring pros, local tennis programs during the week now draw 600 kids and nearly 600 adults, and the staff is now up to 39 teaching pros. Players can rent a court for as little as $8 an hour; the “family zone” is free and open to the public when programming is not taking place; and kid-sized courts remain free to the public.
The campus is now the central point for all 17 USTA sectional associations but Kamperman says other organizations, like the American Tennis Association and the International Tennis Federation, have held conferences and meetings there, using not only the courts but the conference center and classrooms.
Kamperman and Smith say they’re also now scheduling events to maximize a synergy they hadn’t even planned on. When the campus hosts multiple events on weekends, “it creates an energy and more creativity than we expected,” Smith says. “There is a cross-pollination here in a way that no place has ever had. It really shocked us.”
For example, Kamperman says, young children can learn by watching adults compete in league championships and are inspired by watching the national 12-and-under tournaments. High school tournament players get inspired when they see the NCAA matches, “and realize that’s their future in front of them,” just as college players feel that while watching the Pro Circuit matches or the aspiring pros train, not to mention seeing a player like Tiafoe or Keys. And then, Kamperman says, all of those players are struck by the grit and effort of the wheelchair athletes. “It all adds levels of inspiration and aspiration,” he says. “So now we try to schedule our weekends to build on this.”
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The USTA’s excitement about the tennis at the campus is more than just players mingling on the 100 courts. It’s the courts themselves. “We want to be innovators, the place where experimentation happens,” Smith says. “We want to change the way tennis is taught.”
There are 26 PlaySight Pro SmartCourts equipped with four cameras that offer a variety of analytics (the ball’s velocity and spin) and video for players and their coaches. Eighty-four tournament courts feature PlaySight livestreaming. The technology also can make teaching and learning tennis more interactive — players can compete, live, with a friend in a different location to see who can hit more crosscourt backhands in the court in five minutes, for example, Smith says.
Coming soon to campus
A sample of the events at the USTA National Campus in the next two months:
■ Sept. 6-8: The Academy Cup
■ Sept. 21-29: The ITF Junior Davis Cup and Junior Fed Cup
■ Sept. 26-29: The Collegiate Fall Tournament
■ Sept. 28-29: USTA Florida Green Ball Tournament
■ Oct. 12: The USTA Florida Parent-Child Tournament
■ Oct. 12-13: USTA National Adaptive Championship
■ Oct. 18-20: Division II/NAIA Tournament
■ Oct. 18-20: The League National Championship 40 & Over, 4.0
■ Oct. 25-27: The League National Championship 40 & Over, 4.5
■ Oct. 25-27: Wounded Warrior Camp
“A 9-year-old had an iPad at 3 and a cellphone at 6 so we have to change the approach to teaching tennis,” Kamperman says. The livestreaming was intended to enable family back home to watch players at the National Campus, but Kamperman says they were surprised to find players used it to study their game and to post their best shots on social media.
Being all things tennis for the whole country means more than just encouraging and teaching the players. Kamperman says they have “just begun scratching the surface” in terms of educating and training umpires and coaches, both for top competitors and for younger children. “We’re teaching in a hands-on experiential way,” he says.
The education even extends to the Racquet Bar. Not only are consumers learning about customizing rackets but interns are learning “how to sell rackets and run retail,” Kamperman says. “We want to raise the standards in all areas of tennis.”
The tennis industry has bought in. Adidas sponsors the player development program and Wilson, Head and Babolat are all established presences in the Racquet Bar and the Pro Shop, while also holding meetings and testing products there. “The industry needs a shot in the arm and we want to help the entire ecosystem,” Smith says.
Having the entire American tennis community gathering in one place makes it easier to speak to both ordinary consumers and to top athletes about their product needs, Wilson’s Collins says. The company has held 20 events there this year, from racket demos to “watch parties” for the Grand Slams. At the college tournaments Wilson is there to let kids try the rackets. “We want to make this a regular stop for people,” Pound says.
There is room for more growth. The USTA has an option to build on 6 more acres, but in the present, the immediate success has created “a schedule like a jigsaw puzzle” with so many moving pieces, Kamperman says, “but that’s a good problem to have.”
Stuart Miller is a writer in New York.