USTA Fed Cup Special Features with Joey Johnston

USTA Fed Cup Special Features with Joey Johnston

--- By Joey Johnston ---

WESLEY CHAPEL, Fla. — Tampa Bay area, tennis hotbed.

You'd think so, right?

When the Federation Cup arrives on April 22-23 at the Saddlebrook Resort — it's a semifinal women's tennis showcase between the United States and Czech Republic — the reaction from area fans might go something like this:

It's about time!

After all, it's the area's first major tennis event in forever (OK, two decades).

Still, it seems odd that the Tampa Bay area, where you can't walk down the street without bumping into a top-flight tennis pro, has endured such an event-watching drought in the sport that so many people still play and love.

The people at Saddlebrook would like to change all that. Maybe the Fed Cup's presence will signal an awakening. It's definitely a reminder of how it used to be. And perhaps it's an indication of what it still could become.

"We love having the Fed Cup here,'' Saddlebrook owner Tom Dempsey said. "We hope it's just the start. This area has some tennis history, you know.''

We know.

And for those who don't know ...

Once, the game's enduring legends — do names like Bobby Riggs, Gardnar Mulloy, Don Budge, Pancho Gonzales, John Newcombe and Roy Emerson ring a bell? — participated in the annual Dixie International Championships at Tampa's Davis Islands Tennis Complex.

Once, a 16-year high-schooler named Chris Evert made her first big splash by defeating Billie Jean King, the world's No. 1-ranked player, in the Virginia Slims Masters at St. Petersburg's Bartlett Park.

Once, the United States team — paced by Andre Agassi, Michael Chang and the formidable doubles team of Rick Leach and Jim Pugh — defeated Australia in a rip-roaring, flag-waving Davis Cup Final held on the indoor red-clay surface at a newly constructed domed stadium that now houses baseball's Tampa Bay Rays.

Once, Tampa Bay had a regular ATP Tour stop for the men (with players such as Stan Smith, Roscoe Tanner, Aaron Krickstein and Agassi) and an annual WTA Tour event for the women (with players such as Evert, Martina Navratilova, Evonne Goolagong, Virginia Wade, Tracy Austin, Andrea Jaeger, Gabriela Sabatini and Monica Seles). Both events eventually relocated, a common plight for American tournaments that once had rock-solid places on the schedule.

Once, Bjorn Borg and Vitas Gerulaitis packed the University of South Florida Sun Dome for an exhibition.

Once, Jim Courier and Pete Sampras held a Sun Dome exhibition of their own, raising $100,000 for charity.

When Courier, the native son from Dade City, broke through with his monumental victory at the 1991 French Open, he took the Concorde back to the States and soon arrived at Tampa International Airport for a reunion with his family and long-time buddies.

"When you win something like the French Open, I know a part of you belongs to the world,'' Courier said then. "But this will always be home.''

Sampras constantly returned to his adopted town with a U.S. Open or Wimbledon trophy for the display case at his Tampa Palms home.

"I love my time in Tampa,'' said Sampras, who often began his pre-workout mornings with breakfast at the Waffle House around the corner from Saddlebrook. "I'm not bothered by anything and can just be myself.''

In 1990, 13-year-old Jennifer Capriati turned the women's tennis world on its ear by not only turning professional, but reaching the final of her first event. "She didn't have a debut,'' the late tennis impresario Ted Tinling said. "She had a premiere!''

Capriati would become a Grand Slam tournament champion, joining Sampras, Courier, Martina Hingis and Justine Henin as Saddlebrook-trained luminaries. Their presence begat the likes of James Blake and Mardy Fish at Saddlebrook, which is now home to top 20-level players such as John Isner and Sascha Zverev.

Considering the Southern bunker of IMG, home to the former Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, which has trained Agassi, Seles, Maria Sharapova, Tommy Haas and Anna Kournikova, the Tampa Bay area shouldn't take a back seat to any other region when it comes to top-flight tennis.

Seemingly, the area's tennis history and enduring passion for the sport has come full circle with the Fed Cup.

"The Fed Cup is a game-changer for this area,'' said Howard Moore, program director for Saddlebrook International Tennis and administrator for the resort's renowned Harry Hopman Tennis Academy, which it acquired in 1986.

"We have adults, juniors and top professionals training here all the time. Now, all of a sudden, we have a magnificent stadium springing up here and an event that will showcase Saddlebrook to the world. I hope it's part of a resurgence for events in our area. I know it's going to add a spring to everyone's step.''

Saddlebrook normally caters to all levels of play, whether it's the weekend warrior seeking an adult camp or an iconic professional seeking tournament tuneup, whether you're No. 1 on the block or No. 1 in the world.

From the rural orange groves to the Gulf of Mexico beaches, odds are great that you'll find plenty of tennis action throughout the Tampa Bay area, whether it's junior lessons, an adult league or maybe moms and dads getting a hit in with their kids.

"It's a lifetime sport, a great sport,'' Dempsey said. "It's fun to play. When you get to see it at the highest level, it's really fun to watch.''

With the Fed Cup's arrival — and Tampa Bay back in the big-time tennis event business — there's no doubt that the tennis community will agree to that.