Dan Pyser | March 31, 2017
This spring marks an important milestone for USTA Player Development as top American players flock to the new Home of American Tennis at Lake Nona in Orlando, Fla., for extensive clay-court training leading into the midseason clay-court swing.
Never before have American players had access to this number of clay courts at a single facility; the USTA National Campus boasts 32 Har-Tru green clay courts and six European red clay courts, constructed from 450 tons of red clay imported from Cremona, Italy. The ability to get in some practice on the authentic European red clay should give this group of Americans a leg up once they start playing on the soft stuff in Europe, leading up to Roland Garros.
“There are very few places in the U.S. that you have real European red clay,” said Martin Blackman, USTA Player Development general manager. “In the past, our players would’ve had to train on Har-Tru before going over to Europe or go over to Europe early. Now, they can stay in the States with all of the performance team support we have here on campus, train on the red clay and really get an amazing two-week block in before they go over.”
CiCi Bellis, who, at No. 55 is the youngest player in the WTA Top 100, relocated to the Lake Nona community, and has been one of the top young Americans utilizing the facility. She echoed Blackman’s sentiment.
“The facility is amazing. It’s lived up to everything that we all expected it to be,” said the 17-year-old Bellis. “To be able to practice, especially on red clay, before going over to Europe is, I think, the best thing that has ever happened for American tennis.”
The clay courts at the National Campus signify a significant step forward for USTA Player Development and American tennis, which has seen a terrific start to the 2017 season.
Jennifer Brady, the 21-year-old former UCLA Bruin, who enjoyed a breakthrough performance at the Australian Open earlier this year, advancing to the round of the 16, is another Orlando-area resident who’s become a familiar face around the new facility.
“Having the opportunity to train on red clay before going to Europe, not many people have that opportunity,” said Brady, now ranked No. 77. “We have everything you could imagine. To have the facilities and the resources that we have here, we’re just so lucky.”
“I think this is the first time for me that I’ve had red clay at my disposal going into the red-clay season,” said world No. 115 Bjorn Fratangelo—another Orlando resident. “It’s one of my favorite times of year. I’ve had some of my best results on this surface so I’m just trying to make the most of it.”
Fratangelo is a former French Open boys’ champion, winning that title in 2011. That win made him the first American to capture the French Open junior title since John McEnroe in 1977.
USTA Player Development, which relocated from Boca Raton, Fla., to the USTA National Campus now can provide its players with an incredible array of facilities. In addition to the six red clay courts, the Player Development facility includes eight outdoor hard courts, six indoor hard courts and a state-of-the-art athletic training area.
“I think it’s great that we get to play on red clay here before the clay court season,” said Frances Tiafoe, who, at 19 years old is the fifth-youngest player in the ATP Top 200 (No. 101). “It’s never something I had down in Boca [Raton], I think it’s a good opportunity for us.”
Tiafoe is one of five U.S. males under the age of 20 currently ranked in the Top 200. No other country has more than one.
“There’s a lot I want to accomplish this year,” adds Tiafoe. “But it all starts here. I have to keep putting in the work.”
U.S. Davis Cup captain and former world No. 1 Jim Courier was on hand to watch some of the young Americans train. Courier, a longtime Orlando resident, has been a frequent visitor of the new facility.
“This facility offers a lot to our players,” said Courier. “To have these brand new red clay courts as a way for our players to get prepared physically, and mentally too, it’s a wonderful environment that we, frankly, needed.
“I love the all-American aspect, the cluster effect of all of our best young players being here, male and female, and pushing each other. It’s a great way for us to get ahead and we’re coming. These youngsters are coming fast and it’s fun to see.”
For Blackman, the Team USA concept was a critical component to his vision for the new facility.
“The collective benefit for everybody is having our best players train together. There’s really no substitute for that,” he said. “We knew it was going to be special. Every time a new player comes here and sees it for the first time and really feels like ‘this is my home.’ This is not Player Development, this is Team USA.”