They were born in far-flung cities all over the world, from Moscow to Furtwangen, Germany to Harrisburg, Pa. to Osaka, Japan. But they – or in most cases, their families -- wound up uprooting their lives to move to South Florida in search of year-round tennis weather, better coaching and competition, hard and clay courts, and an ever-growing number of tennis academies famous for turning junior prospects into pro players.
In the Miami Open women’s draw, seven of the top 30 players have South Florida ties, along with No. 36 Coco Gauff and No. 49 Sloane Stephens among the top 50.
The only one of the nine who was born in the area was Stephens, who was born in Plantation. The rest came as young girls, including Naomi Osaka, and sisters Serena and Venus Williams, who honed their skills on courts all over Broward and Palm Beach Counties.
On the men’s side, 13 Miami Open players have Florida homes and/or train in the state. Among them are Ryan Opelka, Frances Tiafoe, Sebastian Korda, Kei Nishikori, Kevin Anderson, and Mackenzie McDonald. John Isner, the 2018 Miami Open winner, trained at Tampa’s Saddlebrook Academy after leaving the University of Georgia.
The state’s reputation as a tennis mecca dates to the early 1970s, when Jimmy Evert started his tennis academy at Holiday Park in Hollywood, nine miles northeast of Hard Rock Stadium, where the Miami Open is being held this week through April 4.
At one point, Evert had seven players at Wimbledon, including his daughter Chris, who was a U.S. Open semifinalist at 16 and went on to become a legend. The Evert Academy eventually moved to Boca Raton and has been a training ground for many top American players. Both the 2021 Australian Open women’s finalists – Osaka and Jennifer Brady – spent time at the Evert Academy, as did Madison Keys, Taylor Fritz, Christina McHale, Frances Tiafoe, and Alja Tomljanovic.
Osaka, the world No. 2 and reigning U.S. Open and Australian Open champion, was asked on Friday whether growing up in South Florida helped her deal with the heat during her third-round win over her Croatian-born Australian opponent Tomljanovic.
“Well, interestingly, I remember hitting at Evert and Ajla was also practicing there, so it was funny, today (during the match) I was thinking she’s probably the one person that doesn’t mind the heat like me,” Osaka said. “I feel like my body has been able to adjust to the heat quite well. I actually really like sweating in really hot conditions where you feel like you’re really pushing yourself as an athlete.”
Over the past four decades, dozens of tennis academies sprung up in South Florida and the west coast of Florida. Nick Bollettieri’s famed academy drew future stars such as Andre Agassi, Maria Sharapova, Jim Courier, and current player Kei Nishikori. Saddlebrook Academy near Tampa is where Isner improved his game alongside Mardy Fish and James Blake, who is now the Miami Open tournament director.
“When I finished college, I knew first and foremost I needed to get out of Georgia,” Isner said Sunday. “As much as I didn’t want to leave Athens, I knew I had to make a decision for my career to get down to Tampa and get a little apartment there and just start practicing and training and try and get better at tennis.
“That’s what I did. It was very crucial in my development. I had a lot of great players I was able to practice with, a little bit older than me, James Blake and Mardy Fish. My first-ever coach, who was very instrumental to my career, Craig Boynton, was in Tampa. I realize how much of a huge role that played in the development of my career.”
Other top academies include the Rick Macci Academy in Boca Raton, the International Tennis Academy in Delray Beach and Nick Saviano’s High Performance Tennis Academy in Davie.
Two of the most prestigious junior tournaments are held in Florida – the Orange Bowl in South Florida and the Eddie Herr International in Bradenton. A few years ago, the USTA opened a 64-acre, 100 court national training center in the Orlando suburb of Lake Nona.
Brady, who is ranked No. 14 in the world, trained at the Evert Academy in Boca Raton from age 10 until she left for UCLA and now trains at the USTA site near Orlando. She spent her early childhood in Mechanicsburg, Pa., and the family moved to Boca Raton when she was nine.
“My parents were sick of shoveling snow, wanted a different climate, and also Boca Raton was a great place to start for a young junior tennis player,” Brady said. “It’s a lot more competitive down here. I learned early on that everybody here is ruthless, players will fight and cheat and grind their way through matches just to win, so that was something a little different for me.
“I was a little bit passive, a shy kid, so I kind of let some players walk all over me. But I quickly learned you have to be ruthless in this sport in the juniors.”
Sofia Kenin, ranked No. 4 in the world, moved from Russia to Pembroke Pines as a toddler. She remembers going to watch the Miami Open as a child, and says she benefited from practicing against other top junior players.
“There are a lot of great academies close by, a lot of girls in south Florida, I’m always practicing at Evert, hitting with some girls there and on other local courts,” Kenin said. “It is a huge benefit.”
Amanda Anisimova dreamed of becoming a pro tennis player when she was training at the JCC in Aventura and at Sabiano’s Academy. She is now No. 28 in the world.
“I grew up watching the Miami Open at Key Biscayne, I would go every year as a little kid,” Anisimova said. “I was excited to see Maria (Sharapova), Serena and Roger (Federer). I could only dream of playing in a tournament like that in the future and never really thought that would be possible. To be playing it myself so many years later is really special. Growing up in an environment where tennis is really popular and with so many girls playing at a high level, that made all the difference.”
This story was originally published on the Miami Herald by Michelle Kaufman and can be found here.