How The USTA's National Campus Has Transformed The American Tennis Scene
Two years ago, the United States Tennis Association’s National Campus opened in Orlando. Two years ago, the USTA campus became the world’s largest tennis facility in the world with 64 acres and 100 lighted tennis courts. Two years ago, the open-to-the-public center, complete with a 50,000-square-foot welcome center, pro shop, Racquet Bar and innovation lab, changed the face of tennis for the USTA. But the level of that change, the worldwide interest, the number of people streaming through the site, it was all more than the USTA ever imagined.
“We had a pretty audacious vision for this campus,” says Kurt Kamperman, chief executive of the USTA National Campus. “We wanted to raise the standard on how tennis is delivered, wanted it to be a hub of innovation, like this melting pot for tennis, which is one of the reasons we chose Orlando because it is a great destination. The idea was to bring the best and brightest here to be innovative and think of new ways to bring in all types of players and be a training ground for the next generation of player development and the next generation of tennis providers. Two years in we have blown that vision out of the water and we are realizing only about 20 percent of potential.”
More than 300,000 people have moved through the site, more than 400 universities and college have played on the campus and more than 600 current top and aspiring pro players have trained at the Orlando campus. With 35 USPTA-certified pros teaching more than 120 classes per week from children to adults and multiple tournaments — of all ages and abilities — held every week, the site continues to grow.
“Every week there are people from all over the world,” Kamperman says. He remembers a week not long ago where five Hall of Fame players came through the site. “Oh, (John) McEnroe is here. Oh, Stan Smith is here. It has become the center of the tennis universe and not just for the United States,” he says. “I don’t think there is a busier place in both delivering tennis, but in the business of tennis. Despite all the high hopes and bold visions we had, that vision has been surpassed and we realize we are only scratching the surface.”
Gordon Smith, USTA CEO and executive director, says the site has been more than the sum of its parts with community tennis, player development and innovation. “We didn’t understand that when we put them together, they interact with each other in a synergistic way,” he says. “It has been so unexpected that everybody benefits from everybody’s knowledge.”
The opening of the Orlando campus happened quickly. The USTA didn’t even start discussions about moving various arms of the organization into one unified location until 2014 and by the first week of 2017, the National Campus was open, giving the USTA a center for learning and education. With 17 sectional associations part of the USTA, Orlando serves as the central point for all things tennis in America. A recent hosting of the annual general meeting of the International Tennis Federation gives Orlando an argument as the home of tennis worldwide.
But what is the National Tennis Campus? Really, it is a little bit of anything and everything tennis. The no-membership model remains open to the public 361 days a year, 87 hours a week. Players can rent a court for as little as $8 an hour. The Nemours family zone is free and open to the public when programming is not taking place. Kid-sized courts remain free to the public.
A typical week has the center as a giant community center Monday through Thursday with 1,100 participants playing or taking classes, anyone from young kids to high school teams to all levels of adults. Friday through Sunday is when the events roll in, often more than one each weekend.
Then comes the player development. From junior tournaments to 4.5-level championships, player groups interface with each other and create fresh energy around the game, Kamperman says. “It becomes a very aspirational place.”
College matches have taken over their own spot at the center with weekly televised matches on Friday night, averaging 1,200 spectators a match. When Florida took on Florida State, 1,800 fans filled the stadium to a standing-room only capacity. The University of Central Florida uses the site as its home for both matches and practices and the NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Tennis Championships will come to the site in both 2019 and 2021. Kamperman says having junior and high school teams rubbing shoulders with Division 1 players really provides inspiration for everyone to continue improving their tennis.
Some of the country’s most well-known players — and, as the USTA hopes, soon-to-be-well-known players —use the performance expertise of staff to train at a site with 32 hard courts, 32 green clay courts, 16 Rebound Ace courts, eight acrylic cushion courts, six European red clay courts and six Rebound Ace indoor courts to go with two stadium courts.
Martin Blackman, general manager of player development, says they have a broad charge and a wide pathway of development, supporting youngsters at 11 years old up to the top of the American game.
Typically, the most promising of players transition to training at the campus during different times of the year around 14 to 16 years of age. While the campus doesn’t provide year-round boarding, they do have a player lodge that can accommodate weekend visits all the way up to two-week camps. This past offseason about 40 professionals trained on site, an even mix of men and women, many bringing their own coaches. Blackman says the USTA wants the place to feel inclusive and supplemental.
The access to a world-class performance team provides value to all levels, Blackman says. Even for the players supported in a supplemental manner, they can enjoy the performance-team model of a physio, performance analytics, mental skills and more. “We have this array of expertise on our team that they can come and take advantage of,” he says. Whether their primary source of support or supplemental, the staff at the campus can provide resources on the road throughout the year to touring pros, at Grand Slams and major tournaments. “The screening that happens here can be deployed year-round,” Blackman says.
Along with time on the court, the business of tennis has moved to Orlando. Racket manufacturers Wilson, Head and Babolat all have a presence on the campus and have hosted regional and worldwide strategic planning sessions while using the facility for testing and product launches.
That interest in business has extended past the Racquet Bar — a retail and racket customization area with six stringing machines and experts teaching players how to improve their game by customizing a racket — and pro shop and into technology. Along with the 26 PlaySight Pro SmartCourts equipped with four cameras for player analytics and 84 courts featuring live streaming capabilities that make watching tournaments much easier on families and fans, Kamperman says the enjoyment players have gotten from the streaming surpassed their expectations.
“Our intent was to use live streaming to help families who couldn’t make the trip to watch. What we didn’t anticipate,” he says, “was players using it to watch themselves so they could improve or pull out their best shots and share on social media. That technology, without question, has been the most useful.”
With the innovation lab and PlaySight staff on site, Kamperman says the campus has only tapped into about 25 percent of the technology capabilities, one area they will continue to mine.
Blackman says players have become more engaged and at ease with technology, wanting to see video and stats as a normal course of action. “Technology is really helping us to work with coaches throughout the entire country to show them some of the objective measures behind the modern game,” he says. And as both players and coaches become more at ease with the benefits of technology, staff can use the performance analytics to help top players not only with their own games but also in scouting opponents.
Already the campus has worked with HawkEye and IBM to leverage Watson to keep video processing in house. Expect more of that. “That is a really exciting project,” Blackman says, “very exciting.”
Moving forward, Smith says, the involvement numbers have been off the chart, the outside interest overwhelming — the Tennis Channel has positioned a studio with weekly programming at the site — and now the focus is taking the success from Orlando and disseminating it to the rest of the country. The USTA wants to take the positives from its National Campus in Orlando and spread it nationwide. The first two years have shown, American tennis success has a fresh guiding light.