Somewhere in the Atlantic, a ship bears a half-million tons of red clay mined in Cremona, Italy, that is destined to dust the shoes of elite tennis players training in Orlando at what will be the United States' largest tennis campus.
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"We're importing the clay for kids to play and prepare themselves for the European circuit," said former professional tennis player Katrina Adams, president of the United States Tennis Association. In addition to the red clay, about a third of the campus' 100-plus courts will be regular Har-Tru green clay.
"Smart courts" featuring multiple cameras will videotape every ace and fault — all experiences that can be immortalized and downloaded onto a thumb drive for training players to rehash later.
Trying to replicate international tournament conditions is one objective shaping the USTA's $70 million complex, which is expected to open in southeast Orlando's Lake Nona community in December.
From the quiet neighborhood streets of Lake Nona, there is little hint of the 63-acre construction site where more than 300 workers are now carving the USTA National Campus out of ground that had been cow pastures just a few years ago.
Hidden behind a stand of pines, a roughed-out version of USTA Boulevard unfolds with views of a multi-story building banked in glass, a player-development center with lodging and indoor courts, and row after row of tennis courts that are each punctuated by four-story light poles packing the power of 27,000 incandescent bulbs.
"It's going to be the epicenter of tennis in the United States, make no mistake," said John Embree, chief executive of the United States Professional Tennis Association. The industry group for tennis coaches last week purchased land at the fast-emerging tennis campus and will relocate its national headquarters from Houston next year.
The coaching association is working with the University of Central Florida and two other schools to offer degree programs in professional tennis management. Only two such degree programs exist — a fraction of the collegiate academic programs for golf management, Embree added.
Next to the pro association's proposed headquarters will be a building for Florida's USTA operations, which are relocating from Daytona Beach.
Nine months before the mounds of dirt are completely transformed, the campus has booked 63 events for next year. In February, the association plans to host 250 collegiate teams in a spring break-style competition. With initial seating at two championship courts for 450 spectators, planned events are more developmental and community driven than marquee-style tournaments such as the Miami Open, which draws hundreds of thousands of visitors over about two weeks.
Built with government incentives, member dues and donated land, the campus reflects function more than rich finishes.
Wearing hard hats and day-glow vests during a recent tour of the construction site, Adams and several other USTA execs spoke of the environmental engineering behind office space that will be entirely open, with no enclosed offices for any of the 200 association employees who will start work there as soon as July.
Also in the office building, a merchandise shop and lakeside café will claim much of the first floor. Tennis execs speak excitedly about racquet-stringing stations in the atrium of their centerpiece building.
Outdoors, courts are being equipped with shaded seating and hydration stations for players. Lodging for 24 guests, sand volleyball, a running track and a fitness center with cold baths and a yoga room will be part of the player-development area.
"We want this to be a lab and an incubator for what tennis can be," said Andy Andrews, USTA first vice president and likely successor to Adams.
Lake Nona developers pushed innovations, said Kurt Kamperman, who is overseeing the campus for the association. Some of the courts' surfaces will be brightly colored to engage younger players and families. The collegiate area and tournament areas will feature what's known as Plexicushion hard courts.
"They don't want to do anything that isn't the best and the best functionally — not just throwing money at opulence," he said.
One surface will be missing at the campus — grass.
Even though the tennis group could ship in two dozen containers of red clay from halfway around the world, it could not make grass tournament turf grow in Center Florida.
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