St. Petersburg Tennis Center: 'Proud of our past, dedicated to the future'
Oct 19, 2023
The popularity and prominence of municipal/public tennis facilities on Florida’s west coast continues. The historic St. Petersburg Tennis Center, located in St. Petersburg and still operating after 100 years, ranks highly on this list.
SPTC is a vibrant, vital and important fixture, using the tennis platform for positive community outreach. Originally named the St. Petersburg Tennis Club, the tennis facility was established in 1919 with four concrete courts and in 1929 moved to a nearby location (next to the Albert Whitted Airport) with five clay courts. A. F. Bartlett donated land to the City of St. Petersburg, and this land subsequently became public, known as Bartlett Park, sitting on 133 acres of green and recreational space. Seeking a larger, desirable location, the St. Petersburg Tennis Club moved all tennis apparatus, including clay, to the Bartlett Park site.
Still known as the St. Petersburg Tennis Club in its new location, the facility was operated and managed by local tennis players and volunteers. Tennis families such as the Vuilles, Schafers, Turvilles, McMasters, Lewallens, Reeses and Reillys supported and grew the facility for almost 60 years. Pros such as Dan Sullivan and Bill Luffler nurtured and taught generations of local players, producing junior, college, adult and senior champions. The courts hosted professional tournaments and players such as Bill Tilden, Jack Kramer, Don Budge, Roy Emerson, Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Margaret Court, Arthur Ashe, Billy Jean King, Martine Navratilova, Chris Evert and Danielle Collins. On site is the St. Petersburg Museum of Tennis, attesting to the center’s rich and notable history in the tennis world.
For many years the facility prospered and grew, but in the 1990s overall tennis play decreased among the community and new clubs, with more amenities, brought increased competition. In 1993 the Club disbanded and the City of St. Petersburg took over the tennis operation. By 2001, the city had decided the facility, with its dwindling membership and increasing costs for maintenance, was not a viable, worthwhile endeavor for the community. The announcement was made on July 30 that the facility would close and the structures torn down, making way for more park space. Immediately the local tennis community rallied and, within weeks, a new and improved tennis center model and plan was developed. The Tennis Foundation of St. Petersburg, Inc. was legally incorporated as a non-profit entity. The city then entered into a lease agreement with the Foundation, offering minimal and temporary financial assistance. By October 1, 2001, the Foundation took possession, assuming managerial and operational duties for the SPTC, filling all necessary positions with volunteers. Mike Carroll took on the role as Foundation President, serving dutifully and faithfully until 2021.
The Foundation operates currently as a 501c3, non-for-profit, charitable entity with Lyn Ballinger as Chair of the Trustees and 13 sitting members. Without current subsidy from the city, the lease agreement has continued and SPTC is a remarkable public-private partnership.
To initially obtain the city’s support, the SPTC (now known as the St. Petersburg Tennis Center) was to serve and offer a free after-school tennis junior program to the community. The program saw rapid success and, with players and members returning, financial stability was achieved and SPTC was now able to hire Jackie Keller as manager. SPTC, with its community emphasis, attracted the attention of former world #1 tennis professional, Jim Courier. He adopted the after-school program, which became Courier’s Kids. Fundraising events were held to assist with its operation and staffing, and Courier enlisted fellow professionals Andre Agassi, Chris Evert and Andy Roddick for these events. Courier and local businessman, Tom James, have continued their generous support for many years since.
By 2010 the facility’s clubhouse, courts and fencing were in need of a facelift. With SPTC’s rejuvenation and consistency in the community, the Foundation, city and donors raised $1.4 million for a new clubhouse and court upgrades. Four new Har-Tru courts were added in 2017, bringing court total to 20, 14 under lights.
Since 2019, SPTC has been under the daily direction of General Manager, Jack Bailey. He also serves as Executive Director of the Tennis Foundation. Bailey’s duties include overseeing staff, implementing programs and all court and structure maintenance. SPTC qualified personnel includes four full-time and three part-time teaching professionals, three part-time pro shop/office staff and a full-time and part-time maintenance support team.
The community initiatives, which have been implemented during the past decade, and during Bailey’s tenure, have made an impact in the lives of many children and adults in St. Petersburg. A welcoming atmosphere greets everyone and scholarships are provided for any junior wishing to participate in the programs. A partnership with the Frank Pearce Recreation Center offers summer and after-school opportunities to neighboring children. Bee’s Learning, Inc., volunteer-run, conducts reading tutoring and enrichment three afternoons per week in the facility’s community room during the school year. 35-40 percent of the after-school tennis program participants are offered scholarships and 60 percent in summer sessions. Participation is 40-50 (school year) and 30-40 (summer). Academy Prep, a local charter school, attends SPTC, offering tennis as part of their enrichment program. High School tennis teams are provided with courts for practices and matches.
Bailey has spearheaded Racquets & Recovery program for those adults seeking to add a beneficial sport to their daily lives. The Wounded Warriors veteran organization has also organized play at SPTC and a Special Needs program is available weekly.
Adults and seniors are also offered playing opportunities with day/evening leagues, USTA teams, tournaments, open play, clinics and lessons. Memberships are available, but the public is always welcome with affordable guest fees. Each year, numerous tournaments and events are held: USTA Level II, Senior Men’s National in February, Sowing Seeds Community event in March, Back-to-School Tennis Carnival in August, Advantage Tampa Bay in November and Courier Kid’s event in December.
SPTC is an outstanding tennis facility, striving daily to be worthy of its past history and always looking to the future for worthwhile opportunities for service to the community.
SPTC Mission Statement assures the facility will remain:
“A respectful and enlightening common ground for diverse cultures and generations; a safe haven for the children of St. Petersburg; an economically viable institution on this historically significant site.”
Lyn Ballinger, Foundation Chair:
“The St. Petersburg Tennis Foundation’s goal is to preserve the rich tennis history at the SPTC as well as support our local community. We are committed to positively impacting children in the surrounding communities, to not only learn tennis, but all the life lessons that come with it. It starts with tennis, but it is about the friendships, competition and physical activity we all need for our mental and emotional health. We are a family here at the SPTC. For over 100 years, the STPC has been the tennis center for diverse cultures, backgrounds and generations. Come visit the center and the museum, and consider donating or sponsoring a child in our after-school program. Please visit the website for more details.”
Jack Bailey, General Manager:
“I am honored to have a hand in the operations of the historical St. Petersburg Tennis Center and am even more humbled by the philanthropic impact of our TEAM, our BOARD and our PLAYERS!”
SPTC is located at 650 18th Ave. S., St. Petersburg, FL 33705. Phone: 727-823-2225. Website: https://stpetetenniscenter.com. For assistance, contact Jack Bailey, General Manager.
Written by Florida Tennis contributor Debbie Hobbs. Top Photo: St. Petersburg Tennis Center. Photos in collage: Debbie Hobbs. This article also appears in the September-October 2023 issue of Florida Tennis Magazine. Be sure to subscribe for expanded coverage, exclusive interviews, and in-depth tennis news.