Naples's elite tennis academies attract students from around the globe.
Emilio Sanchez and Sergio Casal opened the Naples branch of their Academia Sanchez-Casal (ASC), a tennis academy, in 2012. They’d teamed up before and done pretty well: as doubles tennis partners, they had won an Olympic silver medal and the U.S. Open in 1988 and the French Open in 1990. And they had successfully run the first ASC, in Barcelona, for more than a decade, training such elite players as recent Olympic gold medalist and Wimbledon champion Andy Murray. Still, Sanchez notes, “This is not a business you can replicate easily.” Students are different in the two places; the cities and the cultures are very different. But now in its third full year of operation, the Naples academy is buzzing with young players and pros, on and off the court.
It’s one of several tennis programs in Naples where parents send their kids— or adults enroll themselves—to work with elite coaches and get their game up to its highest level.
What sets ASC apart from other academies in Southwest Florida, whose students typically get their academic educations online, is that there is a school onsite. It’s a fully operational private school, grades 7 through 12, that students attend for five hours a day. This is, Sanchez says, to help ASC students invest in their futures in all ways—not just tennis.
“Our mission is to give students opportunities,” he says. “Everyone comes here for the opportunity to become a tennis player. But very few of them are going to become professional players because it is so difficult. So it’s really the school that makes the difference.”
not lost. The education gives them the perspective to see that the training they underwent for tennis is useful in other areas too, Sanchez says. “We have a student who graduated Columbia and works in a top bank in New York City,” he says. “Many work in the industry—for the ATP [Association of Tennis Professionals], for Nike, for Adidas, and so on.”
REVAMPING AN ABANDONED CLUB
Sanchez and Casal began in Naples as consultants at what was the Naples Bath and Tennis Club. The former owners had closed the facility in 2010, and two years later, Sanchez says, the bank called to see whether the Grand Slam champs wanted to buy it. Buoyed by the success of their Barcelona academy, they said yes. After two years of neglect, though, “the courts were in bad shape,” says Sanchez. “The main building was okay. But only 10 courts were operational.”
They undertook the expensive repairs and today have 38 courts in use. Most have a surface known as Har-Tru, which is synthetic clay. Three courts were converted to hard surface, which is what most of the students’ tournament play is on, according to Sanchez. The academy’s staff numbers about 25, including coaches.
The repairs and other expenses kept ASC in the red in 2014, their first year of operation. They nearly broke even in 2015, Sanchez says, and this year hope to be profitable. Their experience with the Spanish academy helped. They were up and running in Naples faster and with fewer mistakes, he says. Also, Naples is smaller, with about 35 students, while the Barcelona location starts with third grade and has 120 students.
About 60 to 70 percent of students, many of whom are international, board at the school. Yearly cost for a boarder at ASC Naples is $50,000. A student who lives off-campus, likely with family, pays $40,000.
Going from partners on the court to business partners was a wise strategy. They compensate for each other, as they did on-court. “He’s always been very consistent,” Sanchez says of Casal. “It’s been 20 years since we played together and we’ve been working together all this time. He’s been really good.”
AIMING FOR UNDERGRADS
Another academy in Naples, known as Tough Tennis, operates out of a private facility and features the homegrown Naples tennis star Jesse Whitten. He played for the University of Kentucky before going on to the pro tour. Tough Tennis keeps its census low—about 16 students—and concentrates less on getting its students to the big tournaments.
“Our focus is really on getting kids into good colleges,” says coach Vimal Patel, one of three on staff. “We work on getting them scholarships. Other places may promise you Wimbledon or the U.S. Open, but that’s such a long shot. We concentrate on top-tier academic institutions.” He goes on to explain, “By getting better at tennis, the students are able to get into a better level of college, not based entirely on their academics.”
Tough charges $3,000 per month for students who board, and the training is about five hours per day, five days a week. They accept kids from age 5 through college players and even adults for training.
Tough has been in operation since 1996 but took a hiatus about six years ago and started boarding students again about two years ago. Patel declined to cite specific finances but says that the number of students has doubled, based solely on word-of-mouth publicity, in the two years since they began boarding again.
They’re passionate about their college focus, Patel says, because training exclusively for the pro tennis tour doesn’t have a great return on investment. He estimates that only the top 100 players in the world net $100,000 or more. Training and travel to tournaments is quite expensive, and, he notes, the yearround play can be punishing on the body. “You’re one injury away from everything ending,” he says. “And when you start skipping the step of getting a college education, you’re taking a tremendous gamble.”
BRING THE FAMILY
Nicole Cook was on vacation with her family in Southwest Florida when she decided to look for a tennis teacher who could help her two daughters while they were in town. She happened on the Gomez Tennis Academy (GTA) in Naples and has never looked back.
Those first lessons went so well that that Cook continued to bring daughters Caroline and Lauren back and forth to Naples from their home in Toronto to train. Eventually the family became so serious about tennis that they relocated to Naples. Now 16 and 14, respectively, the girls are in full-time, year-round training at GTA, working out and playing about five hours a day at the academy. Mom Nicole doesn’t work outside the home and dad Jay was able to keep his position, working internationally for Nissan, so the move was less disruptive on the family than it might have been.
The Cooks are fairly typical of the families who relocate to allow their children to devote themselves full-time to tennis. “The girls get such a sense of accomplishment from playing and from the improvement they see in themselves,” Nicole says. “They enjoy the process. They enjoy the players they train with. And they think the world of these coaches. [The coaches] are the best.”
GTA is owned by husband and wife team Rene and Leslie Gomez, who purchased the grounds in Naples in 2010. It had some courts on it that weren’t being used. They revamped those and built three additional courts (totaling 8). Then they set out to build the business.
Rene had played on the tour and went on to coach at the well-known Bollettieri and Chris Evert academies. He has trained such world-class players as Monica Seles (who stops by GTA occasionally), Andre Agassi and Anna Kournikova. (His clearly proud wife adds that he was voted one of the top 10 coaches in the world.)
“We came here with no students,” says Leslie. “It wasn’t easy to pay the bills in the beginning.” And they were committed to the idea of having a high-quality academy for only the most devoted students. “Rene told me to be patient,” says Leslie. “And the next week the phone would ring. And then the next week, the phone would ring again. We have a very good reputation internationally; people know about us. Times weren’t easy in the beginning, but it’s paying off now. Now we have people calling who we can’t accept.”
GTA has about 25 students and eight high-performance coaches. The ratio of coach to student is 1-to-4 (some coaches are travelling with players at any given time), and the cost is $3,900 per month for boarding and $2,750 per month for nonboarding. GTA, like Tough Tennis, has students study online. The Cooks complete their schoolwork online through Laurel Springs Academy. “The kids who train with us full-time couldn’t go to a regular school,” says Rene.
The program is year-round, with no breaks for summer camps, says Leslie, because “we’re here to develop players for a high level of competition.” And they are doing just that: The week we talked, one of their students, Mayuka Aikawa of Japan was competing as a junior at Wimbledon. She had played the Australian and French Opens and plans to go on to the U.S. Open later in the summer.
Does Nicole have visions of the U.S. Open dancing in her head too? “I can’t have an end goal for [my daughters],” she says soberly. “I hope that they can reach whatever their highest potential is. I am supporting them along the way and they love it and they do beautifully. They both want to be college educated for sure. It’s hard to make a call on exactly how their path will turn out. So we’ll see.”
As the relatively new, or newly relaunched, academies work out their best business practices, Caroline and Lauren Cook will stay on the court, practicing their strokes. “We will stay with Gomez Tennis Academy as long as the girls are training,” says Nicole. “It’s been so great with them. What they do for the players every day is remarkable. My girls are thriving with them. They show me every day that they’re in the right place.”