Every now and then, usually while relaxing over beers after a few sets of doubles, some of my tennis buddies enjoy reminiscing about the way it was.
They talk wistfully about all the tournament tennis that once was played in and around Vero Beach, especially at this time of year, when the sunny, dry and cooler winter weather was perfect for such events – regular gatherings that were often as social as they were competitive.
There were United States Tennis Association-sanctioned tournaments. There were city championships. And, best of all, there were amateur adult tournaments, played at local clubs and used as fundraisers for worthwhile causes.
They filled the calendar from Thanksgiving through Easter, raising money for everything from the American Cancer Society to the Humane Society, from the Sheriff’s Office to local scout groups.
“There were a lot of them,” said Ted McBeth, a longtime teaching pro in Vero Beach and former King of the Hill champion. “It seemed like there was always something going on somewhere.”
Many of the tournaments were held here but attracted players from neighboring counties. Others were held in Brevard, St. Lucie and Martin counties but had no trouble drawing players from the Vero Beach area.
One of the more popular events was something called the “Century Tournament,” held at Sea Oaks with doubles teams composed of players whose combined ages totaled at least 100.
“There was a lot of enthusiasm for tennis in those days, but you’re going back 10 or 20 years, maybe more,” Twin Oaks owner and head pro Alain Mignolet said. “It was a different demographic.
“A lot of those people were the result of the tennis boom in the 1970s and ‘80s,” he continued. “They were younger and new to the game, so it was fresh and exciting for them. They were willing to pay a $50 entry fee and, if necessary, get in their cars and drive an hour to play a tournament. They didn’t mind devoting an entire weekend to tennis.
“Well, that’s not the case anymore,” he added. “Those people have gotten older, and this area doesn’t get a significant influx of new players. So it’s basically the same people playing now that played then.”
And, apparently, most of those people are satisfied with the games they get at their local clubs and no longer feel any need or desire to play outside their tennis circle.
Some no longer want to commit themselves to tournaments, which often require playing two matches in one day and/or playing on consecutive days. Some, because of age or injury, can’t meet the physical demands.
Not that it matters: Adult amateur tennis tournaments in Vero Beach – those open to the general public – have gone the way of the wood racket.
“You just don’t see them anymore,” said longtime teaching pro and King of the Hill founder Gigi Casapu, who spent 10 years at Timber Ridge before becoming the tennis director at The Cascades in St. Lucie West 13 years ago.
“Back then, there was the Treasure Coast Tennis Association, and it would hold tournaments at each club,” he added. “Once or twice a month, there were tournaments. You had singles, doubles and mixed-doubles with competition at all levels, and they were quite successful. You had a lot of people playing.
“But the participation started falling off and, one by one, they went away.”
Only two established tournaments remain – the Quail Valley Charity Cup here and the North River Shores Mixed-Doubles Championships in Stuart.
And the Quail Valley men’s and women’s doubles tournament, which this year had an entry fee of $275 per person, isn’t an open event, though some non-members have been invited to play.
Last weekend, in fact, I played in the tournament as a guest for the third consecutive year and, as usual, thoroughly enjoyed the event, which drew 100 women and 64 men. But rain wreaked havoc on the schedule, stopping play Thursday night and washing out all of Friday’s matches.
Watching Quail Valley tennis director Sam Garcia and his staff scramble to get through the weekend – courts at The Moorings were used, men’s teams were forced to play three matches Saturday and, still, the men’s finals weren’t held until Monday night – I saw another reason local tournaments have disappeared.
They demand too much effort from those who run them.
“Running a tournament is a lot of work,” said Casapu, who still runs the King of the Hill tournament that features local teaching pros and raises money for Youth Guidance of Indian River County. “I do it for the kids, because it’s important to me, but I understand not everyone can keep doing it.
“People put in their time and, after a few years, they get worn out,” he added. “So you need fresh blood to step up and take over. That hasn’t happened.”
It’s not just the work, though. It’s also the payoff. All too often, the reward wasn’t worth the effort.
That’s why, in some cases, tennis tournaments have been replaced by golf tournaments, which require less work and generate a far greater financial return – with less chance of the event being disrupted by bad weather.
Let’s face it: Putting on a one-day golf tournament is easier than running a three-day tennis tournament.
Those were the exact reasons the organizers of the American Heart Association tournament gave for moving their annual fundraiser from the courts to the course.
The Quail Valley tennis tournament, however, isn’t a stand-alone event. It’s part of a week-long, multi-faceted fundraising campaign that benefits the club’s charities. It generates a substantial amount of money.
“The Quail Cup is a complete anomaly,” Mignolet said. “They’ve done very well with their tournament by making it part of the social event of the year here.
“It’s at the height of the season, at the hottest club in town, and, in terms of age and financial standing, they’ve got the right demographics,” he added. “Not only do the members take pride in supporting the event, but they get excited about it.”
They should. It’s a fun event. It draws many of the better players in Vero Beach. It’s the only amateur adult tennis tournament in town.
Mignolet, for one, doesn’t expect that to change.
“I’ve been here for more than 20 years and I’ve got a pretty good idea of what’s going on,” Mignolet said.
“Most of the clubs – other than the country clubs – are stressed,” he continued. “The business is getting harder.
“As far as clubs bringing back tournaments, I don’t see it happening,” he added. “The numbers just aren’t there anymore.” But the memories are.