January 1st, 2019

USTA Florida President’s Message: Bollettieri, Marjory Stoneman Girls’ Tennis Team Add to Moving Annual Awards

General News

By Clark Higgs, USTA Florida volunteer president

Something interesting happened at the Saturday night Awards Dinner during USTA Florida’s 69th Annual Meeting & Tennis Celebration in November. We had the confluence of a tragedy, a tennis legend, extreme generosity, and tennis’ ability to help heal, all displayed in one night.

Earlier in the afternoon we conducted the “business” of the Florida Section, then the Awards Dinner began the celebration for the weekend, honoring a variety of players and volunteers for their contributions to the game of tennis. You can see the award winners on the following pages.

The celebration began, however, on a somber note with the recognition of, and a special presentation to, the young ladies and Girls’ Tennis Coach Amy Pena of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School team from Parkland, Fla., where the Feb. 14 tragedy occurred last year when a gunman entered the high school and ended the lives of 17 innocent students and staff. Many of the victims were close friends and classmates of the tennis team, and at least one fell at the feet of a team member during the incident.

It is difficult to imagine or express the impact of this event on so many people in and around Florida. Coach Pena described how these young ladies started practicing as a team four weeks late into the season by first playing with golden retriever service dogs on the football field. In time, and with the help of some local pros, the WTA tour team psychologist, Chris Evert and The Miami Open staff hosting the team, these young ladies were able to resume some normalcy in their lives. Tennis eventually helped them deal with the pain, anguish and grief, and to find surprising success in their season. Their rally cry was to

“Play for the 17” [students and faculty that were killed], and despite the late start the horrifying circumstances, they won their district championship, won the regionals, and advanced all the way to the state semifinals.

Thad Hawkes, the USTA Florida youth program coordinator and high school tennis specialist, made the connection to the team’s run through the state championships and organized a video interview story with the team in April, and at the annual meeting and awards arranged for a presentation to coach Pena and the team during the awards, shared with the 150 guests that night.

Tennis legend Nick Bollettieri was one of the awardees, inducted into the USTA Florida Hall of Fame. Bollettieri, who assisted the USTA Florida Section greatly in the 1970s and ‘80s when it was just a handful of employees, upon seeing the MSD girls’ team’s recognition generously offered the entire girls’ team a free one-week scholarship to the IMG Tennis Academy in Bradenton this summer. He made the initial announcement that he would in 2019 be bringing back the Ashe-Bollettieri Program for inner-city kids across the country, originally started with tennis legend Arthur Ashe, starting in Sarasota. Nick closed his presentation by saying that he wanted his legacy to be “making an impact on people’s lives that go on for generations.”

USTA Florida congratulates tennis legend Mr. Nick Bollettieri for his induction into the Florida Tennis Hall of Fame and for his lifelong contributions to tennis and the kids who play the game. And an additional thanks to him and the IMG Tennis Academy for the scholarships for the MSD girls’ tennis team. We all hope that this experience will help them get past the tragedy of Feb. 14, 2018.

Clark Higgs