Northeast Florida Professional Tennis Association -- In Their Own Words

Posted on October 10, 2007

15 Years of Shaping Tennis in Jacksonville
By Richard Vach


This year marks the 15th anniversary of the Northeast Florida Professional Tennis Association (NFPTA), the organization founded in 1992 by Jacksonville club pros to bring further unity to tennis in the region.


"I think first and foremost the biggest accomplishment is the networking it has provided," said past president Louie Ballantyne, director of tennis at the Florida Yacht Club. "I've been involved down in the Orlando area and we didn't have an association, and as a result there was a huge lack of organization between all the pros and there was no continuity as to what tennis was doing in the area. As far as growing, everyone was doing all their own individual programs and it got so competitive that there was a lot of tension among the pros down there. Here we meet and we talk and everyone understands what is going on at each other's clubs. There isn't that kind of tension, and there is a lot of openness to calling each other up and bouncing ideas off each other, which in turn has really helped Jacksonville."

One example of a "problem" the Association is dealing with is the exploding popularity of tennis in Jacksonville -- a problem only because the popularity of league play is outpacing the number of available courts at clubs. Ballantyne notes the Association doesn't "regulate" leagues, but regional league coordinators attend NFPTA meetings and work with the pros to iron out problems, such as the current issue of court availability.

"We leave the leagues up to the league coordinators...because that is a very touchy topic," says Ballantyne with a laugh. "The leagues have grown -- tennis is doing very well right now, for the last couple of years -- in Jacksonville I'd say it has been doing well for the last 6-7 years. Now that the leagues have gotten so big I think there's definitely a need for the pros to get more involved with the league coordinators to simply manage the facilities. There's now a problem of getting courts for all the matches and coordinating all the different leagues and teams in Jacksonville. There's a ton of them."

The "problem" of too many tennis players aside, the NFPTA has played an integral part in the growth of the sport in Northeast Florida. To mark the occasion, JAX Tennis spoke with founders and past presidents of the organization who continue to grow the game, and have founded a number of other key area tennis events and institutions.

Mike Leach, Director of Tennis, Ponte Vedra Inn & Club
"Several of us local Jacksonville pros helped start the NFPTA back in 1982," Leach said. "I was the initial president, treasurer, and secretary."

Leach helped found the NFPTA the year he relocated to the area from the Atlanta Health & Racquet Club.

"I believe our most important accomplishment beyond opening the communication lines between the local clubs and pros has been the streamlining of the many leagues under one umbrella, the First Coast Tennis Association, and the dialogue between these leagues and the pros. Every league used to be run extremely autonomously with no input from the pros in the area."

Jacksonville's burgeoning junior tennis scene can also be tracked to NFPTA involvement, as well as the proliferation of adult leagues.

"Through the First Coast Tennis Foundation we are involved in almost all of the leagues to some extent," Leach said. "Getting everything online with tenniscores.com has been a great streamliner as well. Junior Leagues like the USTA Friday afternoon league and Grand Prix and Grand Slam tournaments are the brainchild of many minds including the NFPTA pros."

For Leach, the need for the group collective outweighs the needs of the individuals.

"We are another collective tennis voice with an actual, real stake in the outcome of this business," Leach said. "If we help grow the game, we all benefit."

While the NFPTA also includes league organizers, one organization can't resolve all problems according to all members. Leach's personal pet peeve?

"To whom it may concern and the current board of the Country Club D-team -- PLEASE stop calling the Women's Friday Country Club League the "D" League!� Leach says. "Two reasons: Let's face it, being on the "D" Team doesn't sound real cool to begin with. Secondly, every major city has a "C" Tennis League (C-1, C-2, C-3, etc.) but no "D" League. Thus, when a C-5 player moves here from Atlanta, she probably has to join our D-League in Jacksonville � not sure she's calling home to brag about that little backslide! The answer? Call the Friday Country Club League the C3 League. Everyone's self-esteem is given a boost and no one has to move backwards just because they move to J-ville."

Bill Gist, Director of Tennis, Jacksonville Golf & Country Club
"I�ve been involved in the NFPTA since the first day it was organized and have been treasurer, vice president and president."

Accomplishments: "There have been many but the main accomplishment has been bringing almost all the local teaching pros together to form a very cohesive group that works great together for the betterment of tennis in Northeast Florida. Other accomplishments: 1. Organizing a Junior Grand Prix circuit; 2. Mixed doubles league; 3. Putting together a buying program for all clubs to be fiscally responsible and to assist with the bottom line for our tennis departments; 4. Openly sharing ideas, club issues and always willing to help each other."

Getting It Done: "We do not regulate the clubs, leagues etc. We are here for support, advising and promoting our great sport through all of these avenues."

Those That Share, Care: "Our biggest impact is our relationships with each other and our openness to share info and ideas with each other."

Origins: "Much praise needs to be given to Mike Leach for putting time and energy into getting this organization off the ground and getting us all on board working together."

Barry Curley, Director of Tennis, Marsh Landing Country Club
"I moved to Ponte Vedra in 1986, the NFPTA was alive and well back then, but it was not called the NFPTA. I think we referred to it as the local pros association. Z. Mincek, director of tennis at the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club was the president. My role at that time was to sit and listen. In time I became the president and I believe that I served for a two-year term. Since I've served as president, I've been an active participant, sometimes serving in an advisory role in some issues."

Accomplishments: "I can say that through this organization there is a tremendous spirit of cooperation among the tennis pros in our area. In my mind the No. 1 thing that has been accomplished through the NFPTA is the camaraderie among the pros as well as a network of peers that will help each other whenever or wherever the need arises."

Sphere of Influence: "I would say that our organization touches anything that moves tennis-wise in Jacksonville. We are typically not the ones spearheading the effort, but we're always involved in some way. We're a little bit like BASF., 'We don't make the league tennis in Jacksonville, but we help keep it strong.'"

Roger Exum, Head Pro, Marsh Landing Country Club
"I joined the NFPTA in 2003, and got more involved in '05 becoming treasurer. I decided to really make a difference in '07 by becoming president."
 
Growing Junior Tennis: "We as an organization help run the junior play around Jax. We took it over a year ago. Eric Taylor stepped up and has single-handedly done a phenomenal job since then. Through communication within club to club, we try to maintain a high standard for all match play at clubs."
 
Learning From Each Other: "I think the NFPTA has been instrumental in growing the game of tennis in Jacksonville. Our organization has always come up with fresh and new ideas, as well as staying in the forefront of new technology. We regularly have speakers come in and introduce us to the newest products or educate us in new dynamics of teaching. By learning from others, we can take this knowledge back to our clubs and "fertilize our seedlings" and make them better players. For me, watching one of my students achieve bigger and better is the most rewarding thing of all."

Story Time: "As president, I have instituted a new part of meetings I like to call "story time." Anyone who has something strange happen to them at the club shares with the rest. It is always hilarious, and it helps remind us that the grass is not always greener on the other side. The beauty of it for me, is just when I think I have heard it all..."

Louie Ballantyne, Director of Tennis, Florida Yacht Club
Old School: "I was part of the district association way back when we were using wooden racquets and putting them in frames and stringing with cat gut when Z. Mincek was the president, and I was Barry Curley's assistant. I left the area to go to Orlando and was gone for three years, and when I came back in 1993, [Mike] Leach had started the NFPTA. It was a continuation, but his vision was that you didn't only have to be USPTA or USPTR [certified.]"

NFPTA Beginnings: "I was thoroughly impressed with [Mike] Leach's organization, both the way he had it organized, and he was the president forever. He started it and really treated it professionally and got everyone involved. I think I followed Barry [Curley], I think Barry came after Mike in 1997 for two years, then I came in in 1999, and I was the president for three years."

Strengths Beyond Tennis: "If you look at some of the directors around town, they have been in their position for quite a long time, starting with Danny Cox out there at Hidden Hills, Leach has been out there 18 years, "Curls" has been out there 18 plus years. We all say tennis pros have nine lives -- each year you piss off 10 percent of your membership, then after nine years you're done. I think that used to be the average, nine years, but that's not the case in Jacksonville."

Undefeated: "Our association will take on any other association in softball. We're No. 1 in the country in softball (laughing), and we will challenge any other pro association in the country in softball. That's the highlight of our year, the annual softball game. That's where you see the true athletic talent shine -- or not."

This article appears in the October issue of JAX Tennis Magazine, Northeast Florida's tennis source, www.jaxtennismagazine.com.