“Audacious” and “bold” are a couple of the reactions that Virgil Christian, senior director of market development for the United States Tennis Association (USTA), heard from outside observers. This was when he first unveiled the organization’s plans to build a sprawling tennis complex on 64 acres outside of Orlando, Florida, that the USTA was billing as the “Home of American Tennis”—before a single brick had been laid.
At press time, the facility was scheduled to open at the end of 2016, and with hindsight, Christian says that if he made any mistake at the beginning, it was not thinking big enough.
“I’d never worked on such a huge project, or even seen it happen,” he says. “But I got a lot of encouragement—especially from my boss, Kurt Kamperman, who challenged me to dream big. That was encouraging to hear.”
The seeds of the project were sown in 2012, when Patrick McEnroe, who was then USTA’s general manager of player development, called Christian to ask for help expanding the organization’s current training facility in Boca Raton. The project ultimately didn’t take place due to land and space considerations, but the scope of the idea revived a notion that Christian had been contemplating—to do something iconic for the sport.
He spoke with senior management, who gave him the green light to pursue it. Although Christian had as many as eight cities in mind, an early partnership with Disney centered things in Florida. Local builders and developers caught wind of the nascent project, and eventually Christian won over investment firm Tavistock Group with the idea, securing funding for the $100 million project at Lake Nona. Christian says Tavistock’s history of highly successful and impactful enterprises cinched his ambition to do something great.
“At that point, I said, ‘We’re going to set the bar so high that we’re going to have to make it work and we will have to do it with excellence,’” he says. “If we are going to partner with Tavistock and name this the ‘Home of American Tennis,’ we have to elevate our execution and delivery. I think this changed a lot of our thinking. We weren’t meeting about just a tennis center anymore; we were meeting about the ‘Home of American Tennis,’ so let’s build it like it’s named.”
The idea is to have four pillars (areas): a tournament and league area with 24 clay courts and 16 hard courts; a collegiate area consisting of 12 courts; a Team USA area with 16 courts; and a player development area with 22 courts. In addition to that spread, there will also be corporate offices and five other buildings on campus.
USTA NATIONAL CAMPUS BY THE NUMBERS
tournaments scheduled to host in 2017
visitors expected in the first year of operation
courts with live-streaming capability
32 of 100
courts equipped with smart court technology
“You’re talking about a site plan that there is no template for, that has never been done in the sporting world,” Christian says. “There are all of the partnerships and the community—people we had to communicate our vision with and garner their support. Our USTA leadership had to lay out the process and the vision. [Then the question became,] ‘How do we get this from paper to a physical facility?’”
What began with Christian’s passionate design on a piece of paper eventually morphed into 20,000 tons of concrete poured to create 320,000 square feet of hard court surface and 285,000 square feet of clay surface. More than 350,000 cubic yards of earth was moved, 50 miles of underground piping installed, and 24 million lumens put in place. Still, those numbers hardly reflect the scope of the project’s ambition, which is to serve up a facility that will drive the sport of tennis deep into the public’s awareness.
To get there, Christian and the USTA needed great partners who understood the spirit of the project. From the investment company to the utility company to building suppliers, everyone needed to be on the same page and believe that this campus would transform the sport.
“What I tried to do was make sure everyone knew who was responsible for what and what the expectations were,” Christian says. “I wanted all of our partners to know at the same time how grateful we were to be working with them. This is unique and special, but at the end of the day, it comes down to relationships. Even after the ribbon cutting ceremony is over and the press leaves, you still have those relationships and you want and need them to grow along with the facility.”
Christian isn’t shy about what he’s hoping the facility will achieve. The general consensus is that the number of adults playing tennis has not been as high as the organization would like, and ball sales for children have lagged as well, after rising for several years. Could this new campus reverse those trends?
“When your sport does something big and exciting, people say, ‘Tennis is doing what?’” Christian says. “There is a future here, because someone’s investing money in tennis. Beyond the people already playing, I think it’s going to get the average sports fan to say, ‘I want to try it.’ Maybe not in Orlando, but maybe in Golden Gate Park [in California] or McCarren Park [in New York]. ‘It looks like it’s something I can do, so I’ll grab a racket, a few balls, put on my sneakers, and head to the courts.’ It’s going to be something that encourages folks to say, ‘Let me check out tennis again.’”
Part of that impact, Christian believes, will come from the facility’s transcendence of function into the realm of aesthetics.
“In building, you want to ultimately build something an artist would paint,” he says. “If that isn’t there, it’s just a building or just courts. Hopefully in 10 years, we will have an artist sitting out there, saying, ‘The design features of the complex and campus are so compelling I feel a need to draw this.’”
If that happens, it will be a result of what Christian drew up one day on an 8-by-11-inch piece of paper when no one was watching, not knowing if it would ever happen—but having faith that it could.