Under its new leadership and with resurfaced clay courts, the re-branded Jekyll Island Tennis Center is already reaping the benefits of its upgraded facility.
A recently-formed USTA 40-and-older women’s tennis team qualified for and competed in the USTA Georgia State Championships in Athens during the first weekend in June. Previously divided into two local teams, Sandy Strickland and Kathy Brown said players from each team formed a highly-competitive team that trains with Jekyll Island Director of Tennis Operations Stewart Atkins. Though they didn’t win the tournament — eliminated by the eventual state champion in a tiebreaker — a spokesperson with Jekyll Island Authority said there is no record of a Jekyll-based team advancing to the state level in USTA competition. This implies that the 2017 40-over women’s team, the first Jekyll-based USTA team in that league, is one of the most successful in the tennis club’s history.
“One of the major factors was the amount of time and dollars and investment the Jekyll Island Authority put into the tennis facility,” Brown said. “That, in itself, really facilitated us having a (40-and-over) team out of Jekyll.”
The nine-woman team played in a USTA league during the regular season. Stitched from two separate teams, players practiced regularly together and developed a report with several different doubles partners. That flexibility, Cynthia Stix said, was important to the team’s success. Doubles pairs were essentially interchangeable all season long.
The team is now preparing for the USTA’s mixed doubles season. On one of the facility’s clay courts Friday morning five of the nine players would take turns covering the court with one partner. After an unforced error, one player rotated out for the extra player. The joking mixed with concentration as the ball rallied back and forth, was coupled with constructive coaching from Atkins.
The brand new team seems to be in its formative years with many more to come, as players made fast friendships during the trip.
“I think, as a group,” Brown said, “we had a lot of fun.”
USTA team matches include Court 1 and Court 2 singles matches and three doubles matches on Courts 3 through 5. With nine players, Atkins said the Jekyll-based squad lacked the depth of some of the other competing teams. This disadvantaged Jekyll in a couple ways. They found two stable singles players on a team of mostly doubles players, and the small roster meant rotating doubles partners to offset that lack of depth. While it was difficult to develop timing without a consistent partner, learning to cover the court in singles and building chemistry with several doubles partners could make the team stronger in the long run.
“We had our set singles players who would play every day and the doubles teams were interchangeable,” Atkins said. “That made keeping the same partner throughout the entire tournament impossible to do, which made it difficult for them. That’s why I’m enormously proud of how well they did considering how difficult the situation they were in.”
Atkins was officially brought on at Jekyll at the beginning of the year when the Jekyll Island Authority announced a renovation of the tennis complex that was previously damaged by Hurricane Matthew. However, members of the Jekyll 40-over tennis team, such as Brown, have been working with Atkins and attending his clinics for roughly a year.
“That’s made a difference in all of our games,” Lucina Gordon said. “Since Stewart started working with us, our games have improved dramatically. People for other places see us playing and say, ‘Gosh, what are y’all doing, because you’re so improved.”
As the tennis director at Jekyll, Atkins can provide the 40-over team with two dedicated days of practice at a central, stable location. With the facilities and solid base of committed players, Atkins said this tournament is something Jekyll Island Tennis can build on as it tries to develop current teams and expand by entering new teams into different leagues.
“I think the highlight was the learning experience,” Atkins said. “When we got back, the very first practice we had I said, ‘Let’s talk about what we did, and let’s talk about how we get back here.’”