PALM HARBOR — Organizers of the inaugural Innisbrook Tennis Open, a weeklong event held March 31-April 7 featuring a USTA Pro Circuit Women’s 80K as well as an Invesco Series Classic between four legends of the sport, hope the event will blossom into the tennis equivalent of the Valspar Championship.
“I think we’ve got the opportunity to reintroduce Innisbrook as a preeminent tennis venue in the state of Florida,” Mike Williams, Innisbrook’s managing director, said prior to the Invesco Series match.
Based on the brisk ticket sales that led to packed stands at the Innisbrook Tennis Center, they’re well on their way toward getting their wish.
Tennis fans of all ages from around the country filed into the tennis center April 4 to see James Blake, Jim Courier, Mardy Fish and John McEnroe square off in a single-set, single-elimination match that saw the players crisscrossing center court for shots while hamming it up whenever possible, much to the delight of the fans.
“I think it’s fantastic,” said Tony Snoeyenbos, a Wisconsin native and longtime McEnroe fan, who along with his brother, Perry, paid for the VIP experience to lob a few shots over the net with his idol prior to the Invesco match. “I first saw him play in 1977 when he was a junior player and I’ve been following him my whole life. When I heard about this event and the VIP experience, I said ‘sign me up!’”
Perry Snoeyenbos, who was in town celebrating his birthday, said McEnroe “was a little more serious, while James (Blake) was a little more fun.”
Regarding the play-with-the-pros birthday experience, Perry said “This is about as good as it gets.”
Despite being a first-year tournament, the players and fans seemed to appreciate the effort Innisbrook officials, including Sheila Johnson, CEO of parent company Salamander Resorts, Williams and Innisbrook Tennis Director Joe Mattingly put into the event.
“This is my first time here, but I like it so far,” McEnroe said to a group of reporters. “A lot of people play tennis in Florida. The key is to get as many good athletes as possible playing.”
After posing for a photo with Johnson, Blake said, “It’s good. I like it. It’s nice.”
When asked if he would return in the future, Blake said, “sure, if they invite me.”
The New York native then went on to defeat the hometown favorite, Courier, in the final.
From the covered VIP patio overlooking the court, Dunedin resident and Innisbrook tennis member Jennifer Kern, sat with her 86-year-old wheelchair-bound grandfather, Jerry McKown, a lifelong tennis player and fan.
“He used to play tennis before he had his stroke, and he wanted to come and see this tournament,” said Kern, an Innisbrook tennis club member. “I play here every week and I think this is great. It’s amazing, a beautiful location, and Joe (Mattingly) has really transformed the facility and the entire tennis program. It’s really nice to see.”
As Williams waited to do the coin toss to start the final, he commented on the potential impact the Innisbrook Tennis Open could have on the resort and the region.
“We couldn’t be happier the way the Tampa Bay region has responded to this event with ticket sales and support. It shows there’s a pent-up demand for tennis in this area,” he said, noting they sold 1,700 tickets this year, a number he expects to significantly multiply in the future.
“It was great to have the eyes of the golf world on us 10 days ago for the Valspar Championship, and now this event underscores Innisbrook is a sporting destination in the region, and not just for golf,” Williams said.