As this is the week of the fantastic Delray Beach Open, we thought it would be nice to write a post about the area’s tennis history… As you’ll learn now, when it comes to tennis, Florida isn’t just a state—it’s a state of mind.
Florida and tennis belong together—there’s no question about it. You’re probably familiar with the peninsula’s most popular tennis cities, like Key Biscayne, Miami, Bradenton, Tampa, Boca Raton and even Lake Nona. But have you heard about Delray Beach?
It’s more than just the site of an ATP 250 tournament every February. While the Delray Beach Open sits on Atlantic Avenue, the part of Delray that really thrives in tennis potential is just two miles south, a few turns off of Linton Boulevard, surrounded by Lavers Circle and Egret Circle.
Like the street names hint at, the history of the property seems to be turning in circles. But wait, doesn’t one of those street names sound familiar?
In the late 1970s, Rod Laver’s second cousin, Ian, founded Laver’s International Tennis Resort in the heart of Delray Beach. The club, which had over 40 courts and included a condominium complex, hosted the first-ever Miami Open in 1985, then an ATP-only event called the Lipton International Players Championships.
But the resort began struggling under financial burdens, and then Ian Laver tragically died in a plane crash in 1985. In 1992, the property was sold to German investors Dieter Glass, Renate Raiss and Renzo Raiss for $2.2 million. They had visions of renovating the facility, adding more courts, bringing in an academy and even building a hotel.
Rick Macci—another very familiar name—moved his academy from Haines City, Fla. to become the first newcomer to settle in.
“The Williams family came with me,” Macci said. “Venus, Serena, everybody—even the dog. It was a Mecca.”
Macci leased the courts and helped restore the facility, while training young players such as the Williams sisters, Andy Roddick, Mary Pierce, Vince Spadea, Steffi Graf and many more.
In 1996, Macci relocated his world-class academy, and the nine hard courts on the north side of Egret Circle became the International Tennis Academy (ITA). WTA coach Alan Ma, who has worked with Peng Shaui, Zarina Diyas and Saisai Zheng, was the director. It wasn’t unusual to see Venus and Serena Williams swing by for a practice.
The three clay courts right up against the ITA courts were run privately, and Melinda Czink, an eventual world No. 37, trained there early in her career.
Property manager Renzo Raiss worked mostly on the two hard courts that are nestled right against a large tree-house styled clubhouse, where he coached both juniors and budding pros and perfected a ball machine system called The Twins.
In 2000, the city took over the 24 clay courts on the south side of Egret Circle, which became the Delray Swim & Tennis Club, an extension of the 20-court Delray Beach Tennis Center on Atlantic Avenue.
“There was a demand in the community,” said Lew Wolfe, the director of the Delray Beach Tennis Center. “Over there [on Egret Circle] around the year 2000, they cut a deal. The city actually rents those courts from the people that live there, and the city manages and takes care of the courts.”
For years, both sides of Egret Circle, which runs down the middle of the 42-court property, was buzzing with players of all levels and ages: juniors, professionals, high school players and recreational ones. Tournaments were, and still are, commonplace, including everything from league matches to junior nationals to prize-money events. (The Lipton International Players Championships moved to Key Biscayne in 1987.)
But the ITA would close its doors, leaving almost half of the jewel of Delray tennis in disarray.
“It was 2011, and all the courts were cracked, fences down,” Wolfe said. “No nets. The clay courts were covered in grass. All the gazebos [in the clubhouse] were nonexistent—there were rats inside. It was completely abandoned. Abandoned.”
That’s when Lorenzo Cava—a former junior standout from Ecuador and an NCAA Division II champion at Lynn University—stepped in, much like the German investors did back in 1992. With the help of his family and nudging from his friends, Cava bought 18 courts from Raiss in 2012.
“I was in Europe at the time, and I was going to work in the finance world in London,” the 31-year-old said. “Then my friend called me and told me there’s tennis courts for sale if you want to start something. Shall I go into the finance world, or shall I just risk it and start something new?”
Cava was welcomed with an overgrown plot of land that, at one time, never saw a court sit empty for long. Again, like the owners before him, he got to work.
“It was a mess, and by mess I mean it was a disaster,” Cava said. “It took us a year-and-a-half to rebuild it, and we’re still rebuilding it. We had to redo all the courts and the clubhouse.”
Cava’s academy, named the ProWorld Tennis Academy, tentatively opened its doors with 15 hard courts, three clay courts and just one or two players. Over the past five years it has blossomed, with plenty of top talent coming across its courts including Adrian Mannarino, Naomi Osaka, Alisa Kleybanova, Sonia Kenin and Kevin Anderson (who also frequently trains at the Delray Beach Tennis Center).
“Now we have around 12-13 coaches, and even a lot of pros, especially good girls ranked around No. 500 WTA,” Cava said. “A lot of pros train here during the preseason, which they come for a few weeks.”
The next step for Cava is expansion, including a new clubhouse and dorms to better keep an eye on all the young players.
“With dorms we can expand the way we want,” Cava said. “We want to have the full system here: tennis, school, gym, cafeteria. Everything like that.”
Luckily for ProWorld, the location is unbeatable and only getting better. In the early 2000s, Linton Boulevard didn’t boast much more than a Target, Pollo Tropical and Dairy Queen, but now shops, apartment buildings and restaurants have filled the prime real estate that’s just two miles from the Atlantic Ocean.
“The location is great,” Cava said. “We’re pretty close to the ocean. It’s growing. It’s a huge boom. Now I see Starbucks across the street. There was nothing there before, all empty lots.”
A 10-minute drive north to Atlantic Avenue brings you to downtown Delray Beach, a bustling beach village that boasts a vibrant nightlife on any given day of the week.
“They’re busy,” Wolfe said of the ProWorld Tennis Academy. “I know they have a fair amount of pro players over there. That’s what I aspire for [the Delray Beach Tennis Center]. I want to make this place a hub between the two facilities.”
The Delray Beach Open celebrated its 25th anniversary this year, but compared to other big-name tour-level tournaments in the United States, it’s tiny. While the facility has 14 clay courts and six hard courts, the ATP action primarily takes place in the 8,200-seat stadium and on Court 1, which has just a few uncovered metal bleachers.
Still, despite its humble stature, Delray Beach attracted some top talent this year including Jack Sock, Milos Raonic, Ivo Karlovic, Juan Martin del Potro, Sam Querrey, and Bob and Mike Bryan.
Semifinalists Del Potro and Donald Young raved about their love for the small South Florida city, while eventual champion Sock reminisced about his past junior tournament battles on the very same courts where he would lift his third career ATP title.
The history is rich, and the destination is looking to come full circle. Meanwhile, the appeal of the city is becoming more and more undeniable.
“There’s something about this community that is a real lure,” Wolfe said. “I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s definitely something in the air here. Obviously, the climate helps. You’re close to the ocean. The village here is beautiful. The whole combination is unbelievable.”