Perseverance has yielded an unprecedented partnership. The Owensboro Daviess County Tennis Association (ODCTA) and the City of Owensboro have combined efforts to make a long-time vision of a new indoor tennis facility a reality. Centre Court, which features six indoor tennis courts and nine outdoor courts, is expected to open in February 2015. The massive tennis facility is nestled in the sports complex at Russell Shifley Park off Bittel Road—visible from the Bypass.
“I believe we will have a healthier community with our new tennis facility; that’s one of the reasons we were able to raise the money we’ve raised,” said Noel Clayton, who has been instrumental in the entire project. The initial idea began 8-10 years ago with a nucleus of three avid tennis players: Noel, Norman Woodward and Phil Clark. After a series of failed attempts and multiple proposed locations, the project gained traction when Mayor Ron Payne agreed to match $500,000 raised by ODCTA in donations to build the indoor complex. In the end, the City contributed $1 million and land for the project; ODCTA raised the initial $500,000 down payment, and financed a $1.2 million bond; the County contributed $100,000, and individual donations continue to roll in.
Strong motivation for seeing such a large project to fruition came from the desire to remember Luke Woodward, an exceptional young man and 1995 Doubles State Champion, who died of a brain aneurism his final year of law school. Much good can come from bad. One of the six courts will be named in his honor. Ashley and Max Lile, whose 1-year-old son is Luke’s namesake, met at Luke’s funeral. Ashley was in law school with Luke; Max had worked tennis camps at the Hamptons in New York with Luke. The couple gladly accepted the challenge to raise $50,000 needed for the court naming.
Another key component of the project involved the search for a tennis director. Over 50 pros submitted applications nationwide. A former pro himself who knows the tennis industry, Altaf Merchant took a principle role in the search process. “That was a huge step forward for us when he came on board; he’s been all in since he joined us,” Noel said. The newly-hired tennis director, Josh Whitman, will be responsible for day-to-day operations and oversee the full programming of the club. A graduate of Tyler Junior College, Josh has a degree in tennis management. A shortened list of his credentials includes USTPA, Elite P-1 and USTA High Performance Certification. Less than one percent of tennis coaches nationwide have attained the High Performance Certification. “Josh started playing at 13; he’s only been around tennis 18 years. Tennis is something he absolutely loves. He is energized, refreshed and all his references said they knew that one day he would be a director of tennis,” Altaf said. Josh (wife Brittany and son Sebastion, 5) said that they were drawn to Owensboro’s small-town appeal, strong school system, the warmth and hospitality of its people and its proximity to home—Lebanon, Indiana.
Centre Court, a 48,000-square foot facility, will host a wide array of programs: junior clinics, adult ladies’ and men’s clinics, private lessons, cardio tennis, ball machine rentals, permanent court time, league play, and special event planning (birthdays, anniversaries, etc.). “I’m very excited. I think the new facility is going to bring a whole other tennis population to the community. Something this new will make more tennis happen here. Basically anything with a ball and a racquet, we can make happen,” Josh said. He explained that a facility like this will open new possibilities for USTA Southern Tournaments — big tournaments — which bring large groups to town. In addition, ODCTA expects the return of several adult tournaments, possibly USTA’s 40 & Over and 55 & Over state tournaments. (Henderson hosted the 55 & Over State Tournament this year.) Other college conference tournaments are within the group’s sights, too.
“I’m confident we will have the Junior Team Tennis State Tournament here in 2016,” Noel said. Organizers want to move tournaments like these around the state; the tournament includes 20 teams with 6-8 players per team playing a 3-day event.
The bottom line? “We need to make sure that we program the facility in ways that maximize its usage, and we have not experienced having a club available for use during the summer,” Noel said. The Executive Racquet Club (3 courts) was open October-March.
As an added perk, the indoor facility will provide programming during summer months, which will help generate more revenue to pay down the debt on the facility. “We will have a lot of during-the-day, camp-type programs for all the kids, different ages and abilities,” Josh said. Players from age 5 through high school age will have skills programs. Courts are available at half-price rates during the summer. Non-profit groups will have opportunities to use the courts for special rates and special projects.
Tennis is considered a life-long sport. “That’s what I think is so cool about it . . . you have 5-year-olds playing, and then I think of Jared Barron playing until he was 95—and that’s just so cool,” Noel said. Oftentimes, a wide range of ages play together. When he said, “You’ll get to play with your grandkids,” that caught my attention.
Josh has lofty goals for the facility, hoping to nearly triple memberships within two years. In his opinion, the best way to grow tennis is “product on the court.” He brings that. Several tennis pros will be working as independent contractors at the Centre. “Before the start of the [next] indoor season, a Head Pro will likely be hired on staff,” Noel said. With six courts, more pros are needed. Presently, tennis players are using the Executive Racquet Club for indoor play, with Josh and Bill Henness as the only two full-time pros working there.
ODCTA’s mission is “to encourage and support the development of tennis as a means of healthy recreation and physical fitness for all area residents, and to cooperate with the USTA and other organizations, including Owensboro Parks & Recreation, to pursue these aims. The ODCTA is not an exclusive organization, and relies on volunteers to oversee and promote activities that can be enjoyed at all skill levels.”
“I’m really excited about the completion of our tennis complex. Our next endeavor is to promote tennis. We will be going into the elementary schools, teaching 10 & Under tennis, and going to large corporations promoting tennis as a healthy lifestyle,” said Charlotte Miller, ODCTA president.
A Grand Opening is in the works, with hopes of bringing some national pros in for an exhibition game. Can you say, Advantage Owensboro?