A History of Tennis on Hilton Head Island
Tennis on Hilton Head Island isn’t just a favorite year-round activity for locals and visitors alike. Some of the greatest tennis professional in the world have played on our courts, including Chris Evert, Gabriela Sabatini, Rod Laver, Jennifer Capriati, and Billy Jean King. Read on to learn more about some of the most influential faces and events of tennis on Hilton Head Island.
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How it all started
Since the mid-1950s when Charles Fraser began developing Sea Pines Plantation, tennis has been a part of the island scene. In the early years, it was simply a recreational amenity like golf, fishing, biking and kayaking.
In 1971, Stan Smith—the top-ranked player in the world—joined The Sea Pines Resort as its touring pro, lending enormous credibility to the fledgling racquet club. Two years later, Sea Pines hosted the inaugural Family Circle Cup. The women’s tennis event drew the game’s top seeds to its clay courts—and a national television audience.
The next decade would bring even more tennis stars to the island. Following Sea Pines’ lead, two-time Grand Slam champion Rod Laver started a tennis center in Palmetto Dunes. In 1974, Shipyard Racquet Club opened with Billie Jean King as its touring pro. Her onetime trainer and business partner, legendary coach Dennis Van der Meer, would go on to buy the club nearly two decades later.
Today, you’ll find top-tiered tennis programs in virtually every Hilton Head oceanfront resort. In all, the 12-mile long island offers more than 350 tennis courts—possibly the most per square mile anywhere in the world! The island also serves as headquarters for two of the game’s most prestigious organizations—the Tennis Industry Association and the Professional Tennis Registry.
A dominating force in tennis in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Stan Smith was at the top of his game when he was named The Sea Pines Resort’s touring pro. After pulling off a stunning victory at the U.S. Open in 1971, the American tennis ace followed it the next year with a win at Wimbledon, earning the title of No. 1 singles player in the world.
Traveling the globe to compete in the most prestigious singles and doubles tournaments, Smith became Hilton Head Island’s ambassador of tennis. Later in his 40-year career, he served as a director of coaching for the USTA Player Development Program, and in 2000 was head coach of the men’s U.S. Olympic team at the Sydney Olympics. Most recently, he has served as president of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Smith’s longtime affiliation with Sea Pines—ranked one of America’s top destinations by Tennis Magazine—continues to this day.
Dennis Van Der Meer
Known worldwide for his innovative teaching techniques and engaging style, Dennis Van der Meer has been credited with changing the sport of tennis for millions of people. Throughout his 60-year career, he personally taught tens of thousands of recreational and professional players, as well as many of the world’s top teaching pros, earning him the title, “Teacher of Teachers”.
Van der Meer began his career in South Africa and quickly made a name for himself as an innovative instructor. In 1961, he emigrated to the U.S. to become head pro of the Berkeley Tennis Club in northern California. His students included numerous junior national and world champions, including Billie Jean King. Years later, he helped train the women’s tennis icon for the landmark “Battle of the Sexes” match against Bobby Riggs.
Deciding Hilton Head Island was the perfect place to base his tennis operations, he purchased property on the South End of the island in the ‘70s and opened Van Der Meer Tennis Center, offering a broad range of clinics for players of all ages and abilities. Years later, he bought Shipyard Racquet Club and renovated and expanded its facilities, adding three indoor courts.
Retired in 1994 after capturing eight Grand Slam singles titles, Ivan Lendl got back in the game in 2011 to launch the Ivan Lendl International Junior Tennis Academy at Port Royal Racquet Club. Three years later, he moved the academy to Tennisclub of the Low Country, named Private Tennis Facility of the Year by Tennis Industry News.
While he has been credited with helping usher in the modern era of “power tennis”, Lendl has proven to be just as successful at coaching. From 2012 to 2014, he coached Andy Murray, helping the Scot win the 2012 U.S. Open and 2013 Wimbledon Championship.
His academy, located in Bluffton’s Rose Hill Plantation, has generated equally impressive results. Graduated students have a 100 percent college placement rate and many have scored wins in junior tournaments around the Southeast and the country.
Events and Tournaments
When The Sea Pines Resort hosted the first Family Circle Cup in 1973, women’s tennis was struggling to earn the same recognition and respect of its male counterpart. Though many thought the success of the tournament was a long shot, it turned out to be a historic day in women’s sports. Not only was it the first women’s tennis event to offer a $100,000 purse, it was the first to be broadcast on network television, turning millions of viewers into instant fans. Over the years, it has featured tennis greats like Chris Evert, Rosie Casals, Gabriela Sabatini, Steffi Graff, and Martina Hingis.
One of the highlights of the event’s run at The Sea Pines Resort was the 1992 exhibition match featuring Casals and Billie Jean King partnering with a couple of California kids—10-year-old Serena Williams and her 11-year-old sister Venus. The two tennis dynamos would each win their own titles at the Family Circle Cup in years to come.
Along with the Family Circle Cup, Hilton Head Island has hosted numerous professional events over the years, including World Championship Tennis, the Jimmy Connors Senior Tour, World Mixed Doubles and PTR International Championships. Several USTA league state championships also are held here annually, playing at clubs throughout the island. In addition, Hilton Head hosts a number of high-profile events, such as the PTR Championships, International Tennis Symposium and PTR Wheelchair Championships.
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