The grand opening celebration of the Sarah Vande Berg Tennis & Wellness Center was serenaded in maybe the most Zephyrhills way possible — with a slew of skydiving parachute landings on the nearly 10-acre property, at 6585 Simons Road.
If the Oct. 17 event is any indication — even amid the COVID-19 pandemic — the state-of-the art tennis complex may put the city on the map not unlike how the airborne extreme sport has for decades.
Over 400 mask-wearing visitors turned out to get a firsthand look at a finished product five years in the making — accomplished through myriad partnerships between city, state, and private investment and donations.
The $4.9 million tennis complex is labeled, “Tampa’s first boutique-style racquet sports and wellness club.”
It lives up to the billing through:
- 11 regulation-sized outdoor tennis courts (nine clay surface, two hard surface)
- Eight outdoor pickleball courts
- Four outdoor padel courts
- Outdoor multipurpose turf field
- The nearly 8,000-square-foot indoor clubhouse, featuring a full-service restaurant/cafe, fitness center, salt room, yoga room, cryotherapy chamber and pro shop
Aside from showing off wide-ranging amenities, the grand opening celebration was filled with entertainment and people congregating to partake in music, food, drinks, dancing, giveaways and conversation.
The three-hour event was climaxed with the unveiling of a life-size bronze statue of Sarah Vande Berg, making a tennis serve. It overlooks the facility’s exhibition show court.
Speaker after speaker heaped praise on the complex, which, as well as being a public asset, is expected to draw regional, national and international amateur and professional tournaments in tennis, pickleball and padel.
Though membership-based, guest users are encouraged to make court rentals and partake in other frills. Meanwhile, the Sarah Vande Berg Tennis Foundation will provide tennis memberships and lessons at the facility to underprivileged kids in the area.
Sarah’s legacy lives on
The facility opens five years after the tragic death of Sarah Vande Berg, a former Zephyrhills High School district champion and three-time state qualifier who died in an automobile accident in South Carolina at the age of 21, on Oct. 11, 2015.
She was a member of the University of South Carolina-Upstate women’s tennis team at the time of her passing. Those closest to her described Sarah as a fierce, but gracious competitor, both on and off the court. She was widely known for her infectious laugh and love for life.
It was shortly after Sarah’s death when local real estate developer David Waronker donated the property adjacent to Dean Dairy Road/Eiland Boulevard, to be earmarked for a community tennis facility “to ensure Sarah’s name and legacy would live on.”
“We got off easy. All we had to do was donate the land,” said Waronker, humbly minimizing his role.
Sarah’s father is longtime Zephyrhills Planning Director Todd Vande Berg.
At the ceremony, he expressed his pleasure regarding how the final product shaped out.
The tennis center named in his daughter’s honor is a “game-changer” and “raises the bar” for the community, he said.
“You know, I’ve been at a lot of facilities throughout the state and I’m not aware of any that compares with what we’ve built here in Zephyrhills,” he said. “I know Sarah’s looking down on us from heaven, smiling, amazed at what we’ve been able to create here.”
A lengthy, collaborative project
The project was quite an undertaking.
The vacant piece of land was bereft of waterlines and powerlines, and had limited access through a dirt road even when a groundbreaking ceremony took place some 15 months ago.
The facility originally was expected to open in the spring, but the pandemic, combined with weather issues and other logistical hurdles, pushed back completion.
DeLotto & Sons was the general contractor for the tennis center, with assistance from Fleishman-Garcia Architects, Cornelson Engineering and Central Florida Landscaping.
“In my brief 48-year construction career, I can tell you I’ve never worked on a project quite like this one,” said DeLotto president Craig Lamberson.
He highlighted: “The emotional journey we experienced, while making sure every detail would be worthy of Sarah’s legacy, and the wide range of friendships that have blossomed through the entirety of this challenging venture.”
Added Zephyrhills City Manager Billy Poe: “It has not been a smooth road, but we’re here. It was longer than anticipated, but look where we are.”
The city manager described the facility as “the beginning of an exciting future for sports and wellness in Zephyrhills.” He also noted the facility “will serve as an economic driver for our region.”
Poe said Zephyrhills is already known for its pure water and skydiving, and now will be known for its tennis, too.
Poe went on: “We have a World Series champion in (former New York Yankees and Kansas City Royals pitching coach) David Eiland. We have a Super Bowl champion in (former Green Bay Packers defensive lineman) Ryan Pickett. No pressure, but hopefully we’ll have a Grand Slam champion who can say they got started here.”
Sarah Vande Berg Tennis & Wellness Center CEO Pascal Collard, too, served up his experience on the venture, since his management firm partnered with the City of Zephyrhills three-plus years ago.
Collard and his team were responsible for leveraging connections and forging partnerships with individuals and organizations to bring aboard some of the facility’s splashier features — such as the salt room, cryotherapy, and restaurant. The city — with the help of a state appropriation and other impact fees — funded the tennis portion of the facility.
Collard brings a wealth of tennis experience to the table, having founded 33 academies in his native Belgium, and being the former tennis director at Saddlebrook Resort in Wesley Chapel and The Merion Cricket Club, in Haverford, Pennsylvania.
His coaching includes working with several widely known tennis pros, including Younes El Aynaoui and Martin Verkerk, both of whom coincidentally ranked as high as No. 14 in the ATP Tour rankings back in 2003.
Collard had broader and more meaningful aspirations though.
One of them was wanting to help create a top-of-the-line public tennis facility in the United States, welcome for all.
“I always wanted to create something different and something unique…and we did, and it’s right here,” said Collard.
He continued, “Our goal is to create a place of gathering. Our mission is to foster excellence to cultivate a safe and inclusive community, and put a smile on everybody’s face, regardless of age, gender, race or belief.”
For more information, call (813) 361-6660, email , or visit SVBtenniscenter.com.
Published October 21, 2020