Construction has yet to begin on the Sarah Vande Berg Memorial Tennis Center in Zephyrhills — but that hasn’t stopped the community from working to serve up more tennis opportunities to its underserved population.
Well before the new $3.5 million, 11-court facility opens off of Simons Road, dozens of underprivileged youth in east Pasco will get opportunities to learn the game through a new nonprofit — the Sarah Vande Berg Tennis Foundation.
The foundation is headed up by professional tennis instructor Pascal Collard, who will also manage the daily operations of the new tennis center bearing the same name.
Its overall purpose is to instill character, leadership and academics to children, through the game of tennis.
The foundation’s first major fundraiser was on Oct 5, at Arbor Green in New Tampa.
About 60 participants and another 40 volunteers turned out for a tennis clinic and gala headlined by International Tennis Hall of Fame coach Nick Bollettieri.
Bollettieri, 87, is renowned for grooming 10 world No. 1 players, including Andre Agassi, Monica Seles, Maria Sharapova and Dade City’s Jim Courier, among many others.
The legendary coach also is known for founding the IMG Academy in Bradenton — formerly the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy — which opened in 1978 as the world’s first full-time tennis boarding school.
The gala helped raise more than $10,000, which will be used to purchase tennis rackets and subsidize tennis camps for youth, who will begin learning the sport on the courts at Zephyr Park and will transition to the city’s new state-of-the-art facility expected to open in late 2019.
“This is going to help a lot of kids — kids that have probably never seen a tennis ball,” said Collard, a former tennis director at Saddlebrook Tennis Academy in Wesley Chapel from 2003 to 2006.
His training 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.
It’s not Collard’s first outreach program.
While he was tennis director at The Merion Cricket Club — a private club in Haverford, Pennsylvania — Collard created a similar foundation called Down the Line and Beyond.
The Philadelphia-based nonprofit, which has grown to serve more than 1,600 underprivileged youths from 7 through 17, facilitates positive character and education development through tennis lessons.
Some of those youths have earned collegiate tennis scholarships.
“None of them would’ve played tennis — none— without the foundation. We are going to do the same thing over here (in Zephyrhills),” Collard said.
The Sarah Vande Berg Tennis Foundation will begin its program with 25 kids to 50 kids, and hopes to grow it from there, Collard said. “We have to touch one life at a time.”
The foundation — and tennis center— is named after the former Zephyrhills High School district champion who became a scholarship player on the University of South Carolina Upstate women’s tennis team. Vande Berg, the daughter of the Zephyrhills planning director Todd Vande Berg, died in an automobile accident at the age of 21 in October 2015.
And, it’s all drawn the support of Bollettieri, a longtime friend of Collard’s.
Bollettieri, who lives in Sarasota, plans to visit Zephyrhills every six weeks to eight weeks to pitch in with foundation clinics and other events.
Instead of his well-documented coaching achievements, Bollettieri said he wants to be remembered for helping children, particularly those from inner cities and of lower socio-economic status.
He, along with fellow tennis Hall of Famer Arthur Ashe, started the Ashe-Bollettieri Cities Tennis program in the late 1980s, which introduced thousands of youth to the sport and helped hundreds achieve athletic or academic scholarships.
Of the Sarah Vande Berg Tennis Foundation, Bollettieri said: “First of all, when you do things for charity, there’s no greater reward than helping out for a great cause. Pascal’s going to give an opportunity for a lot of boys and girls to make it in life.”
Tennis center to be draw for Zephyrhills
The tennis legend, too, is impressed with the design plans of the forthcoming Sarah Vande Berg Memorial Tennis Center.
“I think a lot of thought has gone into it,” Bollettieri said. “The big thing is, someday, if they could get a few indoor courts, whether it’s open on the sides or, if they can have at least a covered area, that would help tremendously.”
Renderings of the facility show 11 full-sized outdoor courts — a mix of clay and hard surfaces — built to U.S Tennis Association (USTA) professional standards.
Additionally, an 8,000-square-foot tennis center is expected to include a fitness/wellness center and cryotherapy room, a pro shop, a restaurant, conference and multipurpose rooms, a kid’s club and playground, a common area, office spaces and other features.
At some point, there’s also a possibility of phasing in a covered/indoor tennis court building that would have four full-size courts.
Though its architectural design plans are not yet final, the tennis center is expected to be complete “in about a year,” Steve Spina, who is city manager for Zephyrhills, said during the foundation fundraiser.
Along with city dollars, funding assistance for the project is coming from the state, recreation impact fees, USTA grants and Penny for Pasco, among other sources.
Besides its public recreational use, the facility will also be used to draw an assortment of regional and national tournaments to East Pasco.
“I think it brings us to a whole new level,” Spina said. “It’s just a facility like we’ve never seen, to really make us a player, nationally.
“I think it’s huge for the community,” added Collard. “It’s going to be a great impact in terms of visibility and awareness of Zephyrhills, and put them on the map.”
Vande Berg remembered on, off the court
Meantime, Todd Vande Berg is appreciative of having his late daughter’s name memorialized through the tennis foundation and the facility.
“If I lived in Tampa, I’m not sure this happens,” he said, “but to have a small, interlocked community like we have, that know the people and care for the people and support each other, it’s pretty unique and special.”
Aside from her achievements on the court, Sarah Vande Berg was known for her friendliness and outgoing personality, her father said.
“She was super competitive on the court,” Todd Vande Berg said, “but the complete opposite off the court. Sarah loved people. She was super social. She befriended all the athletes, and not just the tennis athletes.”
Sarah, too, was known for her work with children with special needs.
“Sarah had a special place in her heart towards special needs kids,” her father said. “They just seemed to gravitate to her.”
Published October 24, 2018