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Saturday, May 26, 2018
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Tom Jackson Columns

Lone mourner ready to put tennis stadium to rest

Allow me to begin by promising this second-annual horse-carcass flogging will not become a tradition, like some cranky version of the Kumquat Festival or Swamp Fest. Still, doggone it, it’s hard to sit through even a lively exhibition tennis match — such as the one staged on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains a couple of Saturdays back — and not feel a little annoyed about the opportunity Pasco tossed out like a box of used-up Slazengers.

Add that the headliners were a couple of former world No. 1 players with distinct and durable Tampa-area ties — and that one of them travels in the company of a recent Sports Illustrated swimsuit model — and you just might be tempted to kick something. So Andy Roddick, who trained for a while at Saddlebrook Resort and won the 2003 United States Open, and Jim Courier, who grew up in Dade City before heading out to win two French and two Australian Opens in the 1990s, drew down on each other in a friendly match under the discerning eye of model/actress Brooklyn Decker (“Friends With Better Lives”) and about 1,400 others, raising roughly $200,000 for area charities.

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Any flat-lander inclined to wonder anew how frequently such things would have happened in Wesley Chapel if the late, never-was Pasco National Tennis Center had come to fruition is living in the unlamented past and should, like the kids say, get over it already.

Life, like comedy, is timing. Consider Wimbledon, the holy grail of tennis tournaments. In the 1990s, whacking away from the baseline with relentless determination and an unorthodox style that was part Dade City concrete courts, part Dade City Little League, Courier was a threat to win anywhere … except at Wimbledon, where the rye and red fescue grass blend produced low, skidding ball bounces that rewarded players with big serves and quick feet.

In Courier’s prime, Wimbledon cranked out champions who were his tactical antitheses, masters of serve-and-volley — picking the ball out of the air from near the net, not waiting for it to bounce — tennis.

After the 2001 tournament, just as Roddick was approaching his decade-long peak, bosses of the All-England Club ripped up its legendary surface, replacing it with lawns of 100 percent perennial rye, a change that changed everything.

For reasons best understood by grassologists, balls bounce higher, slower and more consistently on pure rye, taking the sting off big serves while boosting the chances for baseline specialists — exactly the wrong recipe for Roddick, whose 155-mph serve remains the record. He made it to three finals (2004, 2005, 2009) but never claimed the title.

If Roddick had played in Courier’s era, and vice-versa, Courier says — only half-joking, I think; you never quite know with him — “We would have owned Wimbledon.”

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The thing about eras, though, is you have to play the one you’re in, and the Pasco National Tennis Center’s era was the one dominated by John Gallagher, the county administrator who retired last year. In his prime, Gallagher was the master of the art of negotiation whose go-to tactic was relocating goalposts, especially when county commissioners agreed to deals he didn’t want in the first place.

Gallagher had an exquisite gift not only for making the other guy kill a deal, but for making it look like it was the other guy who was recalcitrant and unreasonable. Ask any outside observer who slipped the knife between the tennis stadium’s ribs, they’ll tell you it was Saddlebrook owner Tom Dempsey in the administrator’s chambers with the stiletto.

This doesn’t mean I think Michele Baker — Gallagher’s straightforward successor — would have found a way to make the board’s wishes and Dempsey’s plan a reality. Anyway, really, what’s the point of speculating? Maybe, like Courier and, for that matter, the rest of the world, Roddick couldn’t have whipped Pete Sampras in his prime, either.

And although it’s plain a tennis center next door to a world-class and internationally famous training facility could have triggered an American tennis renaissance — imagine top Americans and Saddlebrook fixtures John Isner and Jack Sock joined by countless new homegrown challengers — it’s not like Pasco has any special responsibility to the game. Right? So I’m over it. Or I’m as close to being over it as I will be until they cut the ribbon on the Wiregrass baseball complex, and the aromas of grilling hot dogs and pine tar blend in a way that leaves no room for what-could-have-been dismay.

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