Saddlebrook’s Winning Combination

When Saddlebrook Resort opened a quarter century ago, there was no mistaking what it was. It was a resort designed for meetings. Exclusively. Nearly 500 rustic, Wesley Chapel acres – about 30 miles north of Tampa International Airport – devoted to the care and comfort of corporate America away from home. Plenty of places to meet, eat, sleep, schmooze and play.

Fast forward 25 years. More than 80 per cent of its business is still conferences – on average between 450 and 475 a year, ranging in group size from 10 to nearly 900. From Heineken and Harlequin to ITT, Nestle-Purina and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

But the differences are as notable as they are noticeable: the Arnold Palmer Golf Academy; the Harry Hopman Tennis Academy; a 270-foot-long, 500,000-gallon SuperPool; 45 tennis courts; a luxury spa; a five-acre, wooded team-building venue; a prominent sports village and fitness center; and more than 250 private homes, such as the one that Jennifer Caprioti is building on bucolic Fox Hunt Drive. And the (pooled condo) accommodations now number 800 guest rooms and one-, two- and three-bedroom suites. Wireless, high-speed internet access is ubiquitous. The ranks of employees have swelled to 850. There’s even a fully-accredited (K-3) school, Saddlebrook Preparatory.

“We’re a resort first,” emphasizes Alberto Martinez-Fonts, Saddlebrook’s director of marketing, advertising and public relations. “We are a local business driven by large corporations.”

But while meeting planners have Saddlebrook on speed dial, it’s golf and tennis that have given the resort its international renown. From early on, Saddlebrook has been much more than well-regarded camps and clinics. It’s been a legend magnet.

There are the iconic names of (the late Australian Davis Cup captain) Hopman and Palmer, and the latter’s two signature courses plus a host of tennis luminaries who have learned and lived here. To name-drop a few, in addition to Caprioti: Pete Sampras, Jim Courier, James Blake, Martina Hingis and Justine Henin-Hardenne. There are also the surfaces, which replicate those of all four Grand Slams: Har-Tru, Deco-Turf, grass and clay. Saddlebrook is also the official resort of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA).

You never know who you’ll find hitting – or living – here. And you never know who you’ll find that may be tomorrow’s Tiger Woods or Roger Federer.

There’s even a chance that they are among the 132 students enrolled at Saddlebrook Prep. About 45 per cent are from overseas – from Venezuela to Vietnam. Approximately 60 per cent of the students (grades 7-12) combine academics with an intense focus on tennis instruction, the remainder on golf. Classroom ratios are about 10:1. Room, board, tuition and instruction runs $37,500 per year.

Headmaster Larry Robison pointedly notes his school’s priorities.

“Our mission is to prepare them for college,” states Robison, a former principal at Zephyrhills High School. “And we support the sports endeavors. In that order.”Indeed, he has the numbers to underscore his point. Nearly 95 per cent of Saddlebrook grads earn college scholarships.Cole Conrad, 17, an 11th grader from Fairfield, Conn., expects no less.

“Connecticut in the winter isn’t exactly ideal for tennis,” he says. “Here I get to play all the time, and I like the mix of coaches. I’m probably three times better than when I arrived (the previous year). I’m hoping for a scholarship; preferably here in Florida.”

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