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How Tennis Found A Haven in Delray Beach

Young players from the Williams sisters to Coco Gauff first learned to dominate the court in Delray Beach. Tennis fans around the globe will be flocking to South Florida for the Delray Open in February.

By Cameron Priester | MediaLab@FAU

Jan 18, 2024

DELRAY BEACH, Fla. – Today, Serena and Venus Williams represent the pinnacle of tennis. But long before the famous sisters solidified their status as arguably the best duo the sport has ever seen, the Williams spent countless hours honing their skills in Delray Beach.

The ideal climate for tennis and a collective welcoming of the sport in the community is what brought the young Williams  sisters to Delray Beach and has allowed it to become a hotbed for tennis. The city’s affinity for a great serve will be on display next month when it hosts the Delray Beach Open from Feb. 9-18 at Delray Beach Tennis Center hosting some of the sport’s top players like defending champion Taylor Fritz, ranked 12th by the ATP Tour world rankings. 

“It has definitely become a hub for tennis for sure,” said Gasner Delvarin Jr., a local resident and tennis enthusiast. “When you have those top players coming down to train and live here, I think that says a lot about the growth of tennis.”

Delvarin was introduced to the game as a child almost three decades ago by a neighbor and family friend named Victoria Duval. Duval invited Delvarin for a friendly tennis match, and though she was just eight at the time—11 years younger than he was—she was serving the ball so hard, “I couldn’t even see where the ball was going,” said Delvarin. 

Duval, now 27, won the match easily and went on to play tennis professionally for nearly a decade, winning an International Tennis Federation (ITF) title in 2013. Despite being dealt a rough introduction to the sport, the match bred Delvarin, now 38, into a lifelong tennis fanatic.

“She was only eight, so I sat back and was like ‘That’s very impressive,’” said Delvarin. “And since then I’ve nothing but loved tennis.”

Delvarin took up playing and began closely following professional tennis, idolizing the sports international stars like Andre Agassi and Martina English. But what truly made him fall in love with the sport was the Williams’ sisters; who spent much of their teens training for hours at Pompey Park, which sits just minutes away from where Delvarin began his tennis obsession.

“With Serena Williams winning three Grand Slams while being right here from Delray Beach, of course that will influence people to pick up a racket and go play,” said Delvarin. “Because of them, I loved watching the game, understanding how it is played, everything.”

Fellow resident Justin Cruzado had a similar introduction to tennis. 

For much of his life, the 35-year old was only a very casual fan of the game, if that. He didn’t follow tennis closely, and played maybe once a year. That all changed after he watched swiss superstar Roger Federer in the 2015 Wimbledon Championships. Though he lost in the final round to rival star Novak Djokovic, Cruzado fell in love with Federer’s combo of power and finesse and immediately became a fan.

He began following Federer and professional tennis as a whole super closely, even traveling to multiple Grand Slam tournaments, and with so much access to the sport around him in Delray Beach, he became an avid player as well.

“Tennis is just so big down here,” said Cruzado, who also took up a part-time job instructing tennis at the Boca Raton Racquet Club. “You see it everywhere, everyone's talking about it. Very big thing.”

The city government took a major step in 1992 to grow the sport locally by commissioning the construction of the Delray Beach Tennis Center. Located in the heart of downtown on Atlantic Avenue, the Delray Beach Tennis Center features 18 tennis courts open to the public, but its crown jewel is the 8,200-seat stadium that is home to the Delray Beach Open for the past 24 years.

“Of course I’ve been to the Delray Open,” said Cruzado. “It’s amazing seeing the local support of tennis and the local players.”

Every year, some of tennis’ brightest, young stars descend upon Delray Beach for the annual tournament which serves as a stop on the Association of Tennis Professionals 250 World Tour. The Delray Beach Open has hosted some of the larger names and is a marquee event for many local tennis enthusiasts. 

“It's just such a great thing to have in the area,” said Judy Raphael, employee at Tennis Inc., which sits feet away from the Delray Beach Tennis Center. “Brings a lot of people out, gets everyone excited. Of course, we get more business in here.”

The city saw its investment in the game of tennis rewarded like never before in September 2022 when Delray Beach native Coco Gauff became just the third American teenager, the youngest since Serena Williams, to win the U.S. Open.

Born in Delray Beach in 2004, Gauff’s family returned to the city after living briefly in Atlanta when she was seven to allow her the best tennis training opportunities. Gauff’s sensational ability on the court built herself a local reputation well before went on to win her first Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open at the age of 19.

Seeing her victory in the U.S. Open was especially rewarding for Raphael, who has restrung rackets for Gauff while working at Tennis Inc. “It's fantastic to see,” she said. 

Gauff’s success at such a young age not only serves as a cognitive reward for Delray Beach’s investment, but also as an inspiration to others in the community. 

“The age she is and the pro level she plays at, it’s just been amazing since the moment she stepped on tour,” said Cruzado. “And then her growth in the past two years, and the way she’s top one or two in the world, she’s definitely become a role model and idol.”

Coco Gauff playing at Wimbledon in 2019. (Carine06 via Wikimedia Commons)

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