Advantage - area tennis players.

The sport of tennis seems to be resurging amongst a flurry of support for infrastructure in the area. The City of Milton is set to complete the reconstruction and upgrading of their tennis complex on Byrom Street.

Now, the Pace Area Tennis Association is plucking the strings of its "racket," in anticipation of a new tennis complex in the works near Benny Russell Park. The non-profit organization has been planning the project, working with county commissioners for six years in the developing project.

"I'd like to call it an academy of tennis," said PATA President Laura King. "It'll be the only one of its kind in the Southeast."

She says the tennis academy is intended to be a training facility, primarily for children learning the sport.

Plans for the facility include eight full-size courts and several miniature versions for children, known as "QuickStart" courts. The size of the "QuickStart" courts and the rackets are smaller and more proportional to children learning the game, according to King. In the early stages, they utilize foam balls which bounce lower, allowing trainers to focus on teaching proper form and technique. As children progress, they transition to full-size courts.

"The goal that I'm working on with the United States Tennis Association (USTA) is to offer the facility for national tournaments," King said. "I want kids to become competitive in the sport."

The USTA sponsors tournaments in all levels of play, from the professional level to the eight-year-old playing field. King says that teaching children at a young age will give them an chance to be more competitive at the middle and high school levels, where there are scholarship opportunities at stake.

Adults in the area will not be left on the sidelines, as King says there are plans for coaching at all levels of the game.

"We've got a bunch of good ideas," King said. "We just don't have the facility."

The organization has been playing and training children, using two tennis courts built for the organization in the Santa Rosa Sports Complex located off Chumuckla Highway. King says that future expansion is limited at the complex, because of surrounding football and baseball parks.

While there are other tennis clubs in the area, and available courts in the area, King said there is little flexibility in their training programs. The other programs typically offer one rigid format, according to King. She said there is little flexibility in the one-size-fits-all . 

"There's a large number of people in Pace and Milton, they have to drive over to Pensacola and Gulf Breeze," King said. "With the USTA, there's a bigger need to have a bigger facility to train kids."

For the past six years, PATA has been working with Commissioner Don Salter on possible expansion of its tennis facilities.

The Board has committed $500,000 to fund the project, according to Salter. Commissioner Salter and Commissioner Jim Williamson will split the cost between their districts, using recreational funds to cover expenses. PATA is expected to apply for additional grant funding to strengthen financial support of their project.

The Board approved a request for proposal last week, seeking an architect to begin the first step of designing the facility.

"We don't have a date," Salter said, referring to the planned construction date."

"We were fortunate, eight years ago, we were able to acquire an additional 25 acres at a very nice reduced cost for additional recreation complex," Salter said. "The owner of the property donated 12.5 acres to the county. The county actually purchased 12.5 acres."

Salter said when he was first approached with the idea of a tennis facility he was skeptical.

"Back in 2007, when the PATA group met with me, I questioned the number of people that would actually use the tennis courts," Salter said. "As we progressed with the tennis courts, I was amazed at the number of young kids playing."

Salter said he has seen a rise in interest in alternative sports over the past few years, mentioning the advent of soccer in the county and now the uptake of tennis.

"I was reminded that not all kids play football, baseball and basketball," Salter said, while working on this project. "Actually, I partnered with the town of Jay and I was able to get them recreation funds to help Jay and the high school. That turned out to be a very good project. Even in a small town of Jay."