Naomi Osaka says she is comfortable playing in Florida's heat because she grew up training in the state. Photo by Gary I Rothstein/UPI | License Photo
MIAMI, March 30 (UPI) -- Florida has long been known as a tennis factory, regularly churning out elite women's players. Many of those stars have returned to compete in the ongoing Miami Open and credit the state's role in their rise to fame.
"I always have really fond memories whenever I come back to Florida and play this tournament," Naomi Osaka told reporters last week in a Zoom video conference.
"Playing on the public courts with my sister shaped me in the way that I was very tolerant just because we would play for hours on end."
Osaka was born in Osaka, Japan, but moved to New York with her family at age 3. She later settled in Pembroke Pines, Fla., and tuned up her world-class game at Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton.
Chris Evert, her brother John and their late father Jimmy established the academy in 1996. Chris Evert, who remains active in the tennis world through her foundation, has a 1,309-146 career record and holds the highest winning percentage (89.7%) in the history of the Open era for men or women.
The family's acclaimed facility has helped hone the skills of Jennifer Brady, Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens and several top men's players.
Other top players, Sofia Kenin, Cori "Coco" Gauff, Genie Bouchard and Amanda Anisimova passed through Florida academies and scored major success on the WTA Tour. Retired stars Jennifer Capriati, Maria Sharapova and Martina Hingis have links to Florida tennis academies.
Many women's players, including Osaka, were inspired by the Williams sisters when they started their path though the state's tennis factory.
Serena and Venus Williams moved to Florida when they were young so they could attend Rick Macci's tennis academy in Boca Raton. They also trained at Bradenton's Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, now IMG Academy.
"The competition in Florida is brutal for a young kid who's 10 to 13," Macci told UPI on Monday. "You are not getting that in Minnesota [or other states]. There are a lot of major tournaments in Florida.
"The key ingredient is competition breeds competition. We have people from all over the world."
Coach Nick Saviano's Saviano High Performance Tennis in Plantation and Tampa's Saddlebrook Tennis Academy are among other top academies in the state that produced premier tennis talent on the men's and women's circuits.
Macci said women players don't take as long to develop their games as men, and that quick development is why Florida has recently produced more top-tier players for the WTA than ATP.
Junior tennis players are attracted to the state because of the convenience of getting to top tournaments and training facilities, he said.
"That's been the blueprint followed ever since the Williams sisters moved here," Macci said.
"If your kid has potential, and they have ability, good genetics and you want to give them the best opportunities, there are a lot of great private schools and academies. The facts don't lie."
Florida's warm climate allows for year-round training and makes the state an ideal launch pad for the ATP and WTA tours.
"Florida is a logical place for tennis and world-class prospects," Saviano said. "It's not only the weather, but multiple surfaces and easy access to international airports.
"Our great tournament structure cultivates and stimulates tennis [talent]. It's one of the tennis capitals of the world."
In addition to airports, Saviano said access to trainers and inexpensive public courts allows parents to get their children into tennis at a younger age than they could in other states. Osaka, Gauff, the Williams sisters and other top women's players used the public courts when they started their tennis journeys.
As of 2018, Florida had 21,029 tennis courts, according to the USTA. That equates to one court per 948 people -- the best ratio for any state.
"There's a lot of great academies and a lot of [women's players] in South Florida," Kenin told reporters Tuesday in a Zoom conference at the Miami Open. "I'm always practicing at Evert and hitting with other players there."
Osaka, ranked No. 2 in the world, beat Elise Mertens in straight sets in the round of 16 at the Miami Open on Monday in Miami Gardens, Fla. She'll face Maria Sakkari in the quarterfinals on Wednesday.
Kenin, Gauff and Brady lost early on at the tournament, but have had success in recent Grand Slams.
Kenin, 22, won last year's Australian Open and finished second in the 2020 U.S. Open. Gauff, 17, has yet to win a Grand Slam, but advanced to the fourth round at Wimbledon 2020 and the 2020 Australian Open. Osaka, 23, beat Brady, 25, in the 2021 Australian Open final.
The Miami Open, one of the largest non-Grand Slam tournaments on the WTA and ATP tours, runs through Sunday.