United Tennis continues growth in IMG's neighborhood

BRADENTON -- A tennis school at the edge of sports education powerhouse IMG Academy is upping its game this year with new courts and larger strength-training facilities.

United Tennis Academy, a 6-year-old tennis school focused on developing young players, recently started building six hard-surface courts to add to its inventory of 15 clay courts. That, plus the construction of a 7,200-square-foot fitness center and training pool later this year, is intended to give academy students a complete, multisurface tennis education.

"The main thing is, it gives our kids different surfaces to train on," said Jeff Russell, one of United Tennis' founders.

Russell and his business partner, Gabriel Trifu, own the academy. They started their tennis school on land leased from Bradenton Prep Academy.

United Tennis Academy is a tennis only school that teaches about 100 students every year ages 7 to 19 to play at high echelons of amateur competition and at the professional level. Unlike IMG, it does not offer academic courses, but does partner with local institutions including St. Stephen's Episcopal School. Players can choose to board with United at a facility operated by a house mother.

The school has attracted pro tour players, including Grand Slam winners Hana Mandlikova and Martin Damm, to enroll their children, according to its website. United also hosts pro tour players who need training facilities while preparing for area tournaments.

United operated out of leased space for several years before purchasing the former Racquet Club at El Conquistador for $1.5 million in November 2013. The purchase included more than 2.5 acres of undeveloped land, which will be the site of the new courts, fitness facility, pool and a tiki bar. The bar and an existing 3,300-square-foot onsite clubhouse and grill will cater to about 300 adult tennis club members who use the academy facilities.

Russell said the new asphalt courts will open for play in March. Once they are complete, work on the fitness center will begin. Construction on the pool will follow. United leadership has yet to decide how large a pool will be built. Russell said the business has been approved to build a pool as long as 25 yards, the minimum standard for a competition length pool.

The new courts will be built for about $350,000. United does not yet have an estimate for the other facilities.

Strictly tennis

United students pay up to $41,400 per year to attend the academy full time and learn from its seven instructors. Students can also attend the school on a monthly basis. The school also offers short-term clinics for players between the ages of 4 and 6.

Located across the street from IMG's tennis program, United benefits from the overall synergy in the area's tennis instruction industry. Russell, who was an IMG tennis instructor for 16 years, said his academy fills a niche for players who keep their academic and sports careers separate.

"I don't think we're chasing the same dollar," Russell said. "We just make tennis players."

IMG has a larger tennis program than United, featuring about 50 tennis courts. The academy also trains elite athletes in a number of athletic disciplines, including soccer and football. Kim Berard, IMG's public relations head, said the academy serves multiple tennis training populations. In addition to its school-year program, it offers professional and collegiate instruction as well as numerous youth camps and adult instruction.

Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter@MattAtBradenton.