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Wednesday, Sep 17, 2014
Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: Challenged to let tennis stadium go

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CASHIERS, N.C. - We will get to Jim Courier and Andy Roddick, retired tennis champions who still command respectable followings, in a moment.

But first, we must rant.

I concede, readily, bringing up the failed Pasco National Tennis Stadium project isn't just beating a dead horse. At this distant point, any mention of that lamentable adventure probably requires an exhumation order before whips can be applied to what's left of the horse.

Even Tom Dempsey doesn't much want to talk about it anymore. And the whole idea of using tourist tax dollars to build a world-class tennis stadium - that is, of building something extremely unusual and not readily replicable in the county next door - was his brainchild. If Dempsey, whose Saddlebrook Resort restored Pasco to the map 50 years after the lumber business died in Lacoochee and the movie stars and gangsters quit New Port Richey, prefers to change the subject, who are we to take up the whip hand?

It was Dempsey, after all, who suffered the first, and arguably the worst, case of former administrator John Gallagher's portable goalposts strategy. If Dempsey has moved on, shouldn't we?

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Still - still! - I defy anyone with an appreciation for recent Pasco history to have joined the roughly 1,400 summer mountain folks who descended on the Cedar Creek Racquet Club Saturday and not been struck by a melancholy sense of what could have been.

Here, after all, were Courier and Roddick, two former world No. 1 tennis champions, owners of five Grand Slam championships and some 60 other Association of Tennis Professionals titles between them, and there they were duking it out for grins, charity and old-time's sake at 3,800 feet on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains, 70 winding, patience-sapping minutes from the nearest commercial airport.

This is the part where we mention the players' ties to Pasco County. William McKee, the area's best-known real-estate developer who doubled as master of ceremonies, may have introduced Big Red as being "from New York, New York," but we know he'll always be Dade City's Jim Courier, whose rise to No. 1 happened while he trained at Saddlebrook. And Roddick was for a while a student at Saddlebrook Academy.

"We'd like to see them back here, both of them, anytime," Dempsey says. If only we had an appropriate venue for them to play. Count Courier among the befuddled - "What ever happened to that plan?" - and the dismayed.

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Once there was talk that he wanted a piece of an ATP stop that was eyeing Pasco's stadium (Courier says he can't recall such an arrangement), and certainly, as captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team, Courier could easily have steered international matches to his home county. Would that have been juicy? Well, look here:

When it was all said and done - even as the gray-green Har-Tru courts grit was being tracked onto parking lot shuttles and folding chairs were being collapsed - organizers of the first Mountain Challenge benefiting the spanking-new Mountain Youth Charities were (a) growing increasingly giddy about a debut jackpot that approached $250,000 and (b) planning next year's event.

The locals know they can count on Roddick, because he and his wife, model-actor Brooklyn Decker, recently built a mountain retreat here. As for his opponent, they could do worse than Courier, who has added stand-up comic to a repertoire that retains, at 42, the blistering inside-out forehand that boosted him to two titles each at the French and Australian opens, and to the finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

When Courier whistled the trademark shot past him in an early game, Roddick, 30 - spotting Courier 12 years - jabbed, "There it is! I remember seeing that shot when I was 6!"

They went on like that for a little more than an hour, Roddick "winning" 6-4, 6-4 while resorting only once to what still may be tennis' deadliest serve, and then only to hasten the players' arrival at Wade Hampton Country Club's first tee.

Statistically, you have to figure something approaching 99.999 percent of Saturday's audience members returned to their lodgings perfectly content with all they'd witnessed, leaving only one - *blush* - with the curse of mixed feelings.

tjackson@tampatrib.com

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