Florida tennis has flourished most abundantly in the southern part of the state.  The primary reason is superb winter weather, thus facilitating year-round play and encouraging the maintenance of tennis complexes at resorts, real estate developments and public parks.

In our Jetsetters Magazine series on tennis resorts around America, we’ve already highlighted the remarkable opportunities for play-in-the-sun along the Gulf Coast from Tampa southward through Long Boat Key, Sarasota and Naples.

Of late the northwest Panhandle of Florida has gotten into the act.   Vigorous growth of the Emerald Coast between Pensacola and Panama City has brought on line a number of excellent resorts where tennis is a featured amenity.

We’ll spotlight four facilities in Destin along US Highway 98 — Sandestin, TOPS’L, Hidden Dunes and Seascape — plus the so-called “30A” coast road complexes at Seaside/Watercolor and Rosemary Beach.

 Sandestin 'twixt beach and Choctawhatchee Bay.

Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort is by far the largest of Emerald Coast resorts. Its 2400 acres include 1300 condos, villas, town homes and  hotel accommodations plus seven miles of white sand beach, a 113 slip marina and Baytowne Wharf, a pedestrian village full of shops and restaurants. The entire holding, straddling US 98, is a gated town unto itself.

Although the name suggests a primary focus — beach life and golf (four courses on property) — the tennis amenity involves a full service operation including 12 Har-Tru clay and three hard surface courts.

Tennis here partakes of the big-resort feel that is Sandestin.  Tennis Director Todd Hansen heads up a lively staff of pros who handle a variety of regular events — mixers, round robins, tournaments — plus an ambitious junior program. Several hundred local club members on call make it easy to find a game.  The large clubhouse includes an extensive array of tennis equipment, clothing and locker facilities.  All this is but a short walk away from the colorful street life of Baytowne Wharf.

During high season (May to November) several Ladies Team Challenge weekend packages attract groups from all over the Southeast.  Given the crowds of players, court time during the day can be hard to come by (fortunately four courts are lighted for night play).

TOPS'L accommodations on the Gulf of Mexico.

Prefer a more intimate, laid-back resort with a strong tennis program? You might want to consider TOPS’L , Hidden Dunes, or Seascape, all three nearby along US 98.  They radiate a friendly tennis atmosphere with emphasis on regulars, match-making and reasonable prices, especially during the winter season when snow-birds congregate around the courts. 

Cool off from tennis pool or beach side at TOPS'L.

TOPS’L Beach & Racquet Resort by Wyndham Vacation Rentals has quite impressive facilities, ranging from a 12 clay court tennis center to adjacent pro shop, Blue Heron Spa and fitness center with both indoor and outdoor swimming pools.

Like Sandestin, TOPS’L has developed a tennis club with several hundred members, so finding a game is rarely a problem.   Tennis Director Joe D’Aleo and head pro Sam Vickroy run an active program which caters to residents looking to play tennis most every day of the week.  Here too the ladies challenge weekends are popular with several teams arriving during the warmer months.

 Condo rentals at Hidden Dunes are priced reasonably.

Although Destin area resorts generally consider summer the high season, Hidden Dunes Beach & Tennis Resort is busiest in winter when snowbirds arrive to take advantage of very reasonable condo rentals.  With just six clay courts Tennis Director Renee Broxson has cultivated a popular “boutique” atmosphere.

“Since nobody works, we have a crowd of regulars who come in every morning to play.  Then we serve them lunch.  We cultivate a casual, neighborly environment but weave into that a solid program of clinics, round robins and match-making.  We also welcome tourists staying off property to come in and play.  Our clientele includes a number of budget conscious seniors who love their tennis.”

The  27-acre resort is sprinkled with foot paths, gardens and fountains as well as pools, hot tubs, and grills. Accommodation options range from three- and four- bedroom beach villas to comfortable gulf-front condos and cottages. 

Hidden Dunes offers six Har-Tru courts.

Broxson’s sketch of Hidden Dunes mirrors that of nearby Destin Tennis Club at Seascape, a family affair run by Tennis Director Fernando Guarachi and his wife Holley.  Just six lighted clay courts, but the Guarachis are superb hosts.  Chilean born Fernando exudes a Latin bonhomie while head pro Holley looks after the tennis crowd, which involves a fair number of habitués who top off a few sets with a stroll down to the beachside Whale’s Tail for a round of beers.

Relax on the beach at Seascape.

At the smaller resorts aforementioned, it is common to find condo rentals during the winter from $1200-1600 per month.  Compare that with the $1200-1600 per WEEK at most any resort hereabouts in the summertime.

Why the discrepancy?  The Destin area is popular with summer vacationers who descend on the Emerald Coast from hot, humid states like Georgia and Alabama.  Nonetheless, winter temperatures in the 50s and 60s are quite pleasant for the average tennis player.

Sandestin, TOPS’L, Hidden Dunes and Seascape are clustered together along the much-trafficked US Highway 98 corridor.   This twenty mile long commercial strip is home to a mélange of motels, shopping malls, bars and restaurants that constitutes Action Central for thousands of all ages who come here to relax, party and frolic at the beach.

Quieter alternatives exist a short drive east of Destin along coastal road 30A.   Here planned communities, featuring traditional architecture, tree-shaded streets and village greens, were built in the 1990s, each including a tennis complex with clay courts, pro shop and a variety of  programs for locals and visitors alike. 

Watercolor Inn offers tennis and golf.

Seaside and WaterColor, adjacent to Grayton Beach State Recreation Area, share a nine court complex (7 clay, 2 hard) under the baton of veteran Tennis Director Tracy Townsend.   Clinics, round robins, and group events abound, especially during the warmer months.  Lodgings are available at the beachfront WaterColor Inn & Resort or in New England-style one-to-six bedroom homes walking distance from the courts.

A bit further east along 30A is Rosemary Beach, created by the same architectural firm in the “New Urbanism” mold of Seaside.  Although the residential style is somewhat more eclectic, Rosemary aims to provide the same tranquil, well-ordered atmosphere.

 Colorful New Urban design at Seaside.

Tennis, too, follows the pattern of Seaside/WaterColor.  Eight Har-Tru clay courts (6 lighted) with well-equipped pro shop and fitness center.  Tennis Director Mike Clark and staff are very welcoming to visitors in search of a game or strategy drills for their doubles teams.

In terms of personnel, all of the tennis venues featured in this article rate A+. They provide the attentive service-with-a-smile so critical in a competitive environment dependent on return visitors.

Choice here is largely a matter of taste and circumstance.  Bringing the whole family to spend several days on property?  Sandestin will fit your needs.

Wall to wall tennis with first class fitness facilities at hand?   Can’t go wrong with TOPS’L.

Great tennis in a friendly environment with a strong winter program?  Hidden Dunes has it all. 

Or If you prefer both golf and tennis on site, Seascape may be a better fit.

Lots of tennis in a sleepy town off a secluded beach?  Seaside, WaterColor and Rosemary Beach could be just the thing. 

From whatever angle you view it, the Emerald Coast has a tennis profile to suit most any taste.

Further information about tennis and tourism on the Emerald Coast of the Florida Panhandle may be obtained from the following websites:


— Feature by Jerry Nemanic, Jetsetters Magazine Tennis Editor; photos courtesy of the resorts. Jetsetters Magazine Golf and Tennis Features.