Illustration | Laura Mattei
Thanks to the foresight of the Mobile City Council in 1958, a section of what is now known as Langan Municipal Park was carved out to build eight tennis courts.
Over the years, the Mobile tennis center has continued to expand into one of the largest public tennis developments in the world. Now boasting 60 courts, the renamed Copeland-Cox Tennis Center remains one of the most-used athletic facilities in America.
“Newton Cox wanted more tennis courts for the public to enjoy,” Scott Novak, the general manager for Copeland-Cox, said. “He was the main supporter for tennis in Mobile.”
Cox retired from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to become the facility’s first tennis pro.
“When we got to 34 courts, Cox and City Councilman Reggie Copeland agreed this was a great way to support economic development in Mobile,” Novak said. “Once we started bringing in big groups, we began to add more courts. I give them the credit for having the vision to build this big facility.”
Since those original courts, the tennis center has grown in increments. After the 34 courts were completed, it was bumped up to 50 courts. The current number was reached about a dozen years ago.
“For the longest time, 60 courts was the largest in the world,” Novak said. “Rome, Georgia, eventually matched that number. The USTA’s (United States Tennis Association) home in Orlando now has 100 courts, but it is not a true public facility.”
Build it and they will come
The biggest impact of having that large a number of courts is the many tournaments that are drawn to Mobile.
“When I took over, we had 50 courts,” Novak said. “Newton had passed away a few years before that. We only had about three tournaments a year.”
Novak, a South Dakota native, had come to the Southeast to be a college tennis coach. His connections proved to be vital.
“As a college coach, I had a lot of contacts,” he said. “We managed to get some events. Then we added more adult tournaments. It built up our reputation.
“Now we have about 25 of what I call ‘economic tournaments’ that help local businesses. Then we have a lot of other local and charity events not in this count.”
A crucial partner in recruiting events has been the Mobile Sports Authority (MSA). This nonprofit sports commission was formed in 2009 by the Mobile County Commission. The main mission of MSA is to create a positive economic and public relations impact for Mobile County, the city of Mobile and the region through attracting, hosting, managing and supporting sporting events that bring visitors to the area.
“About 20 years ago, the city of Mobile made an investment in the Mobile [now Copeland-Cox] Tennis Center to increase the number of courts from 50 to 60 and make the center one of the largest public facilities in the country,” Danny Corte, the longtime executive director of MSA, said. “Since then, with both city and county support, and under the direction of General Manager Scott Novak, that investment has generated tens of millions of dollars annually to the local economy through the numerous tournaments we host and have hosted at the center.
“That would not have happened without that expansion. So, as we continue to discuss to what extent we should invest in additional sports facilities in our area, such as the Mobile County Sportsplex, the tremendous success of the Copeland-Cox Tennis Center has shown us what can be achieved if we make those investments.”
An article that appeared in Mobile Bay magazine on the tennis center cited a study conducted by Dr. Phil Forbus, then an associate professor of economics and finance at the University of South Alabama. He estimated the tennis center had an impact totaling more than $54 million back in 2012.
“Danny and I have worked together for years,” Novak said. “We have gone to conventions and bid on tournaments. We have been allies with a lot of organizations.”
Two of the most recent major events at the tennis center were the championships hosted by the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) and the National Christian Collegiate Athletic Association.
“I think the NAIA has been here for 17 years,” Novak said. “That is what we pride ourselves on. If we do a great job, they never want to leave.”
For the NAIA tournament, there are 24 men’s squads and 24 women’s teams from all over the U.S. That means approximately 600 athletes are in Mobile for the week.
“For the first 16 years of the tournament, the players did a service project as part of their Champions of Character program,” Novak said. “They would go to a local elementary school and teach tennis in a P.E. class. They didn’t [do it] this year because of COVID, but I am hopeful it will return next year.”
Uwe Tittl is the tennis coach at the University of Mobile. The Rams serve as the host school for the NAIA championships.
“This is the only place in the country where we can have 24 teams playing at one time,” he said. “Scott and Lorraine Novak do all the legwork, so I can concentrate on coaching. The staff is why this tournament is so successful and why the NAIA goes back to them year after year.”
It’s something special
The extra effort put in by the Novaks does not go unnoticed. It is often cited as to why the tennis center is so unique.
Frances Ladd, a native of Virginia, has lived in Mobile for 17 years. Her husband, Bradford, grew up in the Port City.
She has become quite the expert on tennis facilities throughout the U.S. Their son Edward, 17, and daughter Sarah, 14, have played in multiple USTA tournaments over the years. Their eldest child, Campbell, was a swimming star at UMS-Wright Preparatory School and now attends the University of Virginia.
“We have traveled and gone to a lot of USTA tournaments with Edward and Sarah,” Frances said. “The Mobile tennis center is a benchmark on how a tournament should run.
“I recently took Sarah to a tournament in Georgia. There were so many rain delays. We just sat there with nothing to do.”
She doubts a similar situation would have occurred in Mobile.
“The Novaks have taken it to another level,” she said. “They are so efficient. They use a new app called Match that helps you keep up with schedules and announcements. The Mobile tennis center was the first place I used it. The app can be difficult at first, but the Novaks taught us all how to use it.
“They always provide a food truck during the tournament. They use a ‘shotgun start’ for play to begin, so there is no wasted time. I love how they have all of the players’ names on a board, which I have never seen anywhere else.”
The personal touch is something that is most appreciated by tournament families.
“People love to come to the Mobile tennis center because they know it will run efficiently and seamlessly,” she said. “The Novaks deserve the credit for that. Mobile does not realize what a treasure they are.”
Other visitors to the tennis center agree with her.
“My own kids and other players we’ve taken have played in Mobile many times,” said Cris Robinson, a tennis pro based in Virginia.
“The team events, the top-level Nationals and the Southern Championships are all first-class events and run with pride. The facilities are fantastic and the Novaks do an amazing job of having enough staff on hand to take care of rain delays and make sure the courts and grounds are ready and looking good.”
Robinson said the tennis player visitors certainly look forward to playing in Mobile.
“When we are there for a tournament, we try to take the players to a sit-down dinner at the end of each day,” he said. “If matches went late, we’ll do takeout in the hotel lobby. If time permits, we enjoy walking around the city.
“What distinguishes Mobile for me is the detail put into running the tennis events. From college banners to shade tents, the National Anthem being played each morning and sportsmanship awards prioritized throughout the event, the Novaks bring pride to Mobile, Alabama.”
It takes a village
Novak said everyone must play a part when visitors come to Mobile.
“That has to do with the infrastructure of our city,” Novak said. “This includes the city of Mobile, the Hotel Lodging Association and the staff at Visit Mobile. We all work together to make for a good experience. Once they finish playing, then they go out to support hotels and restaurants.”
Gina Gregory has represented Mobile’s District 7 since 2005. She fully understands how significant the tennis center is to the community.
“Some people don’t realize how important the tennis center is,” Gregory said. “Just consider all the tournaments that come into town. What it means to our economy, in general, is really amazing to see.”
Gregory has always been a proponent of the facility to her colleagues.
“I try to spread the knowledge on how important it is,” she said. “I make sure the different mayors know how important it is.
“The tennis center is a city amenity that can get lost in the shuffle. You can’t just focus on how many tournaments they have. It is not just about a player. Those players bring a family. That means hotels, meals in restaurants and shopping for two to three days. That all goes into our revenue stream.”
Although the courts are in the northwestern section of Mobile, the players and those traveling with them often explore the city.
“I also look at the tennis center as a tourist attraction,” Gregory said. “It is a way to showcase the city of Mobile. What else can they do if not watching tennis? We provide them with a lot of things to do. It is a win-win proposition.”
The tennis center is also a vital resource for Mobile County residents.
“Tournaments are one thing, but being a public amenity being used by so many is also important,” she said. “They have league play and then there are others who just want to play a single game. The courts are packed each night and also busy during the day.”
Still, she agrees there is always room for upgrades.
“The big thing to do now is to make more improvements to the locker rooms and the pro shop,” she said. “We need to build some clay courts if we want to continue attracting senior tournaments. It’s on our wish list. We just need funds to make it happen. If we are going to be successful, you must have clay courts. We don’t want to lose senior tournaments without them.”
USTA titles up for grabs
Two major USTA tournaments are coming to Mobile. The National Level 2 for boys and girls 12 and under and 14 and under are July 3-5. The National Hard Court Championships for boys 12 and under and 14 and under follows on August 6-15.
“These are the future stars of the United States coming here,” Novak said. “It is really fun to watch them.”
Perhaps the largest major event is the USTA Adult Southern Sectional Combo Doubles Championships, which will be played December 3-6.
“We will have almost 2,000 people here that week,” Novak said. “We have to use the Mobile tennis center and three private tennis clubs. It will be hard courts for those 18 and over, plus clay courts for those 40 and over.”
Future looks bright
In 2019, Novak was presented with the Gerrie Rothwell Award at the USTA Southern annual meeting. This is given for outstanding service and dedication to the USTA League Program.
“This was quite an honor,” Novak said. “Not just for me, but for our entire staff. We have some people who work with event management. We have staff that give lessons. Then we have others who repair tennis courts. Some of our courts are 60 years old but are in immaculate condition. They are always ready to paint the courts or fix a crack.”
Like other public facilities, the Mobile tennis center was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We shut down like everyone else,” Novak said. “We started hosting as soon as we could, when a lot of states couldn’t have tournaments. We have actually been adding tournaments instead of losing them. Since opening up, you couldn’t have enough tennis tournaments.”
While he agrees the flashy national events help to make a major economic impact for Mobile County, he said the original purpose of building those eight courts back in 1958 still exists.
“We are here for the local residents,” he said. “We have 60 courts that are full almost every night with leagues. Tennis in Mobile is very healthy. We have people ages 19 to 80 playing in leagues.”
The Copeland-Cox Tennis Center is located at 851 Gaillard Drive in West Mobile. For the latest information on leagues, events and lessons, visit mobiletenniscenter.net or facebook.com/mobiletenniscenter.
Mobile County Soccer Complex
Outside of the tennis center, Mobile’s sports tourism has been thriving since January of this year. David Clark, CEO of Visit Mobile, told Lagniappe sporting events not including tennis have accounted for 4,876 room nights booked for the city since the beginning of the year.
“That’s significant because other cities aren’t doing anything right now,” Clark said. “Sports tourism here is red hot.”
One of the venues leading this tourism boom is the county’s soccer complex at 3701 Halls Mill Road. The complex, which currently features three lighted and sodded fields, irrigation and a 200-car parking lot, has had a busy spring, according to numbers provided by county spokesperson Sharee Broussard.
Six weekend sporting events this spring saw more than 1,400 visitors and one event saw more than 2,000 visitors, Broussard wrote in an email.
“We’re extremely pleased that phase one of the complex, with only three fields, has already proven to be very successful in addressing the need for expanding local facilities and improving regional sports tourism,” County Commissioner Connie Hudson said. “As the complex grows and additional phases are completed, the direct and indirect economic benefits to the community are projected to grow exponentially.”
The complex is used now as a practice facility for the semi-professional soccer team AFC Mobile. It is also used for youth soccer and lacrosse matches and tournaments as well as ultimate frisbee tournaments.
Soccer and lacrosse clinics are ongoing throughout the summer, Broussard wrote.
The phase one buildout of the complex includes a bathroom and concession facility. Design of the second phase is almost done, Broussard said. Construction bids for that portion of the project will go out in late summer.
The second phase includes two more parking lots, an expanded first lot, a lighted championship field, locker rooms, restrooms and seating for 1,400 fans, Broussard wrote.
When finished, the complex will include 10 fields.
“This new complex is significant,” Clark said. “We need to get behind it and do everything we can to give it the resources it needs.”
Hank Aaron Stadium
Since the major restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic have been lifted, fans have been returning to regular events at Hank Aaron Stadium, which is owned by the city and managed by the Mobile Sports and Entertainment Group.
Group President Ari Rosenbaum said they’ve been able to host high school and college baseball tournaments on an almost weekly basis since January and the summer season is full as well.
“It’s going pretty well right now,” Rosenbaum said.
In addition to a circus that ended last week, Rosenbaum said the stadium is slated to host several events over the summer, including the Babe Ruth World Series, which was rescheduled from 2020. There are also some showcases planned this summer, he said. Showcases allow high school baseball players to try out for college scouts, Rosenbaum said.
Sporting events across the bay are rebounding after the pandemic, with Gulf Shores | Orange Beach Sports & Events reporting 54,663 room nights booked so far in 2021, on pace with the 117,075 booked in 2019. That year, sporting events provided a $121 million economic impact in the two cities.
“Coming off the anomaly of 2020, we are encouraged by sports business generating $31 million in economic impact year-to-date in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach,” said Michelle Russ, CSEE, vice president of sports, sales and events for Gulf Shores | Orange Beach Sports & Events. “Sports and events continue to have a strong impact on the destination, and our local city partners value upgrading facilities to benefit not only residents but also sports tourism.”
This spring, the 100-acre Gulf Shores Sportsplex hosted two track and field state championships and the NAIA Men’s and Women’s Outdoor Track & Field National Championship. Earlier this month, Russ noted more than 1,500 baseball and softball teams were traveling to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach facilities over the summer as a part of the Perfect Game Baseball World Series and USSSA Softball National Championships.
Officials are also reinvesting in the facilities, with 12 pickleball courts currently being built at the Gulf Shores Sportsplex and one baseball and one softball field being upgraded at the Orange Beach Sportsplex with press boxes, stadiums and field enhancements. The city of Orange Beach unveiled renovations to its tennis center in November and both cities have made recent improvements to their recreational centers. Information from the Foley Sports Complex, which has 10 baseball fields and five soccer fields, was not readily available for this report.
Dale Liesch and Gabriel Tynes contributed to this story.
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