|By Douglas Hanks, The Miami
HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
April 1, 2010 --As travel director for the Sony Ericsson Open, Kim Hall Uliasz books about 13,000 hotel stays each year for players and spectators.
And there's one request that is surprisingly difficult for her in South Florida: finding beds near tennis courts.
"We get that quite a bit," Uliasz said. "We are limited down here."
As tennis fanatics continue to descend on Key Biscayne this week, the annual migration highlights one sea change in American vacation habits. With spa indulgences and solitary workouts far more popular than tennis, more hotels feel they don't need courts.
"We have four courts. We could survive with one," said Walter Banks, owner of the Lago Mar resort in Fort Lauderdale. He's considering taking out two tennis courts to make way for a second pool.
"A lot of people used to play tennis here," he said. "Tennis has just dropped off so much."
The trend leaves tennis-friendly resorts in demand with the racket set, particularly during the annual Key Biscayne tournament.
As the island's only luxury resort, the Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne would enjoy a flood of Sony bookings anyway. But with 11 outdoor courts and nine full-time pros, the 450-room hotel counts on even more tennis dollars during the Sony season.
"People like to play at four and five o'clock, before they go to the game," said Betty Son while working the front desk at the Cliff Drysdale Tennis Center at the Ritz-Carlton.
Nearby, Del Bauers, a construction company owner from Elk River, Minn., was readying for a game between a fellow guest at the Ritz.
A tennis fanatic, Bauers seeks out hotels with courts when he's traveling. Even then, he has trouble playing while on vacation because so few hotels can wrangle up guests for matches.
"You're kind of on your own," Bauers said midway through a vacation that would include six tennis matches and a visit to the Sony tourney. Other hotels "say, 'Oh, you know, it's been weeks since anyone even looked for a match.' It's a little frustrating."
Not that it's time to call game, set or match for hotel tennis courts. They remain must-haves for many resorts, particularly in the Caribbean.
Statistics from the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association show tennis playing among Americans up 43 percent during the last decade after a steady slide since the 1970s.
When the W South Beach opened last summer, it installed an outdoor court on its seventh floor pool deck. Brickell Avenue's Conrad Miami, which opened in 2003, added a tennis court atop its adjoining parking garage.
The Marriott Marquis, set for a fall opening in downtown Miami, has plans for a tennis court that would also accommodate basketball games, said Hall Uliasz, who has been pitched on booking tournament travelers there.
But South Florida's largest hotel, the beachfront Fontainebleau Miami Beach, took out its courts during the last decade to make way for new condominium towers.
"Tennis courts take up a lot of room. They're not income-producing like a lot of other outlets -- a spa, a restaurant, a golf course," said Scott Berman, a hotel analyst who runs PricewaterhouseCoopers' leisure division out of Miami. "And I speak as a tennis player."
Even with a following among tennis travelers, the Key Biscayne Ritz counts on local players for about half its tennis revenue, said Cliff Drysdale, the former tennis star and current ESPN commentator. He runs a chain of tennis centers bearing his name at the Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne and other resorts.
He estimates fewer than 25 percent of Ritz-Carlton guests use the courts at the Ritz's Cliff Drysdale Tennis Center, though that figure soars during the Sony tournament. He sees the Ritz benefiting from the lodging industry's general drift away from tennis.
"A lot of hotels got rid of their courts," he said, "which puts us in a very good position."
Though sold out for the most of the tournament, the Ritz did offer some rooms this week for $649 a night.
Those pricey rates at the four-star resort make Hall Uliasz's job even harder, since the hotel with the most courts also is out of reach for the average tourney traveler.
And with more than 300 players competing, not even the athletes can count on sleeping near a court.
The tournament reserves court time at Coconut Grove's Ransom Everglades high school to accommodate players staying in nearby Grove hotels.
Traveling tennis fans don't have that kind of access, but Hall Uliasz helps them find courts as best she can.
"There is a nice public park right next to where the Doubletree Grand is downtown," she said. "They opened that a few years ago. People use those."
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