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Thursday July 19th, 2018 7:22AM

Tennis: GHSA deals an ace in landing new home for state finals

By Jeff Hart Sports Reporter

With all the talk over new venues the last two seasons for the finals of Georgia High School Association sporting events -- basketball at Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia in 2017, football’s move to the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and the baseball finals to minor league and major college ballparks throughout the state highlighting the changes -- maybe none will have as significant an impact as the new digs for the state tennis finals.

After a decade at the Clayton County Tennis Center in Jonesboro, the finals for all eight GHSA classifications will have a new permanent home, at least for the next two seasons, beginning in just under a month at the Rome Tennis Center at Berry College. 

The finals for boys and girls will be held on Saturday, May 12, weather permitting.

The new facility will have enough courts (60) to simultaneously stage all eight finals with all five matches -- and have extra practice courts as well. Clayton had less than 40 courts available for the finals and before Clayton the finals were held at the now-defunct Olympic Tennis Center at Stone Mountain.

As far as GHSA Tennis Coordinator Steve Figueroa was concerned, it was a 120-mile per hour ace for the sport.

“It has everything we need to be able to hold an event of this size,” Figueroa said. “We are very fortunate to have a facility like this in the state.”

In his 18 years as the sport’s coordinator for the GHSA, Figueroa said it is the first time that any one facility has been able to satisfy all three major concerns for holding the tennis finals.

“It has nearly 500 parking spaces, new bathroom facilities and good concessions for those attending, and it has enough courts for us, for the first time ever, to be able to hold all eight classifications and all five matches at the same time,” he said. “Clayton had less than 100 parking spaces and not enough courts to handle all the matches. Start times for some of the finals were always up in the air and the No. 3 singles sometimes would not able to start for an hour or more.”

However, it wasn’t until Figueroa made three specific phone calls to coaches at Bleckley County (winner of both the Class AA boys and girls titles in 2017), Brookstone (in Columbus, 2017 Class A Private girls champion) and Savannah Arts (perennial state finalists) that convinced him to seal the deal.

“When I called those three, because they would have the longest to travel and are almost always in the finals, that’s when I knew I needed to make this happen,” he said. “All of them told me they would love to play there and to jump at it because it was the best facility in Georgia. So that sealed it.

“Now, all eight girls finals will get going at 9 a.m. with an hour of practice and the finals will start at 10. The boys will begin at 1 p.m. with practice and 2 p.m. for the start of the finals. No one will have to wait to start a match. Hopefully we’ll all be out of there by 5 or 6 (p.m.) at the latest. That’s a huge change.”

Figueroa said several tennis coaches around the state approached him during the off-season about the facility in Rome and he was pleasantly surprised at how quickly they were able to put things together.

“Some coaches called me and said we needed to take a look at Rome so I did,” he said. “I wasn’t initially optimistic that they would be able to give us a whole (Saturday) in May but to my surprise they not only had a date but it also came at a price that was a great deal. We could not be more pleased.”

Flowery Branch girls coach Ginger Jackson, whose Lady Falcons open the Class 5A playoffs against Rome on Tuesday at the Davis Middle School Courts, called it a big step for the sport.

"It's great for the sport when you play at great facilities and can get everyone in one place," Jackson said. "Maybe tennis is finally getting on the map with this move. Hopefully we'll get a chance to play there."

Figueroa said the tennis finals are already slated to return to Rome in 2019 and that they are already in negotiations to hold the event there for the foreseeable future.

“We have it set for next year and pretty much a Gentleman’s Agreement for the next two years after that,” he said. “We just have to work out some dates but I feel pretty good that we’ll get it done. Our goal is to always give the athletes in Georgia the best facilities the state has to offer, if it can get worked out, and we feel like we’ve done that with the move to Rome.”

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