Familiarity Breeds Excitement and Anticipation
Challenge Veterans Will Add to Legacies, Renew Intriguing Rivalries
Written By Randy Kambric
While the annual Naples-Fort Myers Challenge always draws new faces, many highly familiar ones, many of them pros at area clubs, will showcase their tennis skills and showmanship again during the 39th edition of the event, one of the longest-running of its kind throughout the state and the region, at the Bonita Bay Club (BBC) on November 16.
One day a year, the pros take a break from teaching their members and play with and against each other. And for those that have taken part in the event numerous times, their lengthy track records show a passion for the event, spirited yet friendly competition and rivalries, camaraderie, sportsmanship, enduring friendships along with tennis prowess.
“It’s so unique… A concentrated showcase of convenient, high-quality of play for fans,” exclaimed Paula Scheb, a USPTA Master Professional and director of sports at Bonita Bay Club who played in the event many times including winning the women’s 45 doubles with Kimberly Jones in 2015. “Some attendees will watch every point of one match as loyal followers of one of more players while others will stroll our grounds and witness a little bit of all of them!”
Adam Lane, assistant sports director at BBC and co-coach of the Fort Myers team, said, “The pros are from so many parts of the country. Along with in the Challenge, many of them still play competitively in other events. There’s respect for that, all of their influences. They also learn from each other and keep refreshing and revising how they teach their members.”
Launched in 1981 by Ted Norris, the first director of tennis at the Naples Bath and Tennis Club, the Challenge has fulfilled its original mission of connecting with the Collier and Lee county players. The BBC, hosting the event for the eighth time, is an ideal setting for the players and their loyal followers as it’s centrally located within the entire region for many.
Further, with BBC having 18 Har-Tru courts, 14 matches encompassing men’s and women’s singles and doubles from 35 to 60 age plus open categories will all begin at 3:30 p.m. with a delayed start for the men’s 45 doubles match on the championship court. (For many years, the event featured two separate rounds of matches.) The winners of each match scores one point for their team. Since 2013, Naples has a three to two edge in the series.
In many ways, the event is also an ongoing chronicle of the history of area recreational tennis. Out of many players who enjoy a long history of playing in the event, here are just a few Challenge performance highlights of some of them that’ll compete on November 16:
*Mike Curran, director of tennis, fitness and spa at Gulf Harbour Yacht & Country Club and co-coach of the Fort Myers team, will team up with Lane in the men’s 45 doubles match against Jerome Moenter and Bryan Twente. Mike has played in the event more than 15 times, first in the boys’ 14 category, winning several matches, and has been a regular participant in several men’s and mixed doubles categories since returning to the area from attending college, having won many times including in 2013 and from 2016 through last year. Among many other competitive accomplishments, he was the 35 state masters champion in 2007.
*Area native Ryan Sherry has highly similar experiences with the Challenge as he also played in the Challenge’s junior category starting at 14—while playing for Canterbury High School, earning News-Press Player of the Year honors all four years and also reaching the USTA’s national number two ranking as a 16-year-old—and has also played in the event most of the years since returning from college. He’ll showcase his skills in the Challenge once again for the Fort Myers team in taking on Franco Mata of the Port Royal Club in the men’s 35 singles match. The two also faced off in the same category in last year’s edition with Franco coming out on top. Ryan was victorious in the Challenge’s men’s open category in 2014.
*Jose Pastrello, director of sports at Quail Creek Country Club, in Naples, and coach of the Naples contingent, will defend the men’s 35 doubles category again with Jicham Zaatini against Corey Knapp and C.J. Weber, coach of the FGCU men’s tennis team who has also played in the Challenge numerous times. Knapp also played last year in this category with Elliot Elkins.
*Although Phil and Myke Loomis-Landauer, co-tennis directors of the Tarpon Cove Yacht and Racquet Club, have together won approximately 45 USTA national singles and doubles titles—most by Phil along with a world title for Myke—they always try to play in Challenge events. One of them has played in it each of the nine years they’ve been pros in our area. Each was victorious in separate doubles matches for the Naples team last year. Phil also won his doubles matches in 2017 and 2016, partnering with Mike McDonnell and Mark Vines, respectively. This year, Phil will team up with Scoot Dimon and face John Gillette (who also played against Phil last year) and Dave DeKeersmaker (who was also part of the 2017 match) in the men’s 60 doubles category. The event “gets even better every year,” cited Phil. “It’s like a big reunion.”
*John Jerome, director of tennis at Wildcat Run Golf & Country Club, also plays lots of competitive tennis, as he has won several state and regional USTA and USPTA titles and is currently ranked in the top five in the state and top 50 nationwide in 50s singles. Yet, he has also played in nearly all of the Challenge events in the last 14 years, several of them early on for Naples before assuming his post at Wildcat Run and playing from then on for Fort Myers.
He’ll team up with Tom Fisher this year as he has several other times in the men’s 55 doubles category including in last year’s edition.
*One of the more durable duos on the Challenge scene in recent years has been Johann Saurbier, Pelican Marsh Tennis Center’s director of court sports and highly ranked in USPTA state men’s singles, and George Spiska, on the Naples team. They’ll defend their men’s 50 doubles title against Todd Wise and Paul Cole this year after besting Rick Carlton and Mike Lauver last year. The Saurbier/Spiska duo also won the men’s 45 doubles match in 2015.
*Jesse Witten, who’ll team with Evan Austin for Naples in taking on two FGCU men’s team players in the men’s open doubles category, is another outstanding Challenge veteran. Jesse, who made it to the third round of the 2009 U.S. Open before losing to superstar Novak Djokovic in four close sets and also qualified for the French Open and Wimbledon, won the Challenge’s men’s open title in 2017 and also teamed with his sister Sarah Cantey in winning the event’s mixed doubles open match in 2015.
*Jonathan David of the Gomez Tennis Academy will return for the Naples team, this time facing a TBD member of the FGCU men’s tennis team in the men’s open category. Of several appearances in the Challenge series, Jon, who won the Canadian junior nationals and competed on both the ITF and ATP tours, bested Ryan Sherry in 2015 and lost to Juan Montes in last year’s men’s open category.
Regardless of which team earns “bragging rights” for a year, it’s certain that the legacies of all of the returning Challenge players will be burnished. And fans will be able to see it all unfold on November 16!
Proceeds from the event will benefit programs at the Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida.
Tickets at $15 tickets are on sale at nfmchallenge.com; free admission for Bonita Bay Club members. Skybox tickets for $75 are also available. For more information, call the Bonita Bay Club tennis shop at 239-495-3573.