Grand Cayman’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel is the island’s most luxurious, so it’s not surprising that its tennis courts are first class with a resident coach with suitable credentials.
It’s almost two years since the four courts were opened beside the West Bay bypass and, not surprisingly, they are in use by hotel guests during almost every daylight hour.
Playing tennis around the clock is nothing new for Thomas Neuert. He first picked up a racket as a child, inspired by the likes of German compatriots Michael Stich and Boris Becker.
Neuert earned a scholarship to train at the fabled Nick Bollettieri academy in Florida from 14 for three years. Bollettieri is the Svengali figure who moulded such luminaries as Anna Kournikova, Maria Sharapova, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Becker and the Williams sisters beside countless others. Kournikova arrived as a tiny nine-year-old prodigy when Neuert was there.
The intention was to become a world class player, top 100 at least, but Neuert realised that he wasn’t quite dedicated and talented enough to make the upper echelons.
‘I got to college level as a player but realised that I wasn’t really exceptional,’ he says. ‘Nor did I have the parental support you need when you reach 18, 19 and have to rely on them financially for two or three years to work your way up the rankings. In order to make money in tennis you’ve got to be in the top 100. I could have made top 300 and had a nice life but it wouldn’t buy me much.’
So he went to college, first to Chicago State for a year then Florida Athletic and gained a degree in international business. Education complete, Neuert resumed his tennis career only this time as a coach in Germany. He kept in touch with Bollettieri and got his big break when offered a coaching job in Cairo for a year by the big man himself. All Bollettieri appointed coaches have a responsibility to uphold his high standards so it was a huge honour for young Neuert. Only problem was he hated Egypt initially.
‘I was 22 and the first couple of weeks I couldn’t settle. But I made so many friends there that I didn’t really want to leave a year later.’
That’s when he was summonsed to work in the pantheon of tennis academies in Bradenton, Florida. ‘Only 25 coaches work there for him so it was a great honour. He also has hundreds of coaches around the world.’
Bollettieri’s judgment on all things tennis is unquestionable so it’s not surprising that Neuert lasted there six years bringing along some outstanding youngsters, the best known being Sesil Karatantcheva, the brilliant Belgian who is currently serving a two-year ban for testing positive for nandrolone. ‘I was very happy there until Nick said that he needed someone to come out to the Ritz-Carlton in Cayman. I said: ‘That doesn’t sound too bad!”
Neuert’s interview included a 6am match with Ritz owner Michael Ryan. The hopeful employee turned up on time and presumably didn’t beat his future boss because he got the job.
‘I thoroughly enjoy being here in Cayman,’ says Neuert. ‘It’s hard work during the busiest times from December up to the summer months when 14 hour days is not unusual, but I love it. Nick comes down about four times a year. He trusts me. If I do a bad job then his reputation is on the line. A lot of people visit the hotel because they like to work with me. We also get a lot of repeat guests.’
The courts are given priority to hotel guests but as this is a slower period, until the end of November there is a chance for the public to hire them at a reasonable rate dependant on availability. Neuert, 30, can also give private coaching lessons if his diary allows.
He has a disarming manner that makes you instantly like him, so it’s understandable that he is one of Bollettieri’s most cherished coaches.
As tennis director Neuert is already planning the hotel’s big charity tennis tournament, set for the first weekend in December. ‘It’ll be a doubles pro-am tournament with lots of auctions. Nick will come down and we’ll raise money for the Cayman Islands Women’s Crisis Centre again. Michael Ryan has been doing this for four years.
‘In the meantime we hope to make the courts bigger and better with stands for up to 300 people and possibly a club house.
‘We’ve also got lined up an after-school tennis club for seven to 14-year-olds beginning in October running till mid-November. The kids sign up for 16 classes and come from Monday to Thursday. As we’ve only got three clay and one grass court there’s a limited amount of space.
‘I want to give kids an opportunity to learn. Some children in Cayman don’t get the necessary exercise. This is just an introductory course to help them stay in shape. At least the weather’s not like in my home city of Kempten and you can play all year round here.’
The Ritz’s facilities include a separate backboard area, video analysis and its Island Tennis group sessions are accompanied by soca music, rum punch and social round robins. So even if you don’t know a lob from a smash, at least learning is fun.
No wonder he hasn’t lost any enthusiasm and certainly won’t give tennis the elbow. ‘I love doing it. I work for a great company. I’m in beautiful Cayman on Nick’s behalf. There are not many things in life much better.’