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Tennis champion nets the good life

Tennis champion nets the good life

Bahamian sports ambassador Mark Knowles sees great potential for the game in his homeland

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The Bahamas Investor Magazine
June 23, 2009
June 23, 2009
Gillian Beckett

For any aspiring tennis star dreaming of lifting the prestigious Wimbledon trophy or thrilling the crowds at the US Open, The Bahamas is an excellent place to perfect your skills. “The Bahamas has always been a great tennis destination—we have the talent, athletes and the weather,” says Bahamian tennis professional Mark Knowles, who is currently ranked second in the world in men’s doubles. “You think of some people around the world who are stuck indoors for six to eight months of the year—we’re outdoors all year round. It’s a beautiful place for sports and athletics.”

Knowles grew up playing tennis during the 1970s and ’80s in the popular Cable Beach area on New Providence. Courts at the former Emerald Beach Hotel, Nassau Beach Hotel and the former Ambassador Beach Hotel gave the budding champion plenty of first class facilities where he could develop his talent. With the ascension of golf as a premier pastime on the islands, however, there are fewer courts available today.

“I know the whole culture has kind of shifted towards golf but there’s still a huge market for tennis,” says the athlete, which is why he has lent his name to a new tennis facility—the Mark Knowles Tennis Centre.

New Providence, new project
The Mark Knowles Tennis Centre is a key feature of a new development on New Providence called The Balmoral. Sitting on 43 acres of prime real estate in the Prospect Ridge neighbourhood just behind Cable Beach, The Balmoral is in the early stages of development. Once completed, it will feature 70 single family lots and 240 condominiums and town houses, situated around the property’s stately mansion, known as High Tor.

The mansion was built in 1948 and the property’s original cottage will serve as the pro shop for the tennis centre, which will also feature three clay courts, lit for night play; a 1,300-sq-ft clubhouse and a café.

“We’re excited to have Mark on board,” says development principal Jason Kinsale. “A name like his adds a lot of credibility and recognition.” High profile endorsements for other projects on the island such as Greg Norman’s work with the Blue Shark golf resort and Tiger Woods’ and Ernie Els’ involvement in the Albany development lends authenticity to these endeavours, according to Kinsale.

Knowles says he’s keen to see the tennis centre come to fruition and that “it is a big step to provide a new facility for the youth of our country to play and also for the casual tennis player.”

“It’s not going to be as expansive as the National Tennis Centre but we’re going to have a couple of courts designed to get the maximum potential out of them,” adds Knowles, who says helping to nurture interest in the sport at home is something he is becoming more involved in. “I’m getting to the latter stages of my career, so I can lend more time to developing tennis in The Bahamas.”

Born to the court
A great ambassador for the Bahamian sporting community, tennis has always been in Knowles’ blood. Born in The Bahamas on Sept 4, 1971, to tennis pro parents Vicky Knowles Andrews—a former Wimbledon mixed-doubles competitor—and Samuel Knowles, who taught and operated the tennis programme at the former Emerald Beach Hotel and later the Nassau Beach Hotel, Knowles picked up a tennis racket almost as soon as he could walk.

“I started playing tennis at about age three and I just loved it instantly,” he says. “I was infamous for going up and asking people to hit tennis balls with me, even if they were adults.”

His love of tennis blossomed during his childhood and his prodigious talents on the court soon attracted some notable attention. While he was attending Xavier’s Lower School in Nassau, Knowles, then only a 10-year-old fifth grader, caught the eye of tennis great Nick Bollettieri and was offered a full scholarship to the prestigious Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Florida. Among the academy’s illustrious alumni are Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, Pete Sampras, Monica Seles, Anna Kournikova, Venus and Serena Williams as well as Knowles’s childhood idol, five-time Wimbledon champion and Swedish tennis great Bjorn Borg.

His parents initially had their reservations about letting their young son go overseas to study but his enthusiasm won them over. “I was pretty excited to go,” he says, “and he [Bollettieri] had the premier young tennis players in the world at his academy. He felt that I had a lot of talent and gave me an opportunity I wasn’t sure I would get again, particularly coming from such a small country as The Bahamas.”

Knowles spent the next seven years training under Bollettieri and at age 15 became the US indoor under-16s singles champion. After graduating high school a year later, he decided to “play professionally for a year, just to test the waters.”

In that time, he reached 350th in the world rankings before he turned his attention to academia, enrolling at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he studied economics and was awarded All American Honors. However, his true passion remained tennis and during his junior year he turned professional, leaving one year before achieving his degree. But it was no easy option. The rigours of full-time playing and training meant he had to sacrifice some of the normal aspects of everyday growing up. “Unfortunately, you don’t get your formative, younger years back,” he says wistfully.

Single life
But in the long run it proved to be the right decision. Knowles began his career as a singles player and achieved a career high ranking of 96th. However, after about 10 years on the singles circuit, a serious back injury sidelined him for ten months and after he recuperated, Knowles found his calling with men’s doubles.

“I was really excelling… . I was probably in the world’s top five,” he says, adding it was then that he started to consider doubles as a full-time career. “I was earning so much more money playing doubles than I was playing singles at the lower tiered events,” he explains. “It was a tough decision because I enjoyed playing singles so much, but physically my body wasn’t allowing me to play a full schedule and really excel.”

Throughout his career, Knowles has partnered numerous players, but his longest partnership was with Canadian Daniel Nestor, with whom he played for about 10 years. Together, the pair ranked as one of the best teams of all time, winning nine Grand Slams, the 2002 Australian Open, 2004 US Open and 2007 French Open. In 2006 they made it into the record books by playing in the longest Grand Slam match in Wimbledon history—six hours and nine minutes against Simon Aspelin of Sweden and Todd Perry of Australia.

“That was exciting and it got us a lot of headlines,” he recalls. “The most important thing, of course, was that we won it.”

Still going strong
At 38, Knowles shows no signs of slowing down. Together with Indian partner Mahesh Bhupathi, the five-time Olympian continues his success on the international courts, capturing three Dubai Championships and reaching the semifinals at the 2009 Australian Open. Most recently in February this year, Knowles won the men’s doubles championship with American partner Mardy Fish at the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships in Memphis, Tennessee.

With all of his victories on the court, Knowles is also enjoying off-court success with his family—wife Dawn and their two sons, Graham, three, and Brody, 12 months.

“As far as my career goes, some people are surprised that I’m still at the top of my game at this stage,” he says. “Now I have a family … tennis is very important to me still but my family is more important.”

As Knowles plays in tournaments for up to 24 weeks a year, he takes his family with him as often as he can. When not living out of suitcases, they divide their time between their home in Dallas, Texas, and their home in The Bahamas, where he is constantly lobbying for greater emphasis on the sport he loves.

“It’s really important that we get some good programmes here because we definitely have the talent,” says Knowles. “The government has slowly but surely looked at tennis … and I would love nothing more than to see these young Bahamian tennis players come up through the ranks and leave me in the dust. There’s a huge opportunity here [for tennis players]—you can make a fantastic living, and have an incredible career and become a superstar. Look at the Williams sisters, Maria Sharapova, Andre Agassi … they are global icons. We have athletes here with the potential to be just as good, if not better.”

Celebrity tennis tournament
The Mark Knowles Celebrity Tennis Tournament, which has been held each December since 2001 at the Atlantis Paradise Island resort, has attracted some of the world’s top tennis talent in order to rally up funds for local charities. Past participants have included Andre Agassi, Bob and Mike Bryan, Jim Courier and Jennifer Capriati, to name a few.

“I’m fortunate to be pretty good friends with the other players on the tour and it’s an easy sell to get them to participate,” says Knowles.

Each year, the tournament raises around $100,000 which is donated to such charities as The Cancer Society, Boy Scouts of The Bahamas, the Sassoon Pediatric Heart Foundation, the Children’s Emergency Hospital, the Association of the Physically Disabled and the Special Olympics.

“We’ve helped develop a wing for The Cancer Society. We’ve delivered toys and bikes to the Boys and Girls Club. To actually see the dollars go to work and see what’s behind it, you realize how little effort it takes to make such an impact,” says Knowles.

The tournament has also raised funds in order to provide scholarships for promising young tennis players.

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