Boca Grande Club tennis director Jim Labinski has the best of both worlds: He lives and works in paradise. Here's a few Labinski volleys on all things tennis-related on Gasparilla Island.
QUESTION: How did the Suncoast Humane Society become the beneficiary of the Tennis Pro Exhibit Series at the Boca Grande Club?
ANSWER: We've done that for about 10 years. We did it previously for Make a Wish and the Tim and Tom Gullickson Foundation (for brain tumors) and juvenile diabetes research but it's become exclusively Suncoast for two reasons. No. 1 , our CEO Yvonne Anderson is a serious animal lover and it's a cause close to her heart. No. 2, if we kept doing a different charity every year it was just not as effective..
Q: What is the origin of the Boca Grande Club Tennis Pro Exhibition Series?
A: It started in 1999 under Tim Lufkin, director of tennis at the time, and I believe it started with eight players. In 2001, Lufkin won the tournament and I was his assistant that year. Then he quit and was replaced by Kevin Scott, who won the tournament in 2002, and I was his assistant as well. That year it became a field of 16 and we've done the same format ever since.
Q: A seven-week tournament seems awfully long yet it works. Why?
Jim Labinski at a glance
Birthdate: Sept. 29, 1959
Occupation: 13 seasons, including 11 as director of tennis at the Boca Grande Club, four seasons with the Gasparilla Inn & Club and 23 years with a Charlottesville, Va., tennis club.
Hometown: Manitowoc, Wis.
Residence: Charlottesville, Va., and Cape Haze
Family: engaged to Krista Crocker for spring of 2014
Education: University of Wisconsin
Discovered Boca Grande: At my club in Virginia, a member said I had to meet his sister.
A: Because there's a certain amount of unpredictability. You play three sets, switch partners after each set, and you watch the scoreboard a little bit but you don't want to get caught up in it. If you lose 6-1 in the first set you're just about out of it because you're going to have to win another 6-1 set (to even up your score) in one of the next two sets.
Q: How did you feel about landing the Boca Grande Club tennis director job after being passed over once?
A: On one level I felt as if it was a good guy getting a break. I had been plugging away and doing a good job as an assistant. When I got down here it was perfect. A job in paradise, a dream job. I knew right then and there I wanted to stay here as long as I could. A lot of pros like to work at one place for two or three years and move onto a bigger club. I saw right off it was one of the best clubs I could imagine working at.
Q: How did growing up in Wisconsin prepare you for a career in tennis instruction?
A: It was a three- or four-month season in tennis and then I would go on to play basketball or baseball, whatever the kids were playing. As a summer job I worked at All-American Sports at the beginning of the tennis boom. Everybody wanted to go to tennis camp and I was teaching adults in junior camps since the first day out of high school in 1977. After I graduated from the University of Wisconsin, my first job out of college was teaching tennis in Puerto Rico at Palms del Mar and not in journalism (his college career path). When I got my first check I said "I think I'll stick to this tennis stuff."
Q: Describe the tennis boom that coincided with your career beginning.
A: Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs really put tennis on the map. It had been a niche sport. Also, Howard Head invented the Prince racquet, a big 110-square-inch racquet versus the old wood racquet, which opened it up to a lot of people. And, like almost all sports, it's multiplied because of television and money. But tennis was the in-thing to do in the late 1970s and early '80s.
Q: It seems to remain a thriving sport favored by people living on Gasparilla Island. Is it?
A: Yes. The players have aged since I started but the cool part of it is it's a sport of a lifetime. People who were playing 13 years ago when I started here are still playing. People thrive by staying in shape longer and remaining active.
Q: Doesn't tennis become much more difficult to play as you age? It seems a young person's sport.
A: Even as they age, people stay involved in tennis even though they don't move a well. They still love it. Dick Campbell is in his 80s and he picked up tennis when he retired. He's been playing 16 or 17 years and he still runs balls down and plays five or six times a week. He's our No. 1 member as far as using the courts.
Q: Why have you stepped away from competing in the Pro Series?
A: It's a little bit because I have to organize it but mostly because I want to save my shoulders, which are a little sore. I would just as soon pound balls with my members as opposed to pounding balls with the visiting pros.
Q: Aren't all visiting pros taking a bit of a risk competing in this tourney?
A: All the pros are taking somewhat of a risk playing in this. They make a sacrifice missing some lessons when they come out to play and when they practice to get ready for it and once you get in the heat of battle you'll go chasing a ball down you shouldn't be chasing down. Next thing you know, it's ooh, I felt my hamstring on this one.
Q: Yet, you always draw a solid competitive field. What draws them to this tourney?
A: It's definitely not for the ($1,000 champion prize) if you're lucky enough to win it. It's the crowds. They are very good. Even on a crummy weather day we'll get 75 people in the early week and by then end of the tourney we're getting upward of 250 people. And the crowds are very appreciative. They love watching us play and we love playing. It's fun to show off a little bit, get somebody clapping and going crazy for you.