How the Best Tennis Resort Came About

Tom Gorman (left) with Kiawah Island Golf Resort Director of Tennis Emeritus Roy Barth.

This is a story about how the world’s best tennis resort came about. “The best,” you ask. Well, don’t just take our word for it. For 12 out of the last 14 years, the world’s leading authority on tennis resort, TennisResortsOnline, has ranked Kiawah Island Golf Resort number one in the world (the award took a hiatus in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic).

After a tennis match in Indianapolis in early 1976, Roy Barth had lunch with Tom Gorman. During lunch Barth confided to Gorman that he was looking to get off if the tour as he and his wife had just welcomed their first child into the world.  Barth and Gorman’s friendship deepened six years earlier when they formed a doubles team in Philadelphia in 1970 at the spectrum and culminated late that year in a match in Berkley, California against Stan Smith and Bob Lutz, although the two first met in Southern California when Barth was 12 and Gorman was 13. “We were a close-knit bunch back then,” Barth says. Gorman adds, “Tour players didn’t have entourages like they do now — we all travelled solo, so we spent a lot of time together and really got to know each other.”

Fast forward a week. Gorman was playing in an event and afterwards had a chat with Roscoe Tanner, who just offhandedly mentioned, “Do you know any of the guys who might be looking to get off tour?” He proceeded to tell Gorman about this new resort being carved out of the wilderness of a barrier island on the South Carolina coast and how it needed someone to help establish the tennis program there. Gorman replied, “Well, as a matter of fact I know just the person.”

In addition to knowing tennis and being a consummate player, Barth had another key trait Gorman was very aware of that he was convinced would translate into creating, building and maintaining a resort tennis program from scratch. “Roy was the steadiest of all of us in doubles — Mr. Steady,” Gorman recalls. “I could flare off a little bit, so it was a nice combination. Roy had to be able to handle that emotion, which he could.” Gorman noted that at times when he’d get overexcited during a match Barth had a natural talent for settling him down and getting his mind back in the game. Gorman, prone to be a risk-taker, would take a shot and Barth would ask, “What was that? How were you thinking you were going to make that shot?” But Gorman is quick to point out that Barth was always very calm about it, which in turn had a very calming influence on his game.

“Kiawah Island was beyond a diamond in the rough at that time,” Gorman explains. “There was nothing here, but you could tell the place was so special, and the way the developers were going about it, it wasn’t going to be overdeveloped like so many places on the East Coast. Even today when you play here, it has such a natural feel to it.”

Once Barth had the tennis center up and running, he invited Gorman down to play in the grand opening. “It was a thrill for me to come help kick it off,” Gorman says. “You played a set against Roscoe,” Barth recalls. “At that point you had to let the club pro win,” Gorman laughs. “You let us make it close.”

“I later learned the challenges of resort tennis,” Gorman says, “because I wound up doing a couple of resort programs in California at The Ritz-Carlton and later at La Quinta Resort & Club, and I often thought about Roy and wondered, ‘I don’t know how this guys doing it, and how he’s done it for so long.'” Gorman said he started hearing all about TennisResortOnline founded by Roger Cox, so he asked somebody, ‘Well, what is it?’ ‘Oh, it’s a international rating that ranks resort tennis programs.’  ‘Oh, so where are we and who’s ranked first that we have to beat?’ ‘Well, it’s this place in South Carolina called Kiawah Island Golf Resort.’ Gorman admits that as soon as he found out it was his old friend and doubles partner Roy Barth who had built the number one program that his competitive nature kicked in. “I told my guys, ‘OK, this is who we have to beat,’ and we climbed in the rankings, and then every year I would have to call Roy and congratulate him, again, for being number one.”

Based on his experiences running resort tennis programs out West, Gorman offers a litany of what it takes to build and maintain the top-ranked tennis program: “You have to be on top of it all the time and never let up; you have to build a great staff who buys into your way of doing things so it remains consistent; and you have to have a simple program in the way that you’re teaching.” About that last point, Gorman elaborates, “You can’t make it too complicated. All your pros have to buy into it. You can’t have that new fifth guy who comes in and says to guests taking lessons, ‘Oh, no, you can’t do it like that, you gotta do this,’ and he destroys the consistency and continuity of the program.”

It is precisely that system that Roy credits for the long-term continuity and success of the program. He’s distilled this approach to the game in his Tips for Better Tennis curriculum. “I created these templates for every stroke,” Barth explains. “Each one of our pros had to become completely comfortable teaching every stroke based on these four foundation points.” He’s quick to point out it’s not about style of play. “Nadal is the the same as Sampras,” he offers as an example, “even though they’re different styles.”

After four decades as director of tennis, Barth retired in 2019 but still remains active teaching clinics at the center named in his honor. But the continuity continues as his son Jonathan succeeded him as director. While the son is putting his on mark on the tennis program, he retains those fundamentals that his father instilled, beginning a new chapter in the same successful story.