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December 20, 2005 02:10 PM

Jimmy Gantt Memorial Award  (1 of 2)

Rafael Mittag of Vero Beach
“Obstacles Are Opportunities”

As any tennis player knows, one of the keys to on-court success is adhering to the old adage “keep your eyes on the ball.” Unfortunately, that’s something Rafael Mittag has had difficulty doing ever since he suffered a freak scooter accident. While he was out tooling around on his scooter one day, Rafael had an unfortunate encounter with a fence that snapped into one of his eyes and tore the iris. Several unsuccessful surgeries later, Rafael remained blind in the damaged eye. However, that did not stop him from returning to the court despite his diminished vision and decreased depth perception. In 2005, Rafael rose to number 47 in the USTA Florida Boys’ 14 singles ranking and reached number 14 in the doubles standings. Because of the injury, it would have been easy for Rafael to throw in the towel and forego his tennis career. Instead, he chose to work even harder on and off the court to make up for lost time—and the results speak for themselves.

Jimmy Gantt Memorial Award (2 of 2)

Josh Simonetta-Lee of Cocoa Beach
“Don’t Worry, Be Happy”

Adversity is something we all have to contend with at various times in our lives. That’s certainly a lesson Josh Simonetta-Lee learned at an early age when he was struck and pinned underneath a truck in March 2005 while loading a cooler into the back of his coach’s vehicle following a high school tennis match. A two-week hospital stay revealed a diagnosis that included a fractured pelvis, a lacerated spleen, a bone chip in his spine, a gaping wound on his upper right thigh as well as ligament and cartilage damage in his left knee. With thoughts of, “Will I ever walk again?” churning in his mind, Josh bravely fought his fears by throwing himself into an intense and grueling physical therapy program. “Once he started therapy and began to get his range of motion back in his knees, I saw the determination in him,” his mother remarked. “The first day he was able to stand up on his walker and take a ride in a car, he had me drive him to the tennis courts. I wasn’t sure that was such a great idea, but he was insistent. The minute I turned my back, he was standing at the net, with his walker, racquet in hand hitting volleys with a friend. He never looked back from there.” Josh’s swift and stunning recovery was capped a few months later when he won two out of four matches in the Boys’ 18 division at the Gulfstream Designated and reached the consolation finals.

Bobby Curtis Junior Tournament of the Year

Linder Super Series
Accepting - Susie and Dave Beerman
“After All These Years”

When USTA Florida began affixing tournaments with Super Series status in 1994, the Linder Invitational was one of the first events selected for this designation, which was not a surprise given the tournament’s longstanding history of success and popularity. The tournament, which is held at the Beerman Family Tennis Center, was established in 1966 when a local businessman named Scott Linder agreed to sponsor the tournament along with the City of Lakeland. In addition to the usual amenities, competitors in the event revel in the friendship and camaraderie exhibited by the tournament staff, which coordinates a fun-filled luncheon barbecue for all the families, players and coaches. When Mr. Linder passed away in 1990, his family continued to generously support the event. In fact, his granddaughter took that dedication a step further this year by actually competing in the Linder Super Series tournament.

Junior Competitive Coach of the Year

Andy Brandi of Boca Raton
“The Consummate Coach”

Andy Brandi, who is in the process of establishing his own tennis academy, has spent the past several decades grooming a glittering array of tennis stars that includes Kathy Rinaldi, Jay Berger, Lisa Raymond, Brad Gilbert, Aaron Krickstein and Tatiana Golovin. However, Andy is perhaps best known for the amazing results he posted as head coach of the University of Florida’s women’s tennis team from 1984 through 2001. In that 17-year span, Andy guided his collective teams to four NCAA team titles, four NCAA singles championships, four NCAA doubles crowns, six ITA Team National Indoor wins and an amazing 14 SEC Championship titles. He has also earned a king’s ransom in awards that includes USPTA National Coach of the Year honors in 1988 and 1998, USPTR Coach of the Year awards in 1996 and 1998 and the USPTR Touring Coach of the Year accolade in 2004.

Albert Carrington Balink Award

Alex Clayton of Fort Lauderdale
“Can’t Stop”

2005 was definitely a year to remember for rising star Alex Clayton, who capped an amazing run of success in September by winning the U.S. Open boy’s doubles title with the world’s top-ranked junior, Donald Young. Throughout the summer, Alex posting a string of impressive results that included winning the Boys’ 18 singles title at the USTA National Clay Court Championships in July and earning the talented teen the first gold ball of his career. Alex, who is currently ranked number 11 in the nation, also advanced to the quarterfinals in both singles and doubles at the prestigious USTA National Championships in August. After his amazing U.S. Open doubles triumph, Alex received the shock of a lifetime when he got a call from tennis ace Andy Roddick telling him he was invited to serve as a hitting partner for the Davis Cup team as it prepared to travel to Belgium for its 2005 World Group Playoff. “Davis Cup is a really great experience, and it was great to hit with Andy, the Bryan brothers and James Blake,” he stated. “I see how much fun tennis is at a high level, and it makes me feel good to know that if I work hard to improve, I could have success as a tennis player, too.”

Al Mills Memorial Adult Tournament of the Year

Helen Drake Invitational
Accepting – Woody Hoblitzell
“Fun, Fun, Fun”

Although bloodthirsty competition is a hallmark at all tournaments, the organizers of the Helen Drake Invitational, which is held annually at the Tops’l Beach and Racquet Resort in Destin, strive to ensure that large doses of fun are part of the competitive mix as well. In 2005, the tournament, which is arguably the largest amateur adult tournament in Florida and the nation, featured 300 players comprising nationally ranked juniors, collegiate players, and assorted professionals. The Helen Drake Invitational is clearly held in high esteem by the participants since this is the second time in five years the event has been honored with the Al Mills Memorial Adult Tournament of the Year Award, previously winning in 2001. In fact, because the event is so player-friendly, many of the participants actually schedule their tennis vacations to coincide with the tournament.

Wheelchair Player of the Year

Fernando Dibujes of Miami
“Eye of the Tiger”

The anthem “Eye of the Tiger,” which was featured in one of the Rocky films, is an apropos way to describe Fernando Dibujes, who refuses to let adversity stop him from achieving his goals. “If there is something you want to pursue, you should go for it nonstop until you reach it,” said Fernando, who definitely practices what he preaches. Over the past eight years, Fernando has carved out a reputation as a dogged competitor who regularly mows down the competition in the Men’s Wheelchair C division. Over the past several years, Fernando has racked up a slew of impressive wins in singles and doubles, capturing dual titles at the BC Decker Canadian Open, the USTA National Wheelchair Hard Court Championships, the Florida Open, the Daytona Beach National Clay Court Championships, and numerous other events. According to Fernando, the key to his success is nothing more than good-old-fashioned hard work. “It’s been difficult having to practice and work at the same time,” he admitted. “But at that same time, my dedication and love toward the game of tennis make it all worthwhile.”

Female Player of the Year

Louise Russ of Boca Raton
“Tennis…The Sport of a Lifetime”

Louise Russ absolutely epitomizes the adage that tennis is indeed the sport of a lifetime. Since winning her first tournament at the tender age of nine nearly 70 years ago, Louise has continued her love affair with the sport. Currently ranked number one in both the national and USTA Florida 75 singles and doubles divisions, Louise won every tournament she entered in 2004. During this run, she swept the USTA Grand Slam in her age division, winning the singles and doubles titles at the USTA national championships played on hard court, grass, clay and indoor surfaces. She has also served as both player and coach on numerous winning ITF cup teams, including the Queens Cup squad and the Althea Gibson Cup team. “I’ve always loved the game,” said Louise, who has represented Florida in many triumphant intersectional events. Still, despite her overwhelming success, Louise continues to exhibit a champion’s mentality. “I believe you really have to work on your game,” she stated. “Even at 76, I’ve got a lot to learn.”

Male Player of the Year

King Van Nostrand of Vero Beach
“Don’t Let Go”

Before an injury forced him to default in the quarterfinals of the USTA Men’s 70 Grass Court Championships last September, King Van Nostrand had compiled a staggering 139-match winning streak in singles stretching back to 2002. During this amazing run, King won 17 Florida-based tournaments, nine European events, two USTA gold ball nationals and three ITF world singles and team championships. Currently ranked number one in the USTA Florida Men’s 70 category, King clearly dominated his competition prior to his September injury, surrendering two games or less in most of his matches. In fact, since becoming eligible for the 70s age category in 2004, his record in the division was a lustrous 109-0, losing only one set throughout this awesome winning streak. King, who is the holder of more than 40 USTA gold balls, has been recognized for his numerous feats by being inducted into the Eastern Tennis Association Hall of Fame, the Long Island Hall of Fame, and the International Lawn Tennis Club. In October, a fully recovered King returned to his winning ways, leading the USTA Jack Crawford Cup team to victory in Antalya, Turkey. The following week, at the ITF Super-Seniors World Individual Championships, King was victorious again, capturing his fifth world singles title.

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