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The Gift of Tennis

This article originally appeared in Next Door Neighbors, December 2017 

Growing up, Mike Caboy wanted to play tennis like his grandfather. “My grandfather, on my mother’s side, was a very high-level player. He was Cuban and played in Cuba. He was my role model. I remember I wanted to play tennis like him.” At the age of five, Mike went to his grandfather and asked to learn. “Because I have cerebral palsy from birth I remember it like it was yesterday. He said, ‘Kid, you’ve got someissues. If you want to play, you better figure some stuff out.’ He took no excuses. We did it together, but he made sure I did it right. I fell in love with the game.”

Mike is the director of the McCormack- Naglesen Tennis Center. He began playing and progressed in his skills. By the age of eleven, he could out play his mother. “I didn’t have money for lessons,” he says, “so the wall was my best friend. I’d put a chalk mark on the gym wall, then tried to hit it.”

He played all throughout high school in New Jersey. “I could not beat my grandfather on the court until my senior year in high school and had earned a scholarship. He had played doubles with Poncho Segura, who was Jimmy Connors’ tennis coach. My grandfather was an extremely high-level tennis player. I would play with him as often as I could.”

His freshman year in college, Mike played tennis at Florida International University in Miami. After that, he returned to New Jersey to finish school at Montclair State University with a focus on hospitality management. He interned with Walt Disney World his junior year of college. “My plan was to be a recreation manager at a resort,” he says.

“After graduation, I applied to Walt Disney World for a management position because I had interned there. The position wasn’t available until the fall, but they mentioned they knew I had played college tennis and taught some on the side. They asked if I would help at the Contemporary Resort as the assistant tennis pro for the summer. They had started a summer tennis camp.”

After a month of working on the courts, Mike knew tennis might be a suitable career for him. He told the management team that he’d like to stay as the assistant tennis pro rather than pursuing the management position that would come available that autumn.

“After about four years, I became the head tennis pro at the Grand Floridian Resort, and then I went on to managing all tennis opera- tions at Walt Disney World.”

As business goes, Disney decided to outsource their tennis operations to a third-party vendor. They gave Mike the option of moving to that vendor to continue his position. Instead, he decided to stay with Disney. “I went through Disney’s leadership program and became the resort manager at the Grand Floridian Resort. I was in charge of guest services, bell services, concierge, all operations.”

From there, they needed his expertise for the Disney Cruise Line, where he became a task force manager. “I was in charge of the luggage system,” he describes. “On any given day, a seamless experience for the guests, from the airport to the resort to the ship and then back to the airport, we moved 10,000 pieces of luggage. That was a learning experience!”

Being at Disney for so many years, Mike developed a focus on the guest service experience. “It is amazing what they do for their guests.” He ended up at Disney’s All-Star Resort as a front desk manager. He heard about an opening for an operations manager on Hilton Head. “My wife was ready to move from Florida,” he says. Mike had worked with the woman who was the general manager at that Hilton Head property during his years at Disney. “I took that job and moved the family to Hilton Head.” The move was a good one for him and his family, but he realized he missed tennis. “I was in the tennis Mecca of the world. I knew I could find a job there in the sport.”

At a small private resort with just two courts and no tennis program, Mike found his place. “Stan Smith, former Wimbledon Champion, was one of the resident members of this club,” Mike says. “I thought we could start a tennis program there from scratch. We built four new courts and had one of the most active programs on the island. Stan Smith was very helpful. We would hold an exhibition with him every year for the membership.”

For almost 15 years, Mike built the resort’s tennis program in Hilton Head. It was 15 years of working in the sun and heat for up to seven hours a day. “That was getting tough for me as I got older,” he admits. “I knew I couldn’t do it forever and wanted something to get me out of the sun and heat all day long.” The resort began to go through some organizational changes. Mike went to help at Stan Smith’s Elite Academy, teaching and learning.

He heard a head pro position was available at William & Mary’s McCormack-Nagelsen Tennis Center. He applied and interviewed. “I was offered the position as the head professional and facilities manager,” he says. “Tom Hawkins (former director) was planning to retire. His house sold and he retired earlier than anticipated. I took over as interim director. W&M moved me to the position of director a few months later. I took all I learned from Disney in terms of guest services, what I learned from Stan Smith in terms of teaching, and everything I learned growing up, and incorporated that with the wonderful team here.”

For the past year and a half, Mike has enjoyed seeing the community gather at the tennis center. “We have a thriving junior program – close to 70 kids on a regular basis. We hold 25 USTA (United States Tennis Association) sanctioned tournaments for the juniors.”

He and the staff have tweaked the membership structure for the community to four basic levels: junior, single, family or Tribe. “We took a large gamble to reduce the fees to draw more of the community to the McCormack- Nagelsen Tennis Center and its programs.” The gamble is paying off in the number of players on the courts for lessons (junior and adult), leagues and special events.

“The W&M Tennis teams practice year round. Their actual tennis season is in the spring for both men and women. They practice outside through their December break. When they come back, they’ll practice in here. We share the building. They are the reason this building is in existence. I have a very good relationship with both coaches. Several of the team members work with us when they have the time.”

The W&M teams have priority for the courts. “It works,” Mike explains, “because the teams are here at our slowest part of the day, from 2 – 5 p.m. during the winter.” He says that retirees and seniors like the 9 a.m. to noon times, the juniors like after school times, and the adults like to play after work in the eve- nings. With the six indoor courts, everyone can find time on the schedule.

A number of programs help the community, including the Women’s Charity Tennis Classic each September that raises funds for such charities as Avalon, CASA and Latisha’s House, and the Men’s Charity Tennis Tournament in October that raises funds for Hospice House and Support Care of Williamsburg.

“One of my pros heard of a program called ACEing Autism,” Mike explains. “There wasn’t a facility in the state that offered it. There are several around the country but none in Virginia. We are the first here. We just completed our second series of the six-week program. Those kids are so appreciative of this. It’s my favorite hour of the week.”

Even with Kingsmill, Ford’s Colony, Two Rivers Country Club and others having their own tennis clubs, the McCormack-Nagelsen Tennis Center continues to add members. One reason is it is the only indoor facility in the area. “Many people will join our facility as well as their own club to have year-round play especially since we adjusted the membership fee. A family membership is just over $800 for a year. We want to make it reachable for the community.”

Tennis has made a difference in Mike Caboy’s life, from his first lessons with his grandfather to his management and coaching at the McCormack-Nagelsen Tennis Center. “I can’t overemphasize how much this silly game has given to a kid who had cerebral palsy since birth. I’ve been able to do some amazing things and meet some amazing people because of tennis.”