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‘King of Hill’ tourney still reigns supreme for local tennis pros

STORY BY RAY MCNULTY (Week of January 4, 2024)
Photo: Sea Oaks Tennis Director Joe Biedenharn.

Sea Oaks Tennis Director Joe Biedenharn turns 59 next month, but he simply could not refuse the invitation to join more than two dozen area teaching pros and top amateurs in another King of the Hill tournament, the annual fundraising event for the local Youth Guidance Mentoring Academy.

The reason?

The man doing the asking.

“To be honest, I never though I’d still be playing the King of the Hill,” Biedenharn said of the wildly popular event, which is scheduled to start next week and serve up six consecutive Thursday nights of on-court entertainment, from Jan. 11 through Feb. 15, at The Boulevard Tennis Club.

“But you can’t say no to Gigi.”

Biedenharn, who started teaching tennis in the Vero Beach area in the late 1990s, was referring to the tournament’s founder and organizer, Gigi Casapu, a former local pro who now oversees the operations at Cascades in St. Lucie West.

Casapu began inviting him to compete in the event in 1997, and Biedenharn has always answered the call.

“I’ve played in all of them, except the very first one in ’96,” Biedenharn said. “Thank goodness Gigi has been adding senior divisions.”

Through the years, as the event’s popularity grew and local pros aged, Casapu expanded the event, which began with only an Open Division, to include 40-and-over and, later, 50-and-over divisions.

Biedenharn again will compete in the 50-and-over division, which Casapu said has been scheduled for Feb. 1 and reduced to a one-night, four-man exhibition – because several expected participants were unable to commit.

“Some of the guys can’t play because of injury, or a schedule conflict, or they’re recovering from surgery,” Casapu said. “But we’ll still have a strong group.”

Scheduled to join Biedenharn on the court are: Longtime Vero Beach resident Mikael Pernfors, a 1986 French Open finalist and former world top-10 player, along with area tennis directors Aldo Burga (The Legacy Golf & Tennis Club in Port St. Lucie) and Mario Cobo (Mariner Sands Country Club in Stuart).

Emile de Cuba, tennis director at Ocean Village for the past 38 years, is the lone local pro to play in every King of the Hill tournament. But, at age 65, he’s sitting out this year’s event.

“Unless we need him to fill in as an alternate,” Casapu said.

Could something similar be on the horizon for Biedenharn?

Not yet, apparently.

“I could see it coming, eventually,” Biedenharn said. “Sooner or later, everybody stops getting invited to play. The number of exhibitions I play now has been reduced some.

“But this is a fun event, it’s for a great cause, and the community continues to come out to support it,” he added. “It’s such a festive atmosphere, I don’t know what’s more fun for me – playing or watching the other guys.

“So I’ll keep saying yes to Gigi until things start going horribly wrong.”

Thus far, only one pro has withdrawn from the Open Division – Tyler Rios of Magnolia Lakes in St. Lucie West – because he has a scheduling conflict. He will be replaced by Orchid Island pro Erik Turnquist, who also is playing in the 40s draw and will pull double duty.

The Open Division begins play at 6 p.m. next Thursday with the following foursomes:

• GROUP MARDY FISH: Robert Kowalczyk (amateur); Christian Docter (Sea Oaks); Tyler Marengo (Quail Valley); and Andrew Mignolet (Vero Club Tennis/Twin Oaks).

• GROUP ANDY RODDICK: Joseph Van Deinse (Vero Beach Tennis Club); Kainoa Rosa (Orchid Island); Ching Wang (Windsor); and Jimmy Dunseith (Willoughby/Stuart).

• GROUP RAFA NADAL: James Van Deinse (Vero Beach Tennis Club); Anton Loef (John’s Island); Luca Cirenza (The Moorings); and Mason Cisco (amateur).

• GROUP ANDY MURRAY: Erick Turnquist (Orchid Island); Yohann Prinsen (Vero Club Tennis/Twin Oaks); Bernardo Feitosa (amateur); and Stefan Hartman (amateur).

The Open Division’s semifinals are scheduled for Jan. 25, with the finals set for Feb. 15. The winner and runner-up will receive a wild card entry into the main doubles draw of the Mardy Fish Children’s Foundation Championships in the spring.

The semifinals of the 40s Division are scheduled for Jan. 18 with these foursomes:

• GROUP ANDRE AGASSI: Lennart Jonason (John’s Island); Erik Turnquist (Orchid Island); Razvan Ilie (amateur); and Nathan Dickens (amateur).

• GROUP PETE SAMPRAS: Billy Almeyda (Sea Oaks); Cullen DeWindt (Piper’s Landing/Stuart); Martin Illuzi (Legacy/Stuart); and Michael Phelipa (Suntree/Melbourne).

The 40s Division finals are scheduled for Feb. 8.

General admission for all sessions is $10 per person. Children are admitted free.

Since he launched the King of the Hill in 1996 at the former Timber Ridge Tennis Ranch – now known as the Vero Beach Tennis Club – Casapu said the tournament has donated $670,000 to Youth Guidance. The event raised $63,000 last year, he added.

Casapu said he didn’t know how much longer he would organize the tournament, but he hopes to get to at least its 30th anniversary.

“I tell the players I’ll keep going as long as I can, because that’s how I feel right now,” he added. “We’ll see how I feel after next year.”