Santorum earns ITF Service to the Game Award

Dennis Van der Meer tried more than 20 candidates before settling on Dan Santorum as president of Professional Tennis Registry.

And Santorum wasn't necessarily his next choice for the global organization based on Hilton Head Island. He was simply in the right place at the right time.

But 25 years later, Santorum is still PTR's CEO. And he has clearly made a name for himself -- a month ago, the International Tennis Federation presented Santorum with the ITF Service to the Game Award.

Santorum, 51, is just the 31st American to win the award since 1971 -- though he joined Van der Meer, Hall of Fame player Stan Smith and former USTA President Judy Levering as the fourth resident from Hilton Head Island to win it. Of those 31, Santorum is just the third to win it for his impact in coaching.

Originally from Pennsylvania, he has traveled more than three million miles across the world to conduct coaching workshops. Today, he remains the only man ever to conduct workshops in all 50 states. He has also visited nearly 60 countries.

Between stops, The Island Packet/Beaufort Gazette sat down with Santorum to discuss the award and his service to the game of tennis.

Question: It seems you have earned this award in large part because of your travels. What can you tell us about the workshops you conduct?

Answer: They are for tennis professionals and coaches. Basically, it's to train tennis teachers who provide professional development for kids, adults, high performance athletes. ... I learned from the greatest tennis teacher ever, Dennis Van der Meer. I said I was going to work for him for two years, but here I am.

Q: Any favorite places stand out?

A: If someone said you had to leave the United States tomorrow, I'd tell you to go to Australia. You're not going to find a better place. If you asked me what's the most beautiful, though, this is the most beautiful place in the world. Hilton Head Island is the greatest place to live. It's true. The greatest feeling during a trip is crossing that bridge on your way home.

Q: When you consider the work you have done to earn the ITF award, what stands out most to you?

A: A couple of things. One thing I started in 1990 was the ACE program (Advancement of Commitment to Education), which is a program geared toward educating coaches of color in this country. And it's made a difference. There's a lot more diversity in the coaching ranks.

And then another program that started about 10 years ago was PTR on Campus. One of the problems we're seeing is the first generation of tennis professionals are in their 60s and 70s, and there really isn't a generation to fill in. So the program is a cost-efficient way to learn how to teach tennis and become certified. We go to college campuses all over the country and offer this program to get younger people interested in becoming tennis teachers.

Q: Are there any projects you're working on now?

A: For seven years, I have been trying to get tennis courts at Hilton Head Prep. It means a lot to me to be able to travel the country and get out to where the people are and try to educate them, but nothing means more than the stuff you do in your own backyard. It's been a long, grueling task trying to make that happen at Prep. I feel like we're almost there, but there are some obstacles that stand in the way. I hope to get something done.

Q: I know you follow the pro game a lot. What are your thoughts on the developing rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal?

A: They are two totally different players. Roger Federer is the quintessential tennis player. He does everything very well and extraordinary. It's effortless. He's very graceful. Nadal is more of a grinder. He has to work for every point. He's never going to last as long as Federer. It's a tough grind. As far as an effort standpoint, I don't know if you can say there's ever been anyone better than Nadal.

Q: Are you concerned about the lack of American men in professional tennis?

A: It's a sad thing. When you figure our last grand slam champion for the men was Andy Roddick in 2003, this is the longest drought we've ever had. This is a game where you really must dedicate yourself, and that's why you see some European countries dominating. It's their way out for some of them. I've been to the courts where Maria Sharapova grew up. You won't find a court as bad as that on this island. It's almost like playing on glass. Tennis was her way out. It's a different mindset when you look at it like that.

Q: What can this country do to change that?

A: Well, the other problem is we're not attracting the best athletes to tennis. I think that's going to change with the new QuickStart program for kids (that features) smaller courts, softer tennis balls. This is something we should've been doing this 20 years ago. We're behind all the other sports in that regard. So I think once we get this program expanded, you will start to see us catch up.