“¡Vamos! Let’s go! Yes. That’s it.” Rackets are flying, grunts are uttered, and sweat is dripping. Fluorescent green balls litter the perimeter of court two at the Emilio Sanchez Academy, located just south of Pine Ridge Road in the community known as Naples Bath and Tennis Club. At the center of the activity, directing the players and calling out commands in Spanish, Italian, and English, is a fit, 57-year-old man—the eponymous founder of the academy.
The sports world knows Emilio Sanchez best as a former professional tennis player from Spain with celebrity status. Among the many, his wins include five Grand Slam doubles titles and the men’s doubles silver medal at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea. Today, however, the king of the court is known simply as Coach Emilio, and he is doing what he loves best: training kids to excel at life through the sport of tennis.
Sanchez first started playing tennis when he was 8 years old at the country club where his family belonged. It wasn’t so much that Sanchez chose tennis; it was the only sport available to play at the club at the time, because, as Sanchez recounts, “the developer had stolen the money and left the country after promising a variety of [sports] options would be available.” An athletic boy, Sanchez excelled at tennis. So did his siblings—all of whom played at the professional level at one time or another. In fact, his sister, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, at age 17 beat Steffi Graf at the 1989 French Open, setting a record as the youngest female to ever claim a French Open singles victory. (Monica Seles broke the record the following year when she won the title at age 16.)
At 19 years of age, Sanchez began playing professional tennis. During his singles career, he won 15 singles titles, playing against such tennis greats as Ivan Lendl and Boris Becker. In men’s doubles, Sanchez captured an astounding 50 men’s titles—44 with partner Sergio Casal; he also claims two Grand Slam mixed-doubles titles. He often played for Spain in international team events and was a member of Spain’s Davis Cup team from the mid ’80s to mid ’90s. He retired from professional play at the age of 33 but found an innovative way to stay involved in the game while helping and mentoring others.
Sanchez, alongside his longtime doubles partner, Casal, opened the first Sanchez-Casal Tennis Academy in Barcelona, Spain, in 1998. Their model, primarily targeting secondary students, astutely fused both tennis and academics. It was through Sanchez’s sister’s affiliation with Pepperdine University that he was first exposed to the concept that schooling and sports could be combined. “It was not done in Europe,” he explains, “you choose either one or the other.”
As a tennis superstar, Sanchez was a wanted man. His talents were tapped to captain the Spanish Davis Cup team. He did this for three years, resigning after Spain’s victory in 2008; in 2009 the Brazilian tennis confederation chose him to coordinate the sport of tennis in Brazil. He was frequently in the spotlight and consequently often found himself traveling and working long hours.
“I was on a roller coaster in Spain,” he says. In 1999, he married Simona Bronzetti from Palermo, Italy, and he recalls hardly ever seeing his young family—together they have four children: Victoria, Emilio, Valentina, and Simon. What he really wanted to do was share with others what he had learned from playing tennis, saying he “felt compelled to help others.”
In 2006, the former doubles partners were courted by a group of American investors attempting to open a tennis academy at the Naples Bath and Tennis Club. In 2007, the Sanchez/Casal team visited Naples and liked what they saw. Ultimately, the investors parted ways with the project, but Sanchez and Casal remained interested in opening an academy in Southwest Florida, and in 2012, they received the necessary financing to do so. There are currently five academies operating worldwide though Casal recently retired and resigned his name from use.
The Sanchez family of six uprooted from their home in Spain and began new lives in America. “I’m so thankful to this country,” he says, “especially for the ability to grow my business as I envisioned it and to practice what I love to do.” Presently Sanchez is awaiting an interview to obtain his American citizenship. His children will likely follow in this path, as daughter Victoria is attending the University of Tampa and son Emilio will begin his postsecondary studies at the University of Central Florida in the fall of 2022. Both are playing tennis for their respective colleges while they study.
Firm in his belief that children shouldn’t have to make the choice between sports and schoolwork, Sanchez oversees all facets of the academy’s operations. He boasts that the school—he refers to it as a “boutique school”—offers a rigorous academic program for students aged 12 through 18, noting that 19 advanced placement (AP) classes are now offered. Of the 2022 graduating class, he comments that nine of the 10 graduates were accepted to play various levels of tennis at postsecondary education facilities spanning the country.
Sanchez is a big believer in what tennis teaches—students learn to be “more resilient, more adaptive, more disciplined, and ready for what happens in life.” Sanchez has mastered utilizing the sport of tennis as the framework to train for everyday trials and tribulations. As tennis is a sport that requires incredible physicality, Sanchez promotes training each day. “Without the training you can’t succeed,” he says, pointing out that “Rafael Nadal trains 90 percent of the time and plays in tournaments only 10 percent of the time.”
As a coach, Sanchez emphasizes the importance of taking care of the whole body by adhering to the right diet, getting enough sleep, and taking restorative breaks, as well as receiving positive mental coaching. Sanchez pushes his students to use 100 percent of their energy for the game, declaring “you play better life with good training.”
Ultimately the pathway to playing professional tennis is tough. Sanchez explains that there are thousands of players fighting for a few top spots every year. If we can’t all be pros, then as Sanchez has discovered, we are best served using tennis as the framework to train children for a life well-lived.
Living the Dream
Meet alumnus Pietro Perego, from Milan, Italy. A 2020 graduate of the Naples-based Emilio Sanchez Academy, he now plays Division I tennis for the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas, where he studies sports management and kinesiology.
There were six students in his graduating class; a total of 42 students attended the academy that year. He says he became very close with his classmates, who came from as far away as Norway and the United Kingdom. They lived together, ate together, and played together.
Perego first learned about the academy while watching his brother Giulio compete at a tournament held at the Sanchez-Casal Tennis Academy in Barcelona, Spain. Ultimately Perego wanted to play an NCAA Division I sport while also studying for a future career. Tennis provided the perfect alley. “This was not something I could do in my country,” he says. But he could while enrolled at the Sanchez Academy in Florida.
“The U.S. is a crazy land full of tennis courts. It’s a dream life for an athlete,” he adds. About his experience at the academy, Perego gives it a 10 out of 10. “I’m very hard-headed,” he says. “Emilio was a good fit for me as he has lots of patience.”