On an intensive tennis course, Minty Clinch discovers why La Manga in Spain is such a magnet for sporting legends and the people who train them
So here I am trading topspin forehands on Spanish clay. In my mind, my shots are pretty much like Andy Murray’s, bouncing off the lines at unpredictable angles to confound the opposition.
I’ve signed up for an intensive tennis week at La Manga, the grande dame of resorts offering multiple sports and luxury living in a well-gated compound. If it’s good enough for Team GB, who’ve used it as their sunshine training base for the past five years, it’s good enough for me. Since then, tennis’s perennial underachievers have moved from no hope Europe/Africa qualifying group II in 2011 to Davis Cup glory in 2015, lifting the historic trophy for the first time in 79 years.
Thank you, Andy and Jamie Murray. The competition’s quirky format allows them to win ties as a family: two singles for Andy, a joint venture for the doubles, three out of five available points, job done. South of the border contributed in earlier matches, but when it came to the crunch, Scotland’s most famous sporting siblings ruled.
It helped that the architect of this unexpected global supremacy is compatriot Leon Smith, born in Glasgow. Following his appointment in 2010 aged 34, he picked La Manga on Alicante’s Costa Blanca as his team’s home from home. On their first visit, top Brits ran into Belgium’s fellow tennis travellers, David Goffin and Steve Darcis: anyone who’d suggested these players would contest the Davis Cup final in Flanders Expo four years later would have been politely escorted from the premises, but what would be would be…
So it was my patriotic duty – well, I have a Scottish grandfather – to see what La Manga could do for a keen recreational player like me. A 04:30 rendezvous at Gatwick and a copious Spanish lunch are not the best preparations for a two-hour evening workout, but shirking was not an option. James Rose, La Manga’s English-born tennis supremo, greeted our disparate group with infectious enthusiasm and set about telling us how it’s done.
Unfortunately the key ingredient is movement, primarily being in balance at all times. Little steps, little bounces, rapid change of direction, then back to the middle prepared for the sprint towards the next ball. As James moved inexorably through the gears, his weary students flagged. By the time we’d collapsed in the bar in the Principe Felipe, it was gin and tonics all round: fortunately the Spanish pour them big.
As with tennis, so with golf. La Manga is well known for its celebrity players who buy their own villas so they’re guaranteed tee times. Are they attracted by the ghost of Seve Ballesteros, designer of the 18-hole pitch and putt par 3 course when he was the Club’s touring professional in the early 1980s? Or the courtship of Sergio Garcia’s parents, Victor, who taught golf, and Consuelo, who worked in the pro shop, in the 1970s? Possibly, but the real hook is the smooth green turf, divided into immaculately maintained, championship-standard North, West and South. If there are glitches or dips in form, the David Leadbetter Academy is on hand to iron them out.
Just as Canadian and American golfers flock to Florida in winter, Scandinavians, Dutch and Brits home in on Mediterranean Spain. Likewise the headline names who organise charity golf tournaments: my visit coincided with Kenny Dalglish week, an annual fixture in aid of the cancer charity he founded with his wife, Marina, in 2004. His partner in golf, as in football, is Scotland manager, Gordon Strachan: as home owners, they’re frequently in residence, chatting easily to passing strangers.
In a period when nothing is too good or too expensive for the sporting elite, any self-respecting multi-purpose resort targets cash-rich clubs in northern Europe. La Manga’s pitch is that the eight Fifa-approved pitches that host Real Madrid and Barcelona can generate equal magic in Liverpool and Newcastle. Plus any British or German football manager who swaps training in a mud bath for a place in the sun can reasonably hope his players will try harder when they get home. Many rugby and cricket coaches feel the same way. Not a team player? A 1,400-acre resort with open water, rugged off-road cycling routes and plenty of space to pound the tarmac has everything a triathlete needs to win Olympic gold.
Given the current sanctity of mindfulness, that elusive combination of mental and physical well-being, it’s important that wannabes of all ages and aspirations are fit for purpose. Accordingly we attend the innovative High Performance Centre for tests that will reveal how agile we can be. Ready, steady, sprint: we blast or lumber through the electronic beam and down the runway, all 10 metres of it, the more explosive among us pulling up with difficulty; we leap upwards from a standing position, legs straight, so that jump height can be recorded. Tennis requires strong springy legs to launch serve and smash and speed off the mark to reach distant balls, so good results should be reflected by excellence on court.
Armed with our statistics, we rejoin James for the morning class, starting with warm-up exercises that segue into the next topic. Forehand, backhand, serve, volley and smash, each has a dedicated session. He feeds balls in rapid fire, keeping everyone moving, bouncing and lunging. After each 90 minutes of intensive tuition, there’s a mini contest. In our group, the winner is almost always she who jumped lowest in the tests. Be aware that tennis is a mind game.
In line with its mission to be all things to all holiday makers, La Manga’s accommodation suits all pockets. The Principe Felipe is a five-star hotel, luxurious enough to rate a royal connection: it is named for the Spanish heir apparent, now King Felipe VI, who stayed when he competed in a yacht race in 1992. For more independent spirits, the Las Lomas Village offers a selection of apartments, town houses, studios and rooms, while the Peninsular Club sells time-shares for one or more weeks a year. All Las Lomas guests have complimentary access to the Spa La Manga Club.
La Manga, Spain’s pioneering integrated resort when it was opened by American entrepreneur, Gregory Peters, in 1972, boasts freely about offering the chance to mingle with the rich and famous. The strategy is for guests to spend their money eating and drinking on site rather than squandering it off property. All the better if they find David Beckham, Robbie Williams, Matt Damon or Juliette Binoche at the next table.
The restaurants cater for the diversity, with Principe Felipe’s Amapola as the Mediterranean gourmet option. Its terrace is perfect for a long, fun lunch in the sun, especially if you eyeball anxious golfers lining up putts on the 18th green below. La Bodega is a traditional tapas bar, its décor all brick and barrel, while Asia does what it says on the tin. There is also an Irish bar – Mulligan’s, naturally.
Best of all is La Cala, an isolated lunch spot set high among rocks on the fringe of the resort. When Gregory Peters asked his wife if she’d like any add-ons, she said swimming in the sea, so he flew over his coast to pick the most attractive spot. The beach may not be Spain’s finest, but the terrace restaurant is a fish feast. Predictably Calatrava, a speciality rice dish made with sea bream and served in a sizzling iron pot, is not the foundation for success in the afternoon tennis tournament, especially for those who wash it down with lashings of rosé. Predictably the winner’s medals now hang round more abstemious necks, but that lunch was top of the world.
• La Manga (lamangaclub.com) tennis packages: Weekend Warriors (September/October 2016) from €485 (£370) per person for 3 nights B&B Principe Felipe (2 sharing) and 8 hours tennis academy (Friday, Saturday and Sunday morning); Adult Academy (September-December 2016) from €699 (£535) for 7 nights B&B Principe Felipe (2 sharing) and 10 hours tennis academy (Monday-Friday). Monarch (www.monarch.co.uk): year round flights to Alicante from Leeds Bradford, Manchester, Birmingham and London Gatwick/Luton, from £120 return