Florida has always been a hotbed for tennis phenoms, and the bay area has churned out its fair share of professionals over the years. The local high school tennis season begins this week and, more than ever, the chances of the next Jim Courier or Jennifer Capriati emerging from the current crop of players are rising. Take a look at the standouts who promise to make headlines during the next couple of months and beyond.
BARONS' LAST STAND: The St. Petersburg Catholic girls team enters the season as the top contender for the county's first team title since 2002 (Countryside girls).
The Barons, who finished fourth, fourth and third the past three seasons at state, return all five of their top singles players, including sophomore Julia Jones, ranked No. 15 nationally and No. 7 in Florida in the 18-year-old and under division. Jones will challenge for player of the year honors. Nos. 2-5 for the Barons — Alyssa Bellini, Jerica Coley, Danielle Nickerson and Molly Smith — are seniors with loads of experience, having participated in three straight state finals.
"This is kind of the end of our four-year run here," SPC coach Brett Hayman said. "If we're going to win a state championship, this is the year we need to do it. We've never had a stronger team."
One plus for the Barons: they move down a classification into A this season and avoid two-time 2A state title winner American Heritage Plantation, although another American Heritage, this one from Delray Beach, returns to A as defending champion.
DEFT DEVILS: The area boys field isn't as deep as its female counterpart, but one squad that isn't hurting is St. Petersburg, which returns all of its starters from a team that won districts last season and has 10 players in the mix for court time, according to first-year coach Todd St. Louis.
The Green Devils' success won't be fleeting, either. Only No. 2 singles player Philip Novikov is a senior.
Junior Ed Corty lost in the district final to Alonso's Tyler Snook a year ago and entering this season is the front-runner for the district title in 4A-6.
"He'll challenge this year," St. Louis said. "I think Ed has put in his time."
Rob Perry, a junior, is back at No. 3 singles and Robert Dvorak, brother of former Times players of the year Lindsay and Emily Dvorak, moves up to the No. 4 spot.
NEWCOMER ON THE SCENE: Northeast girls sophomore Danielle Collins will play high school tennis for the first time this season and will immediately become a factor in the race for an individual state title. Collins is the top-ranked 18-and-under player in Florida. She's No. 4 in the nation.
"She's a wonderful young lady, and she's so driven," Northeast coach Bill Amuso said. "She's really become a teacher on the court for us."
Collins will look to become the county's first individual state champion since Countryside's Jennifer Dent captured the 3A title in 2002.
THE RICH GET RICHER: The Seminole girls team was a state finalist last season but should be drastically improved with the addition of freshmen Julia Sikorski and Cailyn Madsen.
Sikorski takes over the No. 1 spot from holdover Amy Lowther, herself a freshman sensation a year ago, and Madsen is in the mix for one of the top two spots.
"We have a doubles team that could be in contention at states," coach Craig Corry said.
Tara Lynn Carey and Erica Scaglione give Seminole great depth at the 4 and 5 singles positions.
Lowther, one of three best players in the county last season, is recovering from a broken foot suffered a month ago. Corry doesn't know if she'll be available for the season opener today against Tarpon Springs. There's a possibility Lowther, a sophomore, might not play at all this year depending on the results of a doctor's examination this week.