Bardmoor tennis suffered a temporary setback, but did not die with the swift exit of Billy Stearns, the well-known tennis instructor who left in October after a contract dispute.
Maria Cercone, a noted instructor in her own right, will fill Stearns' shoes at Bardmoor. She started a new program last week in the development near Starkey and Bryan Dairy roads after the complex went four months without an instructor or formal program.
Cercone says she is not worried about upholding Bardmoor's legacy as a tennis mecca, bolstered by big-name teachers such as Stearns and Harry Hopman before him.
"We have a pretty good track record," Cercone said of her instruction program, which she teaches along eight professionals. Of the Bardmoor-Cercone partnership, she said, "We make a good match."
Cheryl Summerson, marketing manager for Bardmoor/Bayou Club Ltd., said Cercone was a clear choice.
"When we were looking for people to come in," Summerson said, "everybody pointed in her direction."
Stearns left at the end of October after he and Bardmoor/Bayou could not agree on whether Stearns' International Tennis School should be the exclusive tennis program in Bardmoor. He set up shop at a St. Petersburg resort temporarily.
He had been at Bardmoor about 10 years with a strong following. Teens moved to the area from around the country to study under him. Several vowed to follow wherever he led.
Cercone did not make the same contract demands Stearns did, said Teri Oechsle, Bardmoor/Bayou vice president.
Cercone's program is different from Stearns' in that it is not an academy. Most of her students are local residents who enter her program at a young age and work with her through their teens, she said. Among them have been standout junior players Stephanie Nikitas, Amy Mascotti and B.J. Stearns, Billy Stearns' son. She also offers instruction to adults.
In November, Cercone was named Developmental Coach of the Year by the U.S. Tennis Association and the U.S. Olympic Committee Coaching Recognition Program. She now serves as the Florida State Juniors' Chairwoman and is head coach for U.S. Tennis Association area training centers.
The tennis program at Bardmoor shut down, for the most part, when Stearns left. In the past several days, however, almost 100 people have registered to join the tennis program, which includes instruction and recreational use. Sixteen courts will be available to Cercone. The program is part of the Bardmoor Golf & Tennis Club and can accommodate 200 members, she said.
Bardmoor/Bayou is renovating the clubhouse where Stearns' office once was. Construction is expected to be completed by November. Until then, Cercone will work out of other administrative offices in Bardmoor.