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Longtime Longboat Key tennis pro heads off to another court

Dave Sparks is moving on from Longboat Key.

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  • | 10:32 a.m. February 22, 2021
Dave Sparks on his home court.
Dave Sparks on his home court.
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After more than 20 years on Longboat Key, tennis pro and teacher David Sparks is hanging up the racquet for good as he prepares to retire. 

Sparks’ story lines up neatly with the beginning of public tennis on Longboat Key. He was hired as the Longboat Key Public Tennis Center’s first pro and gave the first lesson on the center’s first day in November 1998. He was an adept teacher and the frequent emcee for events, known for offbeat phrases like “stylin’ on the island,” tennis center manager Kay Thayer said. 

“I really met a lot of people, not only my students, but just the people that came there ... I think in retrospect the Tennis Center has really brought a lot of people together into Longboat Key and brought them back to Longboat Key,” Sparks said. 

Though he’s lived on the Key for more than 40 years, the 63 year old didn’t always work on the island’s courts. He started as not only the tennis coach at Bayshore High School, but also coached football, basketball, volleyball and cross country for 15 years. 

“I am the only tennis pro still to this day that did not come from the Colony,” Sparks said. “For me being a high school teacher and coach to be offered a job … that was a huge, huge move for me.”

Not long after he came to the Tennis Center, someone from his days coaching high school showed up, too: current manager and former rival high school player Kay Thayer. Though she’d attended a different school than the one he coached, the longtime Floridians became fast friends. 

“I mean, it was easy. We just got along so well,” Thayer said. “We thought the same way … Many times, we wouldn't even have to talk and we kind knew what we were thinking. So it really made it nice when I first got here because we just were great coworkers and friends and that makes a difference.”

Alan Yaruss said he’s probably taken about a thousand lessons from Sparks over the years. He started taking lessons when the Tennis Center just had a little receiving shack where they sold grips and T-shirts. Yaruss and Sparks got to know each other in the time they spent chatting as they warmed up, and Yaruss said they’ve become dear friends. Along with that friendship has come the near-constant improvement of Yaruss’ skills, thanks to Sparks’ skilled teaching. 

“I’m 77 years old and my game is still getting better because of him and that’s a very big thing to say that at my age,” Yaruss said. “He worked miracles with people. (He) can tap into what I can do and what I can’t do and he’ll just work on things that I can do.”

In the years since his Tennis Center days ended, Sparks has been giving lessons at his neighborhood court on the north end. It’s a hidden gem that he said might be the best court on Longboat Key, tucked behind a building to block the wind and within a stand of Australian pines to block the midday sun. A lot of his Tennis Center students continued to take lessons from him up there and the class of Sparks’ alumni was sprawling. 

“When I take lessons from him on the north end someone will stop by on a bike or a car and Dave will look at them, and look at them, and look at them, and then he’ll say, ‘BARRY?’” Yaruss said. “And it would be one of his students. It happened often. People were always coming out to see him.”

As Sparks has wound down his schedule of lessons in preparation for retirement and move to Arkansas, he said it’s been hard to part ways with some of his long term students, folks he’s been hitting with for years. It’s hard to step away from, he said, but there’s a time for everything. And now, he’ll get to return to trying to beat the player opposite him, rather than trying to impart wisdom upon them. 

“As much as I've been on the court every day for the past few years, I really haven't played competitively,” Sparks said. “But I'll play a little more competitively when I do retire.”


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