By Katie Fallon
katiefallon@reporternewspapers.net

The city will soon play host to many young phenoms of the tennis world for the inaugural Sandy Springs Junior International Tennis Invitational (JITI) thanks mostly to the efforts of Ivo Barbic, tennis director of the Sandy Springs Tennis Center, city of Sandy Springs.

Barbic, 66, has been at the helm of the tennis center, formerly the North Fulton Tennis Center, since he took over management of the facility in 1990. The facility came under the city’s ownership after it incorporated two years ago.

Over the years, the facility had played host to hundreds of local tournaments, but in 2008, it will host its first ever international tournament, the JITI.

For the JITI, which will be held from Oct. 19 to 25, the city will host boys and girls ages 14 and younger from the United States, France, England, Canada, Mexico and Israel. Proceeds from the tournament will benefit Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

Barbic said the event was born from a brainstorm of ways to get the Sandy Springs community better known.

“[The mayor] asked me what we could get here to put Sandy Springs on the map,” he said.

“I said let’s get the junior tournament for kids 14 and under. Why 14? Because 14 is the age when kids are going to turn pro and make a decision.”

In the coming years, Barbic said he hopes to add more nations annually and eventually have 40 different countries participating in the tournament.

The JITI, however, will join a fair amount of tournaments that are already held at the tennis center on an annual basis.

Each year, the facility hosts approximately 15 junior tournaments, with various Atlanta League Tennis Association (ALTA) leagues also renting courts for their own competitions.

Even making the arrangements for the JITI, Barbic said, was not easy because tournaments are normally held on weekends at a time when courts are already booked by area tennis leagues.

Though Barbic sought the international tournament to help put Sandy Springs on the map, he said his main focus remains operating the center as a public facility.

“That has to always be in the mind of the director,” Barbic said. “Anybody who comes through the door, we’ll satisfy their needs.

Another aspect of maintaining a public facility, Barbic said, is continuing the quality of services.

“We try to get the best pros, the best teachers, the best services, the best court … the best we can,” he said.

So far, what the tennis center offers is a 15-acre facility that includes 20 hard courts and four clay courts, although the clay courts have been closed due to the Level 4 drought.

Because of its location near major highways and thoroughfares, most of the center’s patrons come from Cobb County, Dunwoody, Roswell, Alpharetta, Sandy Springs and Buckhead.

Barbic said the benefits of the facility go beyond just the convenient location.

“The highlight is more or less the general academy and the league,” he said. “Both of them. This is what people come here for. The kids, they come here for the academy and the school. The adults come for their league play.”

Barbic’s personality alone is also a big draw for the tennis center. Barbic emigrated from southern France in 1970 to get his master’s degree in city planning from Georgia Tech. Though he has a distinctly non-Southern accent, the native Yugoslavian jokes that he tells people he’s a “Buckheadian.”

Regarding the change in Sandy Springs leadership from Fulton County to the 2-year-old City Council, Barbic said he much prefers the newer leadership.

“I think they are responding better,” Barbic said. “They are involved. That motivates me. The county was just collecting money and spending money.”

In preparation for next year’s international tournament, Barbic said the city has gotten behind a number of facility improvements. City staff, Barbic said, are in the process of receiving bids for landscape work and upgrades inside the clubhouse area.

“You’re going to see a lot of changes,” Barbic said.

The city has just as positive a relationship with the tennis guru.

District 4 Councilwoman Ashley Jenkins said Barbic has done a magnificent job running a top-notch tennis program out of a less-than-stellar facility.

“We are happy to be working with [Barbic] to improve the grounds and facilities so he can continue to offer the quality programs and tournaments that he brings to the city of Sandy Springs,” Jenkins said.

Barbic said he would eventually like to develop a high-performance training program to cultivate a stronger caliber of players.

In the past, he has sent promising youngsters to the acclaimed Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida.

In the future, Barbic said he’d also like to start an after-school program that would teach children to exercise and eat properly. That healthy mindset, he said, could serve children well in the future.

“You have to start early,” Barbic said. “You don’t develop a champion in eight weeks. You develop a champion in the mind. The mindset is a lifestyle.”

Center came into Barbic’s hands after he submitted a bid to Fulton County in 1990 to run the facility. Barbic has been there ever since and is responsible for running and maintaining the property. While the City of Sandy Springs owns the facility, Barbic pays for maintenance like lighting and landscaping. The city is responsible for capital improvements like upgrading the clubhouse.

“It’s like a lease agreement,” Barbic explained. “Basically, I’m the software of the deal and they’re the hardware. I bring marketing, programming, front desk services and the pro shop. All of this is under my direction…tennis academy, coaching ALTA leagues, organizing leagues…all of the know-how about tennis.”

Indeed, Barbic has the know-how about tennis. With an extensive background in tennis, he gave tennis lessons while at Georgia Tech. He spent some time in the corporate world after receiving his graduate degree, but ultimately decided to go back to the sport he loved.

“I felt that was my calling,” Barbic said. “I felt comfortable.”

Barbic’s first major tennis gig was working at the Ansley Golf Club from 1975 to 1978. When he left, he was the head pro and director of tennis and had succeeded in developing programs much like he has done in Sandy Springs.

For more information on the Sandy Springs Tennis Center, visit www.sandyspringstennis.com.