What makes this San Diego tennis resort one of the best in the world

March 4, 2020, 12:30 PM UTC
Rancho Valencia’s inventory of exclusive amenities includes a spectacular tennis program.
Courtesy of Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa

Thanks to the perpetually warm and sunny weather, Southern California has been traditionally a fantastic destination for tennis. Over the years cities like San Diego, Palm Springs, and Los Angeles have hosted a number of high-profile tournaments that lure equally high-profile athletes. Similarly, many of the region’s resorts have dedicated themselves to courting enthusiasts with impressive tennis facilities, and the best of them might just be tucked away in an affluent development north of San Diego: Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa in the tony hamlet of Rancho Santa Fe.

Tennis has always been part of Rancho Valencia’s DNA: When it opened in 1989, its courts were used for the celebrity-attended John Gardiner Tennis Camps. Back then, tennis travel was a much bigger market than it is now, so having 18 on-premise courts made the resort a popular stop among jet-setters looking to enjoy court time on their vacations. But the tennis camps no longer exist, and over three decades, Rancho Valencia changed ownership and underwent modifications and refurbishments. But its commitment to tennis has never wavered.

The 18 courts are still there; none have been sacrificed for trendier amenities, as many other properties all over the world have done. “Tennis has always been considered a sport rooted in health and wellness. It is social and accessible to all ages,” says Coni Thornburg, the property’s general manager. “That is why it has helped frame the culture we have built at Rancho Valencia and has remained so popular with our guests.”

The spa and pool area.
Courtesy of Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa

This culture of tennis has only strengthened over time. Guests meander around dressed in fashionable athletic attire, whether traditional Wimbledon whites or the latest from Stella McCartney’s collaboration with Adidas. And it’s not unusual to overhear spirited conversations about Serena or Roger during breakfast or at the pool.

A stay at Rancho Valencia feels a lot like entering a tennis dreamscape. It’s a lush 45-acre retreat dotted with stunning Spanish colonial architecture, where the dulcet thwacking of ball to racket provides the soundtrack. San Diego native and two-time U.S. Open doubles champion Robin White has been its guardian as director of tennis since 2012. Taking on the role of overseeing the program here is a bit of a full-circle moment for White, who during her career reached the sport’s top 20 and battled against the likes of Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova.

“I was a member here when I was still competing on tour. I played on these courts back when the trees you see were still bushes,” White recounts. “I was watching what the then director was doing and thinking she has a pretty good gig. It was also the first time I saw a female tennis director.”

The yoga pavilion at night.
Courtesy of Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa

The bushes are now the citrus trees, olive trees, and eucalyptus trees that surround the racket-sport facilities (there are pickleball courts, too) giving the place a beautiful garden-like atmosphere. But they’re not the only things to have grown. White spearheaded the transformation of two existing hard courts into European-style red clay, which are new to this part of the United States. White says feedback from guests who travel from the East Coast, where a lot of resorts feature easier-on-the-knees green clay, inspired the decision to switch them over. She’s also expanded the size of her staff of tennis pros to ensure that under her tenure the level of excellence expected of Rancho Valencia’s tennis program continues to rise.

“Watching this place grow has been thrilling,” White adds. “Because as soon as you walk in, you know that this is a special place.”

So special that some of tennis’s best have camped up at Rancho Valencia. During the 2019 off-season, 2020 Australian Open finalist Garbiñe Muguruza and her coach, 1994 Wimbledon winner Conchita Martínez, trained at the resort; so has world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who White says was a total gentleman.

The wine room.
Courtesy of Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa

Tennis-related activities here include everything from one-on-one lessons to half-day drills for more advanced players. There’s a membership program for locals, and many use the facilities regularly, including kids hoping to take their skills to the big leagues. A few courts are even reserved on weekend mornings for a group of guys to play round robin on, and resort guests are welcome to join. The pro shop can also match those looking to get court time with other guests or members. One of the very best perks here is that there’s no added cost to use the courts or to borrow rackets and the ball machine. Many resorts charge a fee for these services, but not Rancho Valencia.

That level of thoughtful hospitality is vital to the resort’s allure. Because if it’s only about tennis, other properties might offer more playing surfaces (some even have the notoriously difficult to maintain grass courts) and a wider variety of programs. But what makes Rancho Valencia stand out is that holistically, the excellence at the tennis courts extends everywhere else on the property.

Inside one of the hacienda bedrooms.
Courtesy of Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa

The 49 beautifully rendered and spacious casitas take guests to the Mediterranean with their red-tile roofs, roaring fireplaces, and colorful landscaping. The Agave Suite, which measures 900 square feet and is priced at $699 per night, is the smallest of them, outfitted with plush Frette robes, deep-soaking tub, and an outdoor patio. The 1,300-square-foot Valencia Suite (from $1,199 per night) is more transporting still with its massive outdoor space featuring a tiled fireplace and Jacuzzi.

The dining concepts (there are three, including one in the spa) are tastefully executed with the finest ingredients, but they’re more approachable hangouts for guests and locals rather than intimidating destinations for haute cuisine. Nothing is so preventively fancy that a guest couldn’t roll in for a meal after a grueling tennis match.

Lobster tacos
Courtesy of Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa

The luxurious spa, too, is world-class, with its aqua therapy pools and high-end treatments. Like access to the tennis courts, the spa facilities—along with the 95 fitness and wellness classes scheduled throughout the week—are always available to guests. Everything in the minibar in the casitas is woven into the rate too. And other perks include Champagne at check-in, tequila tastings with the beverage director, and a fleet of Bentleys that guests can use for a drive up Highway 101.

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