One of my favorite weeks in Houston is around the corner: The Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship at River Oaks Country Club. Play starts Saturday, April 6, with the championship match set for April 14.
Steve Johnson is the two-time defending champion and top seed, hoping to become the first three-peater since Bobby Riggs accomplished the feat from 1936 to 1938. Other stars prepared to knock off Johnson include Americans Sam Querrey, Taylor Fritz, Reilly Opelka, and Tennys Sandgren.
International players include Jeremy Chardy from France; Pablo Cuevas from Uruguay; Cameron Norrie from Great Britain; Jordan Thompson from Australia; Janko Tipsarevic from Serbia; and the all-time leader in service aces, Ivo Karlevic from Croatia.
This tournament, and this city, hold a special place in tennis history. Players love starting tennis’ clay court season in Houston because of the stature of the event, the relaxed atmosphere and hospitality of the River Oaks crowd and competitive field it draws. Of course, the prize money of $583,585 has a certain appeal. These are not amateur players, after all.
“As much as anything, it's the sense of tradition and community that make this event unique. This is our 85th year, and so many of our patrons have had their tickets in their family for decades. Take that and add playing in a historic stadium during the peak of springtime in Houston, and it's really a perfect atmosphere to watch world class tennis,” says tournament director Bronwyn Greer.
“For the players, we offer a very relaxed week,” Greer adds. Many stay in private housing very near the club, so the opportunity to get out of the hotel room grind is very welcome. Many play here year after year, and they get to know our fans. They love this atmosphere, and it's a great transition week to get onto clay after the hard-court season.”
River Oaks has hosted a tennis tournament since 1931. Ellsworth Vines, America’s No. 1 player at the time, won the inaugural River Oaks Invitational. And the top players kept on coming: Jack Kramer, Rod Laver, John Newcombe, Ivan Lendl, and Guillermo Vilas all held the championship trophy.
One match really propelled this event into tennis prominence: the 1974 final between 34-year-old Rod Laver, considered by some the greatest player ever, against 17-year-old sensation Bjorn Borg. The match was broadcast on national TV, with the master Laver winning in straight sets, 7-6, 6-2. Laver called the River Oaks Invitational "the best tournament in the world next to Wimbledon.”
Stars on clay
In 2008, River Oaks welcomed the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship, which began in 1910. It’s the oldest tennis tournament in the U.S. and the only ATP tour level event played on clay. The roster of winners reads like a Hall of Fame: Big Bill Tilden, Pancho Gonzalez, Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt, and many more.
Chuck McKinley won the Clay Courts in 1963, the same year he captured the Wimbledon singles title as a senior at Trinity University in San Antonio. Ryan Sweeting won the Clay Court title in 2011, only two years before marrying Big Bang Theory star Kaley Cuoco.
The importance and legend of the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship and River Oaks are highlights in Ken McAllister’s new book, Cattle to Courts: a History of Tennis in Texas. I read this book cover-to-cover in one blast, but I’m a tennis head. It’s as much a good read as an encyclopedia of Texas’ role in the growth of the sport, and how the 1970s boom started in Houston.
Billie Jean’s domination
Two events key Houston’s leading role: the birth of women’s professional tennis in 1970, and a little tennis match heard ‘round the world at the Astrodome. Billie Jean King dominated both landmarks.
King, angered by her payoff for winning a title in Rome — men’s champion Ilie Nastase made $3,500 while she pocketed only $600 — rallied top female players to demand better prize money. King and seven other players formed the Houston Original 8 and held the first Virginia Slims tournament at the Houston Racquet Club. That tourney started the Virginia Slims tour, which eventually became the worldwide and mighty Women’s Tennis Association.
Then, on September 20, 1973, a Thursday night on ABC, King faced Bobby Riggs in a $100,000, winner-take-all, best-of-five match in front of 30,000 fans at the Houston Astrodome.
This was the “Battle of the Sexes,” and more than anything else, made women’s tennis a major sport. According to McAllister, a member of the Texas Coaches Hall of Fame, after King walloped Riggs in straight sets, tennis instructors suddenly were teaching more women than men.
McAllister was a linesman at the Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs “Battle of the Sexes.” In fact, he called a foot fault on Riggs on match point. But the Astrodome crowd was so loud in anticipation of King’s victory, nobody heard him.
“Bobby had been foot-faulting all night, but I let it go. But on match point, he really stepped far over the service line and I instinctively hollered ‘foot fault!’ Nobody heard me, and he lost the point and the match,” he says.
I asked McAllister if he thought anything was fishy with Riggs that night. There have been publicized accusations that Riggs threw the match in order to pay off gambling debts.
“No, I think he just didn’t take Billie Jean seriously and didn’t train. He spent that week going to parties and doing publicity. He didn’t play well and was beaten badly,” McAllister says.
Some little-remembered tennis fun: The “Battle of the Sexes” was played in prime time on ABC. Howard Cosell was the play-by-play announcer. While Riggs did most of the publicity — and all of the partying — King was playing a Virginia Slims tournament over the Houston Racquet Club. She took a day off to play Riggs. While King whupped Riggs, she didn’t fare as well in the Virginia Slims tournament. She lost to Rosie Casals the semifinals.
For tickets, visit the Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship official site.