Ken Hoffman on Houston's iconic Clay Court Championship — and how he enraged tennis' most hot-headed legend
This is my favorite sports week of the year in Houston: the Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men's Clay Court Championships going on through Sunday, April 9 at River Oaks Country Club.
It’s a beautiful way to spend an afternoon, sitting in the stands of historic center court at River Oaks watching some of the greatest tennis players do what hackers like me can only dream about. At night, the court looks like something from a Norman Rockwell painting, its dusty brown surface (I don’t know why they call it red clay) in sharp contrast to the antique green seats and throwback stadium facade under a cool spring Houston sky.
Indeed, the tournament offers an entertaining mix of tradition and old world charm plus modern speed and raw power. Tickets are still available online.
This year’s field of players includes electrifying young American Frances Tiafoe who defeated Rafael Nadal enroute to the semifinals of the 2022 U.S. Open; rising star and 2023 Australian Open semifinalist Tommy Paul, the all-time service ace boomer John Isner, and an interesting blend of international clay court veterans and hard-hitting American newcomers.
Defending champion Reilly Opelka is unable to play this year because of injury.
Grand slam show
This is the 111th edition of the clay court championship held along the way in several different U.S. cities. The event moved to Houston in 2001, first to Westside Tennis Club and finally to River Oaks Country Club in 2008.
Champions who’ve lifted the U.S. Men’s Clay Court trophy include Hall of Fame legends like Big Bill Tilden, Bobby Riggs (yes, he was a legit incredible player before losing his match and dignity to Billie Jean King in the Battle of the Sexes), Pancho Gonzalez, Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi, and Andy Roddick.
Odd note: Ryan Sweeting won his only tour-level pro tournament at this event in 2011. Two years later, he married Big Bang Theory star Kaley Cuoco. Sadly, both his tennis career and marriage ended in 2015.
On a personal level, I’ve had an, let’s say, "unusual" relationship with River Oaks' center court. First, it’s been my privilege to write a story for the tournament program the past 14 years. But more fun, I’ve gotten a chance to live out a weekend public court player’s fantasies there.
One year, Dustin Brown, the German-Jamaican player with 3-foot dreads, hit a serve as hard as he could (at least he said so) at me and I actually got a racket on it. I fouled it into the stands, but, let the record show: he didn’t ace me.
Feeling rather full of myself, the tournament organizer got Australian tennis star Sam Groth to crank up his serve at me the following year. He holds the pro mark for fastest serve ever: 163 mph at a tournament in South Korea in 2012.
They turned on the radar gun at River Oaks. Bam! I didn’t see the ball, but I sure heard it. It sounded like a gun going off when the ball smacked the wall behind me.
I checked the sign indicating the speed of his serve: 145 mph, which at the time would have been the fifth-fastest serve ever hit.
Another time, ambidextrous Luke Jensen hit blasted four straight aces at me, two righty and two lefty. He told me not to feel so bad, he had done that to professional players.
Talk about a fan’s dream, I took River Oaks center court for an entire set against my favorite player ever (at least then), the legendary, ice-in-his veins, 5-time Wimbledon champion Bjorn Borg. It was a weekday morning, the place was empty except for my friend Reg “Third Degree” Burns who took photos of the match. I won the first point.
Borg won the next 24 points and I nearly collapsed from exhaustion trying to return his loopy topspin shots to my backhand. I thoroughly enjoyed every point I lost.
Meeting Johnny Mac
But the topper was when River Oaks invited Hall of Fame legend turned announcer John McEnroe and Mardy Fish to play an exhibition match during the invitational tournament it hosted before landing the U.S. Men’s Clay Court event.
What happened that year was so bizarre, even I can’t believe it happened, and it happened to me.
After Fish beat McEnroe in their one-set duel, they had a special doubles match. The pairing was McEnroe and the River Oaks club champion vs. Fish and me.
I’m going to play tennis with John McEnroe!? I love John McEnroe!
Two days before our match, I did a phone interview with McEnroe to hype his appearance at River Oaks. He was as nice and pleasant as could be. He even told me to take as much time as I wanted since he was driving one of his kids to school. McEnroe was his usual funny, insightful self.
Right before our match at River Oaks, in front of a couple thousand fans, someone had the brilliant idea to put a microphone on me, with the transmitter in my right front pocket. I was told, during the match, start making jokes at McEnroe’s expense, get him angry so he responds to me and loses his temper. The fans will think it's funny.
I told the person, but I don’t wanna be a pirate! I’m not doing that. Have you lost your mind? McEnroe already was in a foul mood from losing to Fish. He didn't need any riling up.
Game. Set. John McEnroe.
I didn’t say a peep. Anyway, first point, McEnroe served to me and I hit a lucky winner. I've got to stop winning the first point against my heroes.
Fish told me to play close to the net. I said no, he said yes, so there I was on top of the net. McEnroe served to Fish, Fish returned it cross court …
And McEnroe cracked a forehand that hit me so hard that it broke the plastic case of the transmitter in my pocket. He did it on purpose.
A few inches to the left and I would have woke up in the Ben Taub Hospital urology wing. I swear, I was shaking with fear after McEnroe hit me. McEnroe just turned and went back to serve the next point.
After our set, I gave McEnroe my copy of his autobiography and asked him to sign it. It’s one of my favorite sports books. As he was scribbling his name, I told him, “You know, I’m not a professional tennis player, right? I’m just a newspaper guy. Why did you hit me?”
McEnroe never looked up from autographing my book. “I’ve been in therapy for 35 years. I couldn’t let you get away with winning that point.”
That’s when John McEnroe replaced Bjorn Borg as my favorite player ever.