SERVES UP

Clay Court Championship's return serves up memories of Texas tennis history

Tournament play starts this weekend. US Men's Clay Court Championship/Facebook

This article originally appeared on CultureMap.

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.

Houston history

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.

Continue reading on CultureMap to learn more about the "Battle of the Sexes."

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The media has mixed feelings about the James Harden trade. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

James Harden was 100-percent exactly right earlier this week when he said the Houston Rockets were "just not good enough."

How could they be? Not when their moody superstar scorer, who makes about half a million dollars per game, shows up chubby, looking like a kielbasa about to explode in the microwave. Hey, some people eat when they're unhappy, it's a defense mechanism. In Harden's case, the only defense he's exhibited this season. At least he had a good excuse for missing pre-season training camp and alienating his teammates - he was busy partying with Cinnamon and Cherish in Atlanta and Vegas without a mask. Worst of all, he went into the tank his last four games in a Rockets uniform, standing around, arms folded, scoring fewer than 20 points each time, all Rockets losses. Fans in the front row were asking him to move, he was blocking their view of players who cared about winning. James Harden sabotaged his own team, a team that offered him $50 million a year to stay. Something that crazy could only happen in professional sports these days.

There's a saying that drives the American labor movement: "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work." It's the motto of the American Federation of Labor. The National Basketball Players Association is not a member. Harden's sulking on the court, cheating the Rockets and their fans, was unforgivable.

Harden, sitting out games while somehow being on the court, forced the Rockets to trade him - and quick - to Brooklyn. The trade, when you ignore the fine print and unindicted co-conspirators Cleveland and Indiana, sent Harden to Brooklyn in exchange for Caris LeVert (immediately flipped for Victor Oladipo), Jarrett Allen, three first-round draft picks and four swapped first-rounders. It's true, when you trade a superstar, you never get back equal value. The other team wins.

If it makes Rockets fans feel any better, the media in New York already has problems with their new problem child. I should say newest problem child. Kyrie Irving plays for the Nets.

"They (the Nets) gave up everybody! There's nothing left now. I just want to cry, It's awful," weeped WFAN Radio talk host Evan Roberts. For those who don't subscribe to weekly Arbitron ratings reports, WFAN is the most powerful, top-rated sports talk station in the Apple.

"You're leading down the road of doom. Harden and Durant could be gone in a year and a half. I'm not convinced this gives them a better chance to win a title. I'm living a nightmare again. They better freaking win."

Circle March 3 on your Rockets schedule. That's when the Brooklyn Nets, with their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and possibly Kyrie Irving visit Toyota Center. I hear talk radio salivating over the record jeers that will cascade over Harden's name, although I'm not buying it. Fans don't think like the media does. I'm thinking that Rockets fans will welcome Harden back - one night only - with cheers.

Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas: "Usually when former Rockets come to town for the first time since leaving, I give them a positive introduction. It's up to the fans how to react."

James Harden spent eight seasons with the Rockets. He is a spectacular player who watched other NBA players engineer trades so they could compete for a title. Harden didn't think the Rockets were good enough, and he's right. So he wanted out. We've all been there, a job we didn't like for a company we didn't like, for a boss we didn't respect. Harden wanting to be traded is understandable. How he went about it was deplorable. He hurt his co-workers.

Houston will make Harden pay for his disrespectful departure. He has an upscale restaurant set to open here. The name of the steakhouse will be "13." Harden's business partners may want to change that number ... before the restaurant's telephone number is disconnected. There are plenty of other restaurants in Houston. Rich people who can afford steakhouse prices hold grudges.

Rockets fans searching for a silver lining say, "We got two decent players and a whole bunch of precious first-round picks" for a malcontent who would rather be anywhere (except maybe Sacramento) than Houston." Yes, a bunch of first-round picks does bode well for the future. Anywhere, except maybe Houston.

Houston's draft war room isn't the most successful operation in the NBA. Over the past decade prior to 2000, under the direction of general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets made 16 draft picks. Not one of them is still in a Rockets uniform, many of them have sought employment outside of America, some outside of basketball. Among their first-round whiffs: Nikola Mirotic, Terrence Jones, Sam Dekker - all out of the league. Best of all, Royce White, who played three whole games in his NBA career and finished with a scoring average of 0.00 points per game.

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