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.
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."
It's a new year for the Houston Astros as they return to action for their first game of the spring against the Washington Nationals on Saturday.
Every season we see some adjustments to the roster which means we also see some changes in leadership. As Astros fans, we're all aware of Alex Bregman and Kyle Tucker's contract situations. Breggy could be gone after the season, and Tucker could follow one year later.
Which means it's pretty clear who the leaders of the team will be for the foreseeable future. Not only are these guys two of the best players on the club, but they're also under contract for several more years. In Altuve's case, through the 2029 season. For Yordan, he won't sniff free agency until 2029.
While these guys aren't your typical vocal leaders, they are both highly respected and lead by example. Leadership is something that's front of mind for Yordan this season, according to The Athletic's Chandler Rome.
On Yordan Alvarez the leader, one of two constants in a clubhouse bracing for change and the responsibility he wants to shoulder as a result - https://t.co/sZGlI5taBQ
— Chandler Rome (@Chandler_Rome) February 21, 2024
Another way to be a leader is to do everything you can to be available for your team. Alvarez changed his diet in the offseason hoping it will help him stay healthy this year.
Manager Joe Espada said Alvarez is fully healthy and he plans on playing him earlier than normal this spring.
Currently, Yordan is trending down in games played for three straight seasons. But he's such a great player that he needs fewer games to put up massive numbers.
He finished 3rd in MVP voting in 2022, and he only played in 135 games out of a possible 162.
So with that in mind, how many games does Yordan need to play this year to win an MVP?
Plus, who's going to protect him in the lineup? With new manager Joe Espada in place, it's hard to know what the lineup will look like.
One thing we do know, Espada immediately named Josh Hader his closer when spring training began. He also told the media that he wants Jeremy Pena to know where he's going to hit every day when he comes to the ballpark.
Espada values players knowing their roles, and getting comfortable in their routines. Something very different from last season when manager Dusty Baker moved Pena all over the lineup throughout the season.
So what does all this mean for Yordan?
Be sure to watch the video above as we break it all down!
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