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."

This article originally appeared on CultureMap.

The headline: "Twitter Explodes At 1 In 8 Men Saying They Could Win A Point Off Serena Williams."

Comments almost unanimously said no way in the world could a non-professional tennis player win a single point off Serena. These men must be delusional, sexist, in need of psychiatric help, and just plain stupid.

Here's the question that was presented to 100 men by the online survey company YouGov: "Do you think if you were playing your very best tennis you could win a point of Serena Williams?"

The poll's result from YouGov: "One in eight men (12 percent) say they could win a point in a game of tennis against 23-time grand slam winner Serena Williams."

Twitter lost its mind. Even Chrissy Teigen offered:

"We need to see this, please please. I would like to cry of laughter."

Everybody, slow down. This entire controversy du jour is flawed. For example, where did YouGov find these 100 men? If they walked up to 100 schlubs standing in line at McDonald's, then sure, I doubt if 12 of them could win a point off Serena. I don't think they could win a point off a 14-year-old boy or girl on their middle school tennis team. Most people, and for the purpose of this, let's consider men as people, don't play tennis. As in zero times in their life.

Who are these people?

There are about 325 million people in the U.S. of which, let's say, 155 million are male. According to the Tennis Industry Association, there are 9.9 million "core" tennis players in America, including men, women, boys and girls. A core player is someone who plays tennis at least 10 times a year. That's core? If so, that's trouble for the sport.

A good guess, there are about 2 million adult male, so-called core players. The number of men who play regularly, who really get after it once or twice a week, would be lower. Starting off, a random poll of 100 men would be unlikely to find one person who plays tennis regularly. A poll that finds 12 percent of men claiming they could win a point off Serena indeed is dubious.

Singling out Serena

Another thing, why did the poll ask about Serena Williams? Poor Serena got caught up in another silly kerfuffle a few years ago when John McEnroe said Serena wouldn't crack the Top 700 in the men's rankings.

Serena is the GOAT, no question, the greatest female tennis player of all time. But she is not the best now and hasn't been the best for several years. For YouGov to include Serena in its question was very disrespectful to today's top female players, like Naomi Osaka, Karolina Pliskova, Sofia Kenin, and Simona Halep, who defeated Serena in the last four grand slam tournaments. Not saying Serena isn't still great, just saying she's not the best in 2019.

I can understand Twitter's howling at the 12 percent of men who say they could win a point off Serena … if the poll included the first 100 men getting off the bus on Main Street. But if the pollster went to a tennis club and asked 100 regular players if they thought could win a point off Serena, I think the actual retail price would be … at least 50 percent.

We're not talking beating Serena, or pushing Serena to a third set or worrying Serena in the slightest. But one measly point over 12 games? Very doable, at least imaginable, even against Serena Williams. Serena could double fault. She could miss a drop shot or smack a forehand into the net. The guy could get lucky and hit a backhand on the baseline, mis-hit an overhead that touches the net cord and trickles over for a winner. There are thousands of variables and weird things that happen in a tennis match.

Continue on CultureMap to read about Ken Hoffman playing against tennis legends.

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