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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Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

After the big offensive showing to take the opener on Thursday, the Astros entered Friday's game at Globe Life Field against the Rangers just one win or Angels loss away from securing their spot in the playoffs. Here is how the game unfolded:

Final Score (10 innings): Rangers 5, Astros 4.

Record: 29-29, second in the AL West.

Winning pitcher: Brett Martin (1-1, 1.98 ERA).

Losing pitcher: Enoli Paredes (3-3, 3.05 ERA).

Urquidy goes seven while allowing two

The Rangers would strike first in Friday's game, getting a two-out solo home run against Jose Urquidy in the bottom of the second to grab the early 1-0 lead. Urquidy did relatively well on the night, though he would allow another solo homer in the bottom of the fifth. Those were the only two runs he allowed, working in and out of some trouble throughout the game on his way to finishing seven innings. His final line: 7.0 IP, 7 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 0 BB, 5 K, 2 HR, 98 P.

Houston grabs their first lead late

Unlike their hot night at the plate the night prior, it took the Astros until the fifth inning to get on the board. It came after Carlos Correa hit a leadoff single, then came all the way around to score on an RBI-triple by George Springer, making it a 1-1 tie at the time.

After the Rangers went back in front 2-1 in the bottom of the inning on their second solo homer of the night, Alex Bregman would tie it up again with a solo home run of his own, making it 2-2. Houston would get their first lead of the night in the top of the eighth, with Altuve working a leadoff walk before scoring later in the inning on an RBI-single by Yuli Gurriel.

Rangers get the walk-off to keep Houston waiting for playoff bid

After Urquidy, Blake Taylor would take over on the mound in the bottom of the eighth, retiring the Rangers in order for a scoreless inning to hold the one-run lead. Still 3-2 in the bottom of the ninth, Houston turned to their closer, Ryan Pressly. After two quick outs, he would allow a game-tying solo home run, making it 3-3 to postpone Houston's celebration at least another inning as the game headed to extras.

In the top of the tenth, Jose Altuve was placed on second as the free runner. He advanced to third on a groundout to start the inning, then scored on a sac fly by Alex Bregman, making it a 4-3 lead for Houston. Enoli Paredes would load the bases before Texas would tie the game on a sac fly in the bottom of the inning, keeping runners on second and third. Houston made the change to Brooks Raley to try and extend the game another inning, but instead, the Rangers would get the walk-off win, spoiling Houston's chance to clinch their playoff spot themselves with a win.

Up Next: The third game of this four-game set will get underway at 6:05 PM Central on Saturday. On the mound for Texas will be Kyle Gibson (2-6, 5.87 ERA), and, as of now, the Astros still have Lance McCullers Jr. (3-3, 4.24 ERA) listed as their starter.

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