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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Watson's accusers appeared on Real Sports on Tuesday night. Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images.

HBO Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel’s heavily promoted and much anticipated examination of Deshaun Watson’s legal mess involving alleged sexual misconduct shed little new light and merely presented a summary of well worn he said/she (x22) said accusations and denials.

The episode debuted Tuesday night on the premium cable service and will be repeated dozens of times throughout the week on HBO’s platforms. Check your local listings for times and channel.

The segment was hosted by Soledad O’Brien who presented compelling face-to-face interviews with two of the quarterback’s accusers: massage therapists Ashley Solis and Kyla Hayes. Their stories were detailed and graphic. Both cried during the interviews.

Solis: “As I’m working, he deliberately grabs himself and put his penis on my hand. I pulled my hand away instantly and I started crying. I told that I’m done. I don’t want to do this anymore.”

Solis said she felt threatened when Watson, before leaving the session, allegedly told her: “I know you have a career to protect, and I know that you don’t want anyone messing with it, just like I don’t want anyone messing with mine.”

Solis added, “That’s when I got really scared because that sounded like a threat to me.”

Hayes: “He wanted me to kind of make a V motion in his pelvic area. I just kept massaging and did what he asked, until his penis kept touching me repeatedly as I did it.”

Hayes said that Watson had an orgasm, which she said was “mortifying, embarrassing and disgusting.”

O’Brien asked Hayes why she continued to have contact via email with Watson after their encounter.

Hayes: "I wasn't sure what he was capable of. He could've physically assaulted me. He could've bashed my business, so I had to protect myself and my business the best way I saw fit. Did I ever see him again after that? No. Did I give him the runaround? Yes."

O’Brien pointed out that two separate grand juries in Texas heard criminal accusations against Watson and neither found enough evidence to indict him.

Solis and Hayes, and 20 other massage therapists have filed civil suits against Watson. The cases aren’t expected to reach a courtroom until next March. Both sides could reach a settlement before then which would effectively shut down any legal action against Watson. However, both sides say they aren’t interested in any pretrial settlements. That’s what they say now, anyway.

After being banished to the sidelines for the 2021 season by the Houston Texans, Watson signed a historic, 5-year fully guaranteed $230 million contract with the Cleveland Browns.

Hayes said she feels Watson “is being rewarded for bad behavior." Solis said, "It's just like a big screw you. That's what it feels like. That we (the Browns) don't care. He can run and throw, and that's what we care about.”

Watson currently is participating in preseason workouts with the Browns and, at the moment, is cleared to play the upcoming NFL season.

That is unless the NFL suspends Watson for some, most or all of the 2022 season. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has said the league is nearing completion of its independent investigation into Watson’s case and will reach a decision “shortly,” probably this summer. The NFL and NFL Players Association mutually agreed to have former U.S. District Judge Sue Robinson decide whether or not Watson violated the league’s Personal Conduct Policy and what discipline should be handed down if he did.

The Browns are scheduled to play the Texans on Dec. 4 at NRG Stadium in Houston.

O’Brien said, while producing the Real Sports piece, she tried to interview Watson, his attorneys and the Cleveland Browns for their side of the story. All declined.

During a press conference in March to announce his joining the Browns, Watson denied any inappropriate behavior with the massage therapists.

Watson: “I never assaulted any woman. I’ve never disrespected any woman. I was raised to be genuine and respect everyone around me. I’ve never done the thing that these people are alleging. My mom and my aunties didn’t raise me that way.”

Leah Graham, a member of Watson’s legal team, sat for an interview after O’Brien’s segment was complete.

Graham: "It's 22 women. It's one lawyer. There's only one lawyer who was willing to take these cases. And as we know from Ashley Solis’ deposition, Mr. (Houston attorney Tony) Buzbee was not the first, probably not the second or third lawyer she went to, but he was the only one to take her case. Why? Not because it had merit, but because he would use these cases to increase his social media following and quite frankly to get on shows like this one.”

My reaction after watching the Real Sports segment? We weren’t in the room when the massage therapists worked on Watson. We weren’t in the grand jury room when evidence against Watson was presented. We don’t know what happened. We don’t know what will happen if these cases go to trial.

Until then all we have is one big, lurid, embarrassing mess. In American courtrooms, defendants are presumed innocent. That’s often the opposite in the court of public opinion. We’ll just have to wait while the wheels of justice grind painfully slow.

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