Steeped in tradition: Houston ranks high in history of American tennis

Steeped in tradition: Houston ranks high in history of American tennis

The U.S. Men's Clay Court Championship began in 1910, and has been held in 21 different U.S. cities. In 2000, it came to Houston, at the Westside Tennis Club. Since 2008, it has remained in the same city, but has been played at River Oaks Country Club.

Bronwyn Greer was understandably dismayed when she learned that her ATP tour event—the Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship—had gone down to defeat this year against the dreaded coronavirus. Greer was looking forward to celebrating her fifth year as tournament director in Houston before it was canceled.

Her community annually embraces the event as more than just another tennis tournament. As John Isner puts it, “People go there and gather. It is the place to be in Houston that week.”

Greer is heartbroken about the cancellation of the 2020 edition.

“It was absolutely gut-wrenching. No question it was the right call,” she says. “But that doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking.”

Bob Bryan, alongside twin brother Mike, has taken the doubles crown in Houston on six occasions.

“There is so much intimacy at the River Oaks Country Club,” he says. “It is very cozy and a beautiful, historic place. It is so nice to play a tournament at a venue which is not sterilized or built up. But it is also such a grand social scene with tennis being just one part of the show.”

He then elaborated on that theme.

“There is a Ladies Day and a Fashion show and our band [The Bryan Bros Band, with Bob on keyboard and Mike on drums and guitar] plays there on Thursday night by the pool as soon as the matches are over. We always look forward to rocking that gig. We have our musician friends join us for the week. We do rehearsals in the evenings when we don’t have a match.

“We are playing tennis in such a relaxed and quiet environment with everyone dressed to the nines. It has a kind of Kentucky Derby feel to it.”


 Jared Wickerham/US Clay

No doubt that the tournament is different on a multitude of entertainment levels, but the fact remains that strictly from a tennis standpoint, its history is extraordinary. The U.S. Men's Clay Court Championship began in 1910, and has been held in 21 different U.S. cities. In 2000, it came to Houston, at the Westside Tennis Club. Since 2008, it has remained in the same city, but has been played at storied River Oaks Country Club.

The honor roll of the event’s champions is astounding. Bill Tilden took the title seven times between 1918 and 1927, and other American standouts, including Ellsworth Vines and Bobby Riggs (1936-38), claimed the top honor. Thereafter, luminaries Pancho Segura, Pancho Gonzalez and Tony Trabert were victorious, followed by Chuck McKinley, Dennis Ralston, Arthur Ashe and Cliff Richey. Jimmy Connors was a four-time victor, and as the years passed, Ivan Lendl, Mats Wilander, Michael Chang and Jim Courier all triumphed on the dirt at different venues. Over the past two decades, Andy Roddick (three times), Andre Agassi, Lleyton Hewitt and John Isner have all garnered this coveted title.

River Oaks, meanwhile, hosted a highly regarded tournament of its own, starting in 1931 up until 2007. Until the mid ‘80s, it was an official tournament, becoming part of the WCT circuit from 1970-84. Thereafter, it was a still popular exhibition which was taken seriously by the players. In its heyday, it had a similarly sterling cast of champions including Jack Kramer, Manuel Santana, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson and Ken Rosewall. That only adds to the luster of the ATP 250 tournament today.

As Bryan explains, “The Stadium has been there for so long that you can just feel the history when you are out there on the court.”

That is a view shared by players across many generations who have competed and made history of their own at the two events. Consider the inimitable Texan and former U.S. No. 1 Cliff Richey, a member of one of the great American tennis families. He claimed two U.S. Clay Court crowns and two at River Oaks in the sixties and seventies. His sister Nancy resided at No. 1 in the U.S. four times, captured a pair of major singles titles, and took six U.S. Clay Court Championships.

“I ball-boyed there as a kid, had my wedding dinner party there, won it twice and won all of the junior events there,” he told me not long ago. “It always had that very enclosed, quaint, old green arena. The Center Court was one of those old shale courts that they died orange.

“There was sort of an up slope from the net to the baseline creating a little higher bounce. That center court was made to order for me. It felt like I was hitting down at the net man, like I was standing on a heightened baseline hitting over a lower net.”


 Jared Wickerham/US Clay

The charismatic Richey speaks with unbridled passion about his remembrances of both the U.S. Clay Courts.

“In 1970 when I won it, it was ranked as one of the top seven tournaments in tennis in the USTA Annual Yearbook. I thought that was cool,” he says. “I grew up in Houston until I was 12. River Oaks threaded through the Richey family through the years.”

A number of leading Americans today feel essentially the same way. Isner has his own wing as a guest at an elegant home on the edge of the grounds to the club. Many of the other players also stay with tennis-loving families.

The Flores family have hosted Isner year after year. The 6’10” American puts Houston right up there among his favorite places to play, which is proof that the 250 status of the tournament does not amply convey the enduring importance it has.

“For me, it is really devastating to not be playing there this year, I missed it last year for the first time in my career with an injury,” he says. “Indian Wells, Miami and Houston is actually my favorite stretch of the year. River Oaks Country Club is very beautiful. Me and my family have stayed at the Flores residence for a long time.

“I stay in the ‘cottage’ of the house. It is very comfortable and right beside the club. I have grown close to the two parents and their four kids, and the parents even came to my wedding. On top of that, I met my wife at the tournament in 2011. It is a very special place for me.”

He recalls celebrating after capturing the title in 2013.

“I did the ceremonial cannonball into the pool,” he says. “It was very hot and humid and I had probably gone 30 to 45 minutes without having a sip of water. I cramped up and did not think I would be able to get out of the pool, but I wobbled out. That is a great memory for me of winning there.”

Echoing Isner is compatriot Stevie Johnson, the champion in 2017 and 2018. He, too, is lamenting the loss of the 2020 U.S. Clay Courts.

“It is one of the few tournaments I have penciled in on the calendar every year,” he says. “I am really bummed out about this year. It has an awesome center court and the legacy of the tournament is amazing. Being the last guy standing those two years was incredible.

“I will always remember when I defended my title in 2018 because I got married the following weekend. The pressure was deflected. All of the Americans love playing there because of the way they treat the players.”


 Jared Wickerham/US Clay

But now the future is uncertain, not just for Houston and tennis, but for the entire world of sports and the world at large. No one knows what is around the corner. Be that as it may, the powers that be at the U.S. Clay Courts are determined to return in 2021 with renewed vitality.

Isner is confident that can be the case. As a member of the ATP Player Council, how difficult does he believe it will be for events like Houston to recover?

“That is something the ATP, the players, the tournaments and the board of representatives need to figure out,” he says. “Fortunately, a tournament like Houston at the 250 level will be okay. There are a lot of private donors who chip in and make the tournament so special. For other 250 tournaments around the world, it could be a struggle because they really rely on ticket sales. The 250 level event is the toughest one to succeed at.”

Having said that, Isner reaffirms how optimistic he is about what will be in store for Houston.

“It is very important that Houston continues to flourish for a long time,” he says. “I know it will.”

Bob Bryan is every bit as determined to witness a revival for the U.S. Clay Courts. The 2020 campaign was going to be a farewell season for him and Mike. Now they are reconsidering what to do. They might compete again in 2021.

“When we decided on doing another year on the tour this year, we did that in the hopes we could play some of our favorite tournaments like Houston,” the 42-year-old doubles icon says. “We are getting robbed of that a little bit. Mike and I are mulling it over.”

Regardless of whether or not the Bryans are back for the 2021 U.S. Clay Courts, they want to return to River Oaks in some capacity.

“Bromwyn Greer and before her Van Barry have done an amazing job. Everyone from transportation to player services is great,” he says. “We are very sad not to be going back this year. Hopefully at some point we can go there and do an exhibition to give the fans some sort of entertainment. We are definitely brainstorming ways to get back to the club and do something.”

Greer would be buoyed to hear such uplifting sentiments, but not surprised.

“I don’t know if there is another tournament in the world that has the kind of impact that we do in Houston on the players,” she points out. “They were among the first after Hurricane Harvey hit a few years ago to reach out and ask how they could help. Now everyone community-wide and nationwide is struggling. We have to be sure that our community gets back on its feet.

“The tennis community will come back stronger than ever. People will be looking for that way to get out and interact with others. Come next April, you will see that in full force.

“When Joao Silhao—the tournament director of Estoril—made his announcement about not playing this year, he said, ‘We will be back bigger and better in 21.’ Our goal is the same. When we come back in ‘21, we feel strongly that our tournament will truly be an event people will never forget.”