Courtesy Racquet Club of Memphis
“I wanted to give Memphis a pro tennis tournament. I borrowed an idea from football, built skyboxes, and we attracted the national indoor championships.” — Billy Dunavant (from the book, Just Call Me Billy)
The marriage between professional tennis and The Racquet Club of Memphis was no accident. When Billy Dunavant essentially replaced the Memphis Athletic Club with a new, $7 million facility in 1976, he did so with one eye on the likes of Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, and other stars on the Association of Tennis Professionals tour. (The ATP was formed in 1973.) A devoted player himself, Dunavant saw The Racquet Club as a resource — and home of sorts — for amateur Memphis players like himself. But one designed to standards that would accommodate the greatest players on the planet.
In March 1975, the Mid-South Coliseum hosted the Memphis Tennis Classic. Harold Solomon beat Jiri Hrebec for the title. (Total prize money: $64,000.) A year later, the event was held in a temporary arena on the Racquet Club grounds, this time Vijay Amritraj — later featured in the James Bond film Octopussy — beat Stan Smith in the final (by the odd score of 6-2, 0-6, 6-0). But everything changed in 1977.
Attracting the U.S. National Indoor Championships to The Racquet Club (from Salisbury, Maryland) made news on its own, but when Swedish great Bjorn Borg committed to playing in the first such tournament on Memphis soil, Mid-South tennis had a star-studded foundation for years to come. Just 20 years old at the time, Borg had already claimed two French Open titles and won the first of what would be five straight Wimbledon championships in 1976.
With hindsight, Borg’s lone Racquet Club appearance was considerably ironic. His legacy is that of the stoic, calm, steady baseline presence, one counter to the headline-making histrionics of contemporaries like Connors or Ilie Nastase. But for a week in Memphis, Borg had more trouble with his temper than any opponent. During an early match, Borg packed up his equipment and threatened to leave the court after disputing a linesman’s call. (The linesman was dismissed.) He again asked for a linesman to be removed during a semifinal match with Tom Gullickson. There was no denying Borg’s supreme talent, though. He unleashed 13 aces against Brian Gottfried in the final to take home a winner’s check in the amount of $28,000.
The face of American tennis in the 1970s was that of Jimmy Connors. For five straight years (1974-78), Connors finished atop the ATP rankings, a streak unmatched until Pete Sampras came along a generation later. Connors made the first of ten appearances at The Racquet Club in 1978 and stormed to the first of four Memphis championships. (Connors never failed to reach at least the quarterfinals here.)
After beating Tim Gullickson for the ’78 crown, Connors returned in 1979 and captured perhaps the most hard-earned championship in Memphis history. He dropped the first set of his semifinal match with Vitas Gerulaitis before rallying to win (3-6, 6-3, 6-2). Then in a battle of former Wimbledon champions, Connors took a thrilling final from Arthur Ashe (6-4, 5-7, 6-3). Years later, former tournament director Tommy Buford told Memphis magazine, “The crowd was really behind [Ashe], even against Connors. That really stood out, because Connors was like a god around here for several years. Some people have a presence where they create excitement. Ashe’s presence was more one of reverence.” The match remains the only final at The Racquet Club to feature a pair of men to have previously won titles on the hallowed grass of Wimbledon.
Connors returned to the Memphis finals a third straight year in 1980, but ran into a new nemesis in John McEnroe, winner of the previous year’s U.S. Open. These two American legends combined to top the ATP world rankings nine years between 1974 and 1984. (Borg interrupted their run in 1979 and ’80.) Connors knocked off Ivan Lendl in straight sets on his way to the showdown, while McEnroe survived an early match with Ferdi Taygan in which he lost the first set, 6-0. Johnny Mac again lost the first set in his quarterfinal match (against Robert Lutz), but took a pair of tiebreakers to beat Connors (7-6, 7-6) for the trophy. Four months later, McEnroe lost to Borg in a Wimbledon final some say is the greatest professional tennis match ever played.
With no Connors in the field and McEnroe upset early (by Trey Waltke), Gene Mayer capitalized to earn the 1981 U.S. National Indoor title. McEnroe seemed on his way to a second Memphis crown a year later (beating Mayer in the semis) until he ran into South African Johan Kriek in the finals. Kriek took a three-setter for the title (6-3, 3-6, 6-4).
Connors headlined the next five tournaments at The Racquet Club, the top seed from 1983 to 1986 and number two (behind Stefan Edberg) in ’87. As the reigning Wimbledon and U.S. Open champ, Connors took the 1983 Memphis title, but only after surviving a third-set tiebreaker against Eliot Teltscher in the quarterfinals. He successfully defended his title — and earned a fourth career Memphis championship — by beating Henri Leconte (in three sets) in the 1984 final.
Connors fell to Stefan Edberg — Borg’s successor as the king of Swedish tennis — in the 1985 semifinals. Edberg made a mockery of his seeding (9th) by dropping but a single game in the final against former French Open champ Yannick Noah. Edberg returned to the final in 1986 (this time as the second seed), but fell to Brad Gilbert, who had upset Connors in the quarterfinals. Edberg and Connors collided once again in the 1987 final, the younger (by 14 years) Edberg earning his second U.S. Indoor crown when Connors was forced to retire with a knee injury after dropping the first set and falling behind, 2-1, in the second. The 1987 championship was the first at The Racquet Club in which the top four seeds all reached the semifinals (Edberg, Connors, Mikael Pernfors, and Brad Gilbert).
Just 17 years old, Andre Agassi was a shaggy-haired marketing darling (“Image is everything”) when he arrived at The Racquet Club for the 1988 U.S. Indoor. Having lost the opening match of his Memphis debut a year earlier (to Amos Mansdorf) Agassi was out to prove there was actually some substance to all that style he brought to the court. After dropping an epic first set (12-10) against Paul Annacone in the third round, Agassi rallied to win the next two sets, then beat David Pate to reach his first Memphis semifinal. His service return was in top form against slugger Kevin Curren in the semis and he beat Sweden’s Mikael Pernfors in the final for the second ATP title of his career. As the tournament’s top seed a year later, Agassi fell to Kriek in the third round. In three more Memphis appearances, Agassi never again played for the championship.
The 1991 field may be the very best The Racquet Club has hosted, particularly when you consider the players’ achievements in hindsight and historical context. Top seed Ivan Lendl won eight Grand Slam titles. Pete Sampras (the 19-year-old second seed) won no fewer than 14 (his first being the 1990 U.S. Open). Third-seeded Andres Gomez was the reigning French Open champ. Jim Courier won four Grand Slam titles, his first at the French Open three months after the ’91 Volvo Tennis Indoor at The Racquet Club. Mats Wilander (seven Grand Slam titles) made just his second (and last) Memphis appearance this year. Michael Chang (1989 French Open champion) was in the field, as was Germany’s Michael Stich (1991 Wimbledon champ). Even a little-known Czech by the name of Petr Korda would raise the hardware at the Australian Open (in 1998). Add it up and you have eight men with 37 combined Grand Slam titles, each vying for the top spot over a week of play at The Racquet Club.
The first round featured no fewer than 14 tiebreakers (including one in Wilander’s win over qualifier Marcos Ondruska). Lendl needed three sets to win his second-round match over Wayne Ferreira. Korda and Gomez were early upset victims, while Sampras, Courier, and Stich breezed into the third round.
Sampras retired with a groin injury (after winning the first set) during his match with Mark Koevermans. Courier and Wilander were also third-round casualties. Lendl dropped only three games to Paul Haarhuis to advance to the quarterfinals and met little resistance in his next two matches. Chang needed three sets to beat Grant Connell, and then topped Jeff Tarango for a semifinal showdown with Stich, the defending Memphis champion. Stich advanced to the final a second straight year, but fell to Lendl, 7-5, 6-3.
“Lendl was such a hard-working grinder,” said Buford. “He had an attitude that said, ‘I can outwork anybody.’” The victory gave Lendl 90 career championships, second only to Jimmy Connors at the time.
A new era began in 1992 when Mac Winker (the Racquet Club’s general manager since 1978) purchased the facility from Dunavant. Over the next 16 years under Winker’s leadership, the club would add an executive fitness/wellness center, land lucrative sponsorship deals with Kroger and Regions Morgan Keegan, and continue to bring the world’s finest tennis players to Memphis.
The tournament was renamed the Kroger/St. Jude International in 1993 when The Racquet Club endowed a $1.25 million chair for pediatric AIDS research. Total prize money reached a new high ($780,000) and Jim Courier — winner of the previous two Australian Opens and French Opens — beat Todd Martin (7-6, 7-6) for his first Memphis championship.
The finest player of the 1990s — Sampras — made four appearances at The Racquet Club during the decade, culminating with his only Memphis championship in 1996. Having spent three years atop the ATP rankings, Sampras was joined in ’96 by the number-two player in the world, Agassi. (This was just the second and last time Sampras and Agassi would both appear in a Racquet Club tournament.) Under the banner “Top Guns,” Sampras and Agassi were targeting a rematch of the 1995 U.S. Open final, won in four sets by Sampras.
It wasn’t to be. Luke Jensen, known better for his doubles play with brother Murphy, upset Agassi in straight sets. Wearing a bowling shirt, the 419th-ranked player in the world bounced Agassi before most Memphians knew he’d arrived. (Jensen lost his next match in straight sets to Jiri Novak.) Sampras needed four tiebreakers over three matches — all straight-set wins — to reach the semifinals. He dispatched Michael Chang in the semis then beat two-time defending Memphis champ Todd Martin in the final (6-4, 7-6) to earn the $117,000 winner’s check. Sampras became the seventh player to have finished a year atop the ATP rankings and win a championship at The Racquet Club (following Borg, Connors, McEnroe, Lendl, Edberg, and Courier). He returned to Memphis once more but lost his opening match in 2001 to Chris Woodruff.
If there’s ever been a face of the Racquet Club’s annual championship week, it was that of Andy Roddick during the first decade of this century. The successor to Sampras as the top American player on the planet, Roddick made the first of 12 straight appearances at the Memphis championship in 2001. In 2003 he was the tournament’s top seed, status he would retain a remarkable (and record-setting) nine years in a row.
Roddick beat Taylor Dent to win his first Memphis title in 2002, the year before he won the U.S. Open (his only Grand Slam victory). A women’s tournament — the Cellular South Cup — borrowed some Racquet Club spotlight for the first time in 2002. Over the course of 10 years, four Grand Slam champions raised the trophy in Memphis: Venus Williams (’07), Lindsay Davenport (’08), Victoria Azarenka (’09), and Maria Sharapova (’10).
Roddick fell to unseeded Taylor Dent in the 2003 final, the first of three straight Racquet Club championships to be won by unseeded players (Joachim Johansson in ’04 and Kenneth Carlsen in ’05).
In 2007, Roddick returned to the final of what was then known as the Regions Morgan Keegan Championship. But there he ran into Tommy Haas, the second-seed and already winner of two Memphis championships (1999 and 2006). Haas prevailed in straight sets to join Connors as the only three-time Memphis champions. Two years later, Roddick became the first top seed to raise the trophy at The Racquet Club since 1997 (Chang) when he beat Radek Stepanek (7-5, 7-5). It was at the 2011 tournament, though, that Roddick left perhaps the single most memorable image in the tournament’s history.
Roddick needed three sets to beat Richard Berankis in his opening match and three more to knock off Lleyton Hewitt in the quarterfinals. After beating 2009 U.S. Open champ Juan Martin del Potro in the semis, Roddick collided with big-serving Milos Raonic for the championship. Roddick won the first set in a tiebreaker, then dropped the second set in a tiebreaker. Up 6-5 in the third with match point in his favor, Roddick laid out with a dive toward the right sideline, placing the ball perfectly across the net for the title-clinching winner. Roddick returned to Memphis one last time in 2012, but lost his opening match to Xavier Malisse. His “title dive” remains the most famous point in Racquet Club history.
The “Roddick era” in Memphis coincided with an explosion of international tennis, and the impact has been felt at The Racquet Club. Between 2004 and 2012, tournament winners included men from Sweden (Johansson), Denmark (Carlsen), Germany (Haas, twice), Belgium (Steve Darcis in 2008), and Austria (Jurgen Melzer). Then in 2013, Memphis welcomed, for the first time, Japan’s Kei Nishikori. Ranked 22nd in the world, Nishikori did not lose a set on his way to beating Feliciano Lopez for his third ATP title. He returned (as the top seed) in 2014 and ’15 and became the first player to win three straight titles on the Racquet Club’s stadium court.