Changeover

New name doesn’t diminish spirit of annual tennis tournament

DON WADE | Special to The Daily News

It was almost 40 years ago, but Nancy Smith remembers the one year the men’s pro tennis tournament was held at the Mid-South Coliseum; her father had box seats. But even more memorable is that not long after the tournament moved to The Racquet Club of Memphis, a young and unknown Czech player came to town and, in that far simpler time, stayed at her parents’ house.

The U.S. National Indoor Tennis Championships will be played February 16-24, 2013 at The Racquet Club of Memphis. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

“We kept hearing ‘Evon, Evon,’” she said, recalling that another Czech player who had previously stayed with the family asked if he could bring a friend. “We thought it was a female.”

The friend turned out to be Ivan Lendl, who not only would later win the Memphis tournament, but would go on to win eight Grand Slam singles titles.

Such has been the power and reach of the Memphis pro tennis tournament through the years. So many great champions, and so many American tennis icons – from Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe to Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and the recently retired Andy Roddick, who won the Memphis tournament championship three times between 2002 and 2011.

Today Smith, 62, is just back from the Australian Open – “I was cheering for the Americans, I don’t care what their rankings are,” she said – and looking forward to the renamed and revamped U.S. National Indoor Championships, Feb. 16-24 at The Racquet Club.

“I’ve never not been to the tournament,” Smith said, putting a happy topspin on a double-negative.

It’s easy to forget now, what with the Grizzlies and the NBA having such a strong presence in Memphis, but for decades the annual golf and tennis tournaments gave the city its twice-a-year dot on the pro sports map.

“That was it,” said Gary Grear, 66, whose family owns the String ‘n Swing tennis shop in East Memphis. “It’s a thrill for any tennis player to have it in Memphis and to be able to go see it.”

Smith will play in the pro-am doubles this year and Grear will not, but he’s done that, too. When he played opposite McEnroe one year he got to see vintage JohnnyMac up close and personal when Grear’s partner made a questionable lines call. McEnroe’s response: “It’s not printable,” Grear said.

Quick Facts:

What: U.S. National Indoor Tennis Championships
When: Feb. 16-24
Where: The Racquet Club of Memphis
Tickets and more information: Call 765-4401 or go to memphistennis.com

Last year’s tourney, which included a celebrity exhibition doubles match with McEnroe, also featured the new Hawk-Eye replay system; surely that would have come in handy in McEnroe’s days. Although there are multiple tweaks and enhancements to the tournament every year, this year’s big change is off the court with the departure of Regions Morgan Keegan as the event’s title sponsor, the result of Morgan Keegan & Co. being acquired last year by Raymond James Financial Inc.

On the court, tournament officials decided to provide six more feet of room behind the baseline at the Stadium Court, giving players more space to pursue balls hit at sharp angles – or lobbed overhead – and to perhaps keep patrons out of harm’s way.

“Fernando Verdasco called our place ‘The Cage,”” said tournament director Peter Lebedevs. “He said that ‘affectionately,’ said he loves getting close to all the people in Memphis.”

More seriously, Lebedevs points a finger at top-ranked American John Isner, who is No. 16 in the ATP rankings and is 6-9 and 245 pounds.

“John Isner’s the one that kind of did it to us in a sense,” Lebedevs said of enlarging the Stadium Court’s playing area. “He was hitting the ball and it was almost getting dangerous, into the crowd and the ball kids trying to get out of the way. For those reasons, we said we gotta give the players more room.”

The change is in step with the way tennis continues to change.

“They’re better athletes. It’s amazing how much faster and stronger they all are,” Lebedevs said. “Isner, the way he moves, Marin Cilic (at No. 12, the top-ranked player who will be in Memphis) is 6-6, those guys move like 5-10 kind of guys 20 years ago.”

As good as they were, players such as Agassi and Michael Chang would now be considered economy models. Isner is coming back from a knee problem, but if he’s right will be a strong contender to take the Stadium Court on the last day and play for the championship.

“He went to Georgia and played some great tennis there,” Lebedevs said. “Everybody thought he was kind of a one-shot wonder. He’s got the big serve and I’ve got to give him credit, he’s been a tremendous asset to the U.S. game. His movement’s gotten better, his backhand’s gotten better. He beat Roger Federer last year this time on clay in the Davis Cup and Federer is arguably the greatest player ever.”

It also doesn’t hurt that Isner feels at home in Memphis. He reached the finals of the 2010 tournament here, losing to fellow American Sam Querrey, who will return this year and is ranked 20th. At the time Lebedevs released the players list in January, 11 of the top 30 players in the world were coming to Memphis.

“I love Memphis because I’m a southern boy,” Isner said in a recent teleconference. “There’s a lot of southern hospitality and good tennis fans there. … I like the surface, I like the court, I like the atmosphere. … I’ve played very good tennis there before. I’m looking to do that again this year.”

Canada’s Milos Raonic carries a No. 13 ranking into this year’s tournament. He has won the indoor stop in San Jose, Calif., that precedes the Memphis tourney and the last two years he reached the finals in Memphis.

This year’s tournament is the last for Memphis as a 500-level event – based on points awarded to players in the draw – and next year it will drop down to the 250 level. But Lebedevs believes the change won’t hurt next year’s field “because of where we are on the calendar.” This is also the last year for a women’s tournament.

The Stadium Court also is undergoing seating changes, with chair-back seats replacing the wooden bleachers behind the north and south sidelines. New club seating is also being added to the Stadium Court. Qualifying for the men’s and women’s draws starts on Feb. 16, and on Monday, Feb. 18, there is an exhibition mixed doubles match on the Stadium Court featuring Lindsay Davenport, Mark Phillippoussis, Querrey and Vicki Duval, followed by a first-round WTA match.

“At our facility, the farthest seat away is 60 feet,” Lebedevs said. “I went to the U.S. Open, sat in the president’s box, and it was 63 feet away. You really get to be a part of it and feel it.”