The U.S. National Indoor Tennis Championships at the Racquet Club of Memphis serves as a reminder of the city’s unique sports mix and how much that mix says about our civic aspirations.
It is a welcome reminder after the last month of incessant chatter about being a “small market” NBA franchise.
The tournament is part of a sports mix that includes professional golf, the Liberty Bowl football bowl game, the Grizzlies, the Southern Heritage Classic football matchup between Tennessee State and Jackson State Universities, Memphis Redbirds baseball, a host of University of Memphis sports, a very different and equally appealing brand of football at Rhodes College, the Bluff City Classic … and the list goes on.
All of these endeavors, including the annual tennis tournament, make up a different kind of sports milieu where professional meets college meets amateur. Our sports events struggle at times for sponsors, for television coverage, for bigger venues but they endure and change and write new chapters as they continue. And that is a way of measuring who we are as a city. The pursuit is not like the game. It doesn’t take place within marked boundaries.
That’s why Southern Heritage Classic founder Fred Jones could look at the large number of TSU and JSU alumni in Memphis and the surrounding area and create a set of events with a football game between the two schools at the center. And along the way he experimented with a TSU-Mississippi Valley State game in 1991 and brought in Grambling to play TSU in 1993.
In this week’s cover story, one tennis fan remembers going to see the tournament at the Mid-South Coliseum. There was also a plan to relocate the tournament permanently to The Pyramid but public demand was strong to keep the Indoor at the Racquet Club, where the close quarters are now promoted even as the organizers do a bit of reconfiguring to give the players more elbow room.
Billy Dunavant’s pursuit of the tennis tourney and his role in shaping its beloved venue is as much about wanting to see world class tennis players – the best in the game – as it is about civic pride. And as long as there is enough of a local audience and underwriting for that – even with the departure of title sponsor Regions Morgan Keegan – the immediate goal doesn’t have to be any bigger than that.
The story of those who have come here to compete as amateurs, professionals, visitors and favorite sons and daughters is a story in which there are Grizzlies – NBA and World Football League – and Showboats and Chicks. The narrative also ties into the stories of such legends as Bear Bryant, Bo Jackson, Reggie White, Cary Middlecoff and John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors.
The story includes the biggest names in tennis who have come to Memphis repeatedly to win a championship that is now older than its most recent winners.