The build-up to the French Open begins in earnest in April, and one of the first events of the spring clay court season is also the only North American ATP Tournament to be played on clay courts.
The US Men’s Clay Court Championship, which made its debut in 1910, is held in the picturesque setting of the River Oaks Country Club, and is part of the ATP 250 series.
Over one hundred years ago, as tennis was gaining popularity, the Western Lawn Tennis Association campaigned for more clay courts to be set up in the United States. At the time, the vast majority of competitions were played on grass courts, which were difficult and expensive to maintain. The idea was that a greater number of clay courts would allow more people to play the game at a more affordable price.
The Omaha Field Club was the host of the inaugural National Clay Court Championships, and Melville H. Long was the event’s first champion. The tournament changed location many times over the next few decades, from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati to Cleveland and beyond. Towards the end of the amateur era, Forest Hills, Illinois was the most regular setting for the competition, but when tennis opened its doors to professional players in 1968, the event moved to Indianapolis, where it remained until 1987.
North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama and Florida each took their turn as hosts over the next thirteen years, but in 2001 the Men’s Clay Court Championship moved to its current home in Texas’ largest city. Played at the Houston Westside Tennis Club until 2007, the event merged with another clay court tournament in 2008, the River Oaks International, which itself had an illustrious history. An intimate venue seating 3000 spectators in the main stadium, the River Oaks Country Club is recognised as one of the most idyllic tournament settings in the world.
From 1910 until 1968, Americans contested the final in all but six years. The great William Tilden, or “Big Bill” as he was known, leads the amateur era’s roll of honour with seven titles. Other notable champions during this period were Pancho Gonzalez and Arthur Ashe.
As the professional era dawned and the event began to attract players from further afield, the Americans lost their vice-like grip on the trophy, but continued to be well represented thanks to Jimmy Connors’ four titles in the 1970s. He leads one of his great rivals, Manuel Orantes, who won three times during that decade.
Andy Roddick may not have been renowned for his proficiency on clay, but the Texan was a multiple champion once the event moved to Houston in 2001. He reached five consecutive finals and won on three occasions, making the US Men’s Clay Court Championships one of his most fertile hunting grounds.
Juan Monaco def. John Isner, 2012 final:
This match was a classic contrast in styles between the big-serving, net-rushing Isner and the defensive, counterpunching Monaco. Isner had won 44 consecutive service games prior to the final, but his Argentine opponent managed to find a chink in his armour in the first set, breaking him twice to take it 6-2.
The American hit back in the second set, however, carving out an early lead and fending off more break points to hold on to the advantage. Sliding and anticipating well on his least favourite surface, Isner got the better of Monaco in some gruelling rallies, and clinched the set when his rival failed to return a high-kicking serve.
As the winds swirled around the River Oaks Country Club, there was little to separate the two players until the eighth game of the decider, when Monaco sealed the crucial break. After converting his second match point with an exquisite backhand pass, he dropped to his knees, delighted at winning the fifth title of his career following several injury setbacks.
Although Isner didn’t manage to give the home crowd the victory they craved, there was to be a silver lining for the 6’9” right-hander: with his run to the final, he surpassed Mardy Fish to become the new American number one.
Video: Monaco v Isner, 2012
- The “Har-Tru” or green clay used at the US Men’s Clay Court Championship is similar to the clay used at the French Open, but is made from crushed basalt, which makes for a faster surface.
- The Bryan brothers have won the doubles title four times in Houston.
- The last time a player won both the singles and doubles titles in the same year was in 2002 when, after beating the legendary Pete Sampras, Andy Roddick teamed up with compatriot Mardy Fish to beat compatriots Jan-Michael Gambill and Graydon Oliver.