Ten years ago, as part of my day job with MEMPHIS magazine, I was assigned the task of researching the five greatest tennis tournaments in Memphis history. The Racquet Club of Memphis was preparing to host its 23rd indoor championship, which forced some deliberation in identifying the five best.
This week, as The Racquet Club hosts its 32nd men's tourney -- now called the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships -- I'm going a step further, and dusting off my recap of the best of the best. The finest, most memorable tournament the Bluff City has ever seen.
As far as sports rivalries from the Eighties are concerned, only the NBA's Magic and Bird can hold a candle to McEnroe vs. Connors on the tennis court. Considering Magic Johnson had the rest of the L.A. Lakers and Larry Bird had the Boston Celtics, well, Mac and Jimbo take the individual prize.
Over the course of 10 years, these two American legends would play a version of smash-mouth tennis unlike any seen before or since. Dating back to the Seventies, they faced off in 15 finals, splitting a pair of Wimbledon confrontations, achieving a year-end ranking of either one or two a total of 14 times, all the while putting on the kind of emotional show previously reserved for the boxing ring and Wall Street trading floor. In 1980, during the embryonic stage of their rivalry, McEnroe and Connors spent a memorable week at The Racquet Club.
Connors had finished 1979 ranked second in the world (behind Bjorn Borg), with McEnroe a close third. By the last week in February 1980, ,when the U.S. Indoor kicked off at The Racquet Club, Connors and McEnroe had already played in three finals each, squaring off against each other for the first time in a final at Philadelphia (a match won by Connors). Johnny Mac drew the top seed at Memphis, with Connors number two in a field that included Roscoe Tanner, Stan Smith, Harold Solomon, and a certain 11th seed by the name of Ivan Lendl.
With the exception of the 10th-seeded Smith being upset by Terry Moor, the first round was rather uneventful. McEnroe's opponent, Byron Bertram, was forced to retire with an injury in the opening set, while Connors sat out the first round with a bye.
Connors appeared lethargic at the outset of his second-round match with Peter McNamara, a player recognized primarily for his doubles play. McNamara won a first-set tiebreaker, only to watch Connors fight back, take a second-set tiebreaker, then dominate the final set, 6-2. As tight as Connors' match was, it paled in comparison to McEnroe's second-round battle with the relatively unknown Ferdi Taygan. Johnny Mac not only lost the first set to Taygan, he got bageled, 6-0. Considering this was his first appearance at The Racquet Club, Memphis fans had to wonder what the McEnroe hype was all about. But the cream, as they say, rises. The New York lefty played a solid second set, winning 6-4, before breezing through the third, 6-1. And what about Lendl? Just shy of his 20th birthday, the Czech baseline specialist won his Memphis debut in straight sets over Russell Simpson. His reward? A third-round match with the defending champ, Connors.
1980 would be the first of a record 13 straight years Lendl would finish ranked among the world's top 10, though in Memphis he was no match for Connors. With a straight-set win, Connors moved into the quarterfinals for a test against the eighth seed, John Sadri. McEnroe whipped Brian Gottfried to join Connors in the quarters.
While Connors had no problem in dispatching Sadri, McEnroe was again made to sweat out a three-set duel, this time with the unseeded Bob Lutz. It again appeared all Mac needed was a wake-up call. After dropping the first set, 6-2, McEnroe won the final two sets while losing only a single game. In the semifinals -- both two-setters -- Connors knocked off Solomon (for trivia buffs, Solomon won the very first pro tournament in Memphis, the 1975 Memphis Tennis Classic at the Mid-South Coliseum), while McEnroe made quick work of unseeded Bernard Mitton.
March 2, 1980, was a big day for Memphis tennis. For the second time in their careers, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe would do battle for a tournament championship. While Borg would give each of them fits at times, Connors and McEnroe became the perfect foils in a sport built on nuances and subtleties that separate the legends from the mere mortals. McEnroe's slice backhand . . . Connors' service return. McEnroe's pinpoint volleys . . . Connors' two-handed backhand. McEnroe's tantrums . . . Connors' tirades. On this day, McEnroe stole the show by winning a pair of tiebreakers. It was his first title-winning effort against Connors, a championship series McEnroe would win over the course of their careers, eight matches to seven.
"In my opinion," said former tournament director Tommy Buford, "McEnroe was the best athlete ever to play the game of tennis. He just had wonderful, wonderful hands." As for Connors, he'd be back of course. Jimbo was crowned champion twice more at The Racquet Club, and permanently endeared himself to Memphis fans by reaching the semis in 1992 at the tender age of 39.
This Saturday night at FedExForum, Memphis will host the closest thing to a Final Four the city has ever seen. The top two college basketball teams in the country will share a floor for 40 minutes, and with more than a state's bragging rights on the line. Memphis vs. Tennessee. The Game of the Year, and perhaps more.
In trying to name the greatest regular-season game in the history of Memphis Tiger basketball, we're almost forced to wear blinders. Why even look beyond the fabled series -- sadly, now former series -- between the U of M and the University of Louisville? Particularly during the 1980s -- when Louisville won a pair of national titles, Memphis reached the '85 Final Four, and the teams traded Metro Conference championships like a flu bug -- Tigers-Cardinals is among the preeminent rivalries in the history of college basketball. From the 1980-81 season through 1988-89, the teams played 18 times, each winning nine. Considering the stage of the season when it was played (the Tigers' regular-season finale) and the ranking of each squad (Tigers were 17th, Cardinals 3rd in the country), the March 6, 1983, game that Louisville won, 64-62 in overtime, might qualify as the "greatest ever."
But a new era's upon us. A necessary ingredient for a great rivalry is really sort of ugly: hatred. (A large part of the Memphis-Louisville rivalry died for me the day Milt Wagner -- who played in that 1983 game in a red uniform -- graduated from the U of M.) And Memphis sports fans who hate the University of Tennessee grow in number with every whipping at the hands of the Big Orange on the gridiron. (Wasn't that 1996 upset -- now five UT victories ago -- supposed to change things?) And this burst of animosity has been relatively independent of the cross-state recruiting rivalry now sizzling between Tiger basketball coach John Calipari and his orange-blazer-wearing counterpart, Bruce Pearl.
All of which makes this Saturday's contest between the top-ranked Tigers and the Vols -- until this season, UT had never been ranked among the nation's top three -- the biggest game between state rivals Tennessee has ever seen, one of the three or four biggest games in the entire country this season, and -- depending on the result -- the biggest regular-season game in Memphis Tiger history.
[Full disclosure: I'm the son of two Tennessee alumni and the husband of a Memphis alum. I won't lose Saturday night . . . but I surely won't win, either.]
What would a victory mean for these teams, these schools, these regions of Tennessee hoopdom? For the Vols, it would be the biggest win in years over a school not named Kentucky. (That win over Florida a year ago was a mighty upset, but the Gators are Johnny-Come-Latelies relative to the basketball history celebrated by Memphis.) It would be a shot across the bow by Pearl for any recruits in Calipari's clutches who might not have considered Knoxville anything more than women's basketball country. And it would keep a Tiger program under heel in a series somehow led by the Volunteers, 11-7. (Note that the two schools only played one game -- in 1969 -- before the 1988-89 season.)
And for the home team? The hosts of an ESPN Gameday crew that finds itself spotlighting the pride of Conference USA for an entire nation? The win would be a final, pre-NCAA tournament validation for all that John Calipari has preached since his arrival eight years ago. League be damned, Memphis is a program that will compete for NATIONAL championships. Any other program -- regardless of conference might -- with the stones to visit FedExForum will be welcomed with an old-fashioned, Southern-flavored, close-fisted sock in the mouth. (That's a metaphor, people. No excuses for the postgame behavior last weekend in Birmingham.)
If you go back to December 23, 2006, when Memphis began a 25-game winning streak by beating Middle Tennessee at FedExForum, the Tigers' are 50-1 through Saturday's win at UAB. That, basketball fans, is a pinch-me, rub-your-eyes, you-gotta-be-kidding-me record for any college team, be they members of C-USA, the ACC, or the YMCA. The U of M has not, of course, played the Tennessee Vols over the course of those 51 games. And a team's ultimate legacy, it's ultimate image is determined on the brightest of stages, in front of the most eyes and cameras, with the most at stake. (Just ask the New England Patriots.) Next Saturday's bout -- in downtown Memphis -- between the two best college basketball teams in the country will not determine a championship. But it will be a moment on this city's sports timeline never to be forgotten.
"I was hoping they could make it through the season without getting in trouble." So said my wife last Wednesday when I told her the name of Memphis Tiger basketball player Robert Dozier had appeared in a police report alleging the junior forward's involvement in a downtown altercation on February 3rd. My favorite U of M alum knows exactly two things about the John Calipari era of Tiger basketball: (1) they are a supremely talented bunch of players, capable of reaching "that Final Four thing" and (2) they are capable of showing up in headlines we don't read in the sports section.
"It just goes to show that good kids do stupid things too," said Calipari after Wednesday night's drubbing of the SMU Mustangs at FedExForum. Following a brief, though on the surface sincere, apology by Dozier in front of the TV cameras, a subdued -- sad? angry? -- Calipari addressed the same throng and stressed two points in the aftermath of his program's most recent brush with the law: (1) he'll deal with Dozier firmly (witness his benching for that night's game) and (2) he will treat Dozier like a son and not "throw anyone under the bus" (witness Dozier's return to the floor Saturday against UCF).
Whichever side you take in this particular case -- and if the allegations prove true that Dozier hit his ex-girlfriend in the face, your take should be vehement -- you have to believe this can only harm the chances of the 2007-08 Tigers reaching their ultimate goal of a national championship. In the best-case scenario, a program already labeled "rogue" by critics will have to answer questions that have nothing to do with substitution patterns or shot selection. And in the worst-case scenario, one of the team's leaders and most valuable two-way players will be sidelined for the most important stretch of games the team has played in over 20 years. Another slip-up from Dozier, and you'll next see him in uniform as a senior, if then.
Had it been Joey Dorsey's name in the police blotter, there would have been a collective rolling of eyes. "Not again." But for the soft-spoken, team-first Dozier to initiate the firestorm? It makes this a real head-scratcher.
Robert Dozier has been part of the Tiger program -- and part of the Memphis community - for going on three years. He's been an eyewitness to the troubles that caused Jeremy Hunt to miss the entire 2005-06 season (among Hunt's transgressions was hitting a woman). He saw the public admonishment Calipari delivered the entire team after Shawn Taggart and Jeff Robinson were arrested on Beale Street last September. (The curfew established for that incident, alas, was lifted in October.) Perhaps even more damning, Dozier is a 22-year-old young man with two parents in his life. He has the kind of guidance and direction that, frankly, too few Memphis Tiger stars of late have enjoyed. Why did he put himself in a position to be seen publicly on a downtown street at 3:00 in the morning, let alone raise his hand to a woman?
A bit of paranoia surfaced in Calipari's comments last week when he referred to his team as "targets." But it's beyond question that the faces (and, importantly, height) of the number-one team in the country -- playing in the biggest "small town" in America -- are far more recognizable than any City Council member or professional stage performer. It's part of the mix that makes Tiger basketball the most galvanizing public enterprise Memphis can claim. And it's a heavy dose of responsibility that every member of that team must swallow: Their game faces must stay on long after the court lights at FedExForum have gone dark.
Among this team's virtues is its depth. If Dozier misses games, there are players (ironically enough, Taggart and Robinson) who will fill his shoes capably. Whether his replacements are capable of boosting a championship run remains to be seen. Likewise, whether this team will be remembered for more than "getting in trouble" is a new angle to be followed all the way to season's end.
My wife, among thousands of other alumni and fans, will be watching closely.