I’m a casual tennis fan. By this I mean there are five weeks every year when I pay close attention to professional tennis results: the second week of each Grand Slam event and the week — here we are — when The Racquet Club of Memphis hosts the U.S. National Indoor. I fell in love with tennis in the early Eighties when Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, and Jimmy Connors were beating each other up from the lawns of Wimbledon to the concrete jungle of New York City. I fell in love with Memphis the first time I visited my grandmother (before Borg’s first Wimbledon championship). The two have made a natural connection in my heart since I made Memphis my home 22 years ago.
Casual fans, though, are having a difficult time these days connecting the Memphis tournament to the faces of tennis. Since Wimbledon in 2003, 39 Grand Slam events have been played and 34 of them have been won by the most dominating trio the sport has seen since the open era began in 1968: Roger Federer (17 Grand Slam titles), Rafael Nadal (11), and Novak Djokovic (6). Troubling for the Memphis tournament — and casual fans like me — is the fact that no member of this triumvirate has ever played a match at The Racquet Club. For an event that counts Borg, McEnroe, Connors, Pete Sampras, and Andre Agassi among its past champions, this is a dramatic fall across eras of the sport.
Why haven’t the Big Three made a Memphis appearance? The answer starts with the staggering amount of money players earn today on the ATP tour. Nadal had an injury-plagued year in 2012, merely winning a single Grand Slam event (the French Open for the seventh time). For his struggles, Nadal earned a cool $4.8 million. The top player in the world — Djokovic — took $12.8 million to the bank last year. This week’s Memphis champion will get a check for $291,800. Which means it takes at least $291,801 for a European tennis legend to cross the Atlantic in February.
As recently as 1996, the Racquet Club hosted the top two players in the world, and three of the top five. A significant difference then: all three men — Sampras, Agassi, and Michael Chang — were American. No ocean hopping was required to be part of the February fun in Memphis. This week, and for the second straight year, not a single top-10 player will slam a forehand across a Racquet Club net. (Twelfth-ranked Marin Cilic of Croatia is the top seed.)
The stars’ continued absence is felt. Don’t doubt that tournament director Peter Lebedevs would find a Peabody suite (minimum) for one of the Big Three if he chose to play here. And the tournament faces new challenges. For the first time since 2000, Andy Roddick won’t be here. The top seed in Memphis a record nine times and the last American to win a Grand Slam (2003 U.S. Open), Roddick retired at the end of the 2012 season. Perhaps more troubling for the tournament’s bean counters, the event will be without a title sponsor for the first time in more than two decades. As for the women’s event — played here since 2002 and won recently by Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova — this will be the last year the ladies share a week with the men at The Racquet Club.
All this whining about what’s missing, though, is merely to frame what remains worth loving: professional tennis at The Racquet Club of Memphis. The venue offers the best view of this beautiful game you’ll find on the planet, certainly better than any of the oversized stadiums that host Grand Slam finals. Better yet, the event is one of the biggest annual fund-raisers for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. If you’ve seen a trophy presentation at the end of this special week, you know the latest Memphis champion will merely reflect the glow of a St. Jude patient smiling ear to ear. It’s a priceless moment, one no tennis star — however rich and famous — can outshine.
Sports are cyclical, if nothing else. The reign of Federer/Nadal/Djokovic will expire someday, and tennis will gain new stars, new “faces” of the sport. Perhaps even an American star (or two) who sees an annual visit to Memphis and its cozy tournament venue as the reward it is. Until that day, consider every Racquet Club ace or backhand winner a shot for St. Jude. And world class.