By John Branston
Women tennis pros, ripped by one of the top-ranked men this week, will join the guys for the first time next month at the Kroger St. Jude tournament at the Racquet Club.
Memphis will have the only indoor tournament in the country with top male and female pros competing at the same time. Martina Navratilova is even coming out of retirement to play doubles, and Racquet Club owner Mac Winker says there is a chance that Serena Williams will be in the singles draw.
The men's draw includes American Andy Roddick and former Kroger St. Jude champions Tommy Haas of Germany and Mark Phillippoussis of Australia. Tennessee's top amateur, Brian Baker of Nashville, will be trying to make the field as a qualifier, along with tour veteran Michael Chang.
The women's field includes Wimbledon semifinalist Jelena Dokic of Australia, Amanda Coetzer of South Africa, and American Lisa Raymond as well as Carly Gullickson of Nashville, who won the USTA Girls 18 Super-national Clay Court Championships at the Racquet Club in 2001.
Several of the players who will be coming to Memphis are competing in the Australian Open this week. Marcelo Rios, who is not coming to Memphis this year but has played here in the past, enlivened things off the court by calling women's tennis "ridiculous" and suggesting that the early tournament rounds are "a joke."
Needless to say, Winker strongly disagrees. He expects the women to boost week-long attendance from 60,000 to over 70,000. The tournament begins February 15th with women's qualifying matches and culminates in the women's final on February 23rd and the men's final on February 24th. The "Kids Day," in which local children can mingle with the pros, will be Sunday, February 17th.
The Racquet Club has hosted exhibition matches for women but this is the first pro tournament. There are only five men/women tournaments in the world aside from the four Grand Slams. A combination of luck, good timing, and facilities brought the women to Memphis this year.
Winker says he was looking for a women's event for a couple years and almost bought a WTA Tour tournament formerly played in Philadelphia. Instead, the women's Oklahoma City stop became available and he snapped it up. But then he still had to get the ATP Tour for men to agree to a smaller draw.
"This was probably the only place in the country that could react and do it that quickly," Winker said. "They say you better be careful what you wish for because you might get it. Well, now we've got it."
It helped, he said, that the WTA Tour wanted St. Jude as a global sponsor. In addition to that deal, Winker is working on finding local companies to sponsor the women's tournament next year.
"We're going to be doing a lot of wining and dining this year," he said.
By Chris Przybyszewski
Before the season started the Memphis media got a chance to see Grizzlies' coach Sidney Lowe in action during pre-draft workouts, when prospective players came to town in pairs to show their stuff. The exhibitions were relentless, tiring affairs of ball drills, shooting exercises, and games of one-on-one.
After one such workout, Lowe rose from his spot on a nearby bench to talk with each player, neither of whom had a chance of ever playing for the Grizzlies. Lowe talked to them about shoulder angles when working a defensive man up the court, how squaring the shoulders helps protect the basketball. I asked him later why he would bother coaching these two, when he would probably never see them again. He replied that the two did a good job and worked hard and would probably be seen by a couple other teams, so maybe his words would help them in future workouts.
In his second season as Grizzlies frontman, Lowe has gained a reputation as a teacher. With the team's core of young, talented players, Lowe has little choice but to patiently explain, over and again, every fundamental aspect of the game. All the while, his team is getting regularly shellacked and only occasionally coming up with a win.
But the progression of rookie forward Pau Gasol shows that Lowe's efforts have not been in vain. To be sure, Gasol is terrifically talented, and that talent can get him through some moments when the Spaniard doesn't seem to know one end of the court from the other. But as the season progresses, Gasol has taken on the load of leading scorer and rebounder and has even become something of a presence as a defender. Gasol is flourishing, and Lowe has been there every step of the way.
Also indicative of Lowe's prowess as teacher is his on-court acumen. With exceptions (such as the last L.A. Lakers game), the coach has made the right moves in terms of inserting subs or calling a needed time-out. In the Grizzlies' first win over the Sacramento Kings last November, Lowe called time-out several times early in the game as the Kings tried to put together scoring runs. The result was a poised Memphis squad throughout the first half. In last weekend's loss to the Orlando Magic, Lowe pulled his entire starting lineup except Gasol and let his bench make the game relatively respectable. Lowe knew that his starters weren't in the game mentally and he knew that each player would learn the lesson better from the bench.
And Lowe isn't afraid to call out his players. Forgoing his usual "keep it in the barracks" philosophy, he talked to the media about Stromile Swift's defensive performance. "I was very disappointed," he said. "We went out in our zone, a 2-3 zone. And our bottom line, the two wings, are responsible for the corner. Several times, that guy didn't go out there to the corner. Stro should have been out there a couple of times. That's inexcusable. We've been doing this for months now and you have to know your assignments."
It was a rare example of public exasperation on Lowe's part, no doubt due to Swift's less than swift advancement into a starting-caliber player. The young forward is a mountain of talent but seems at times either unwilling or unable to put together a coherent game. With the team decimated by injuries, Lowe knows he needs Swift and that Swift must respond or be left behind.
But Lowe knows that keeping things on an even keel is important to the young players. Lowe's response after each game is rarely one of elation or fury but typically is a matter-of-fact listing of the game's highs and lows. One can assume his locker room demeanor is much the same, given that this Memphis team continues to play well despite losing night after night. Even Monday's road loss to the Kings was competitive for three quarters.
So Lowe will continue to teach. He'll talk to his players about shoulder angles and defensive assignments and patiently repeat each lesson. But there's a problem on the horizon. Lowe's contract ends after next season and he has received no contract extension. Do team GM Billy Knight and president Dick Versace understand Lowe's value to this young team? Only time will tell.
Teachers garner little respect in a world of bottom lines and win-loss ratios, but Lowe can only hope that his students put something together before the principals pull the plug on his NBA classroom.
There are currently only two teams in the NBA that have seven players averaging double-digit scoring: the Sacramento Kings and the Memphis Grizzlies.
Guard Willie Solomon's four-point play against the Orlando Magic was only the fourth in team history.
The Memphis Grizzlies' game against the Sacramento Kings was the 500th in team history. The franchise's all-time record: 113-387.
"You've heard me say this all year long. You've got to have shooters. You've got to have guys who can shoot the basketball if you are going to win in this league. If you have shooters on the floor, you always give yourself a chance to win the ballgame." -- Grizzlies coach Sidney Lowe after his team shot 43 percent against the Orlando Magic. The Magic shot 51.7 percent.
"It was a breather." -- Orlando Magic head coach Doc Rivers on his team's game against the Memphis Grizzlies. The Magic won, 119-103.
"We kind of worked our way back into it, but the hole was too deep." -- Grizzlies guard Brevin Knight on his team's comeback attempt against the Magic.
"We knew we were short-handed, but that's the NBA. It happens to all teams, which means guys have to step it up. But we didn't." -- Grizzlies guard Rodney Buford on his team's undermanned effort against the Sacramento Kings.
"The 12-game win streak is nice, but we are not satisfied with it. We are not sitting here Lakers-watching." -- Sacramento forward Chris Webber on his team's recent success.