Simply the best. Thats what cotton merchant William B. Dunavant wanted when he set out to build the Racquet Club in 1974. Taking the old Memphis Athletic Club, he fashioned a $7 million tennis mecca, which is still today one of the premier tennis clubs in the nation.
Over the years the Racquet Club has hosted an annual professional tennis tournament, which is recognized by players and fans alike as one of the finest stops on the pro tour. Over the years the tournament has hosted and crowned the finest mens tennis players in the world.
Billy Dunavant is to Memphis tennis what Sam Phillips is to Memphis music. We set down with Dunavant to recall the history of the Racquet Club and the tournament for which it is known.
What gave you the idea to build a tennis club?
Well, I love to play tennis and had been a tennis player growing up and I thought there was a need in East Memphis for a first-class tennis facility. So I went ahead and did it. There was a guy named Peter Curtis who was a Davis Cup player for England who moved over here and he was our first tennis coordinator, sort of the job that Tommy Buford has now. Peter was enthusiastic about it, as well, because I was enthusiastic about it.
You talk about your tennis playing. How good of a player were you?
Hmm, lets see. How good of a player was I? I won a number of tournaments. I was okay, nothing special. I always tell people I could play really well when I was 45 to 55. And I say, Well Im a great player, Im a great player for 55 when I was 55. I wasnt a great player for 45 when I was 55. So, as my years got higher, I was competitive with everybody my age in the state.
Now Ive got a bad hand. I can play, but the guys I used to beat regularly can beat me now and I dont like to lose so I decided Id do something else.
Was the Racquet Club a success from the very beginning?
We struggled we struggled at the very beginning. We struggled in developing the building because we made it a real first-class facility and so, consequently, we took some pretty good losses early on. When we brought the professional tennis tournament into the Racquet Club, it became an offset to the cash flow problems that the Racquet Club was having. And the shop picked up and everything just grew from there.
So the tennis tournament actually helped the club?
Oh, yeah, big time.
What are some of your favorite memories from the tournaments over the years?
I guess having the opportunity to play tennis back with John Newcomb, Tony Roach, Jimmy Connors, McEnroe just having the opportunity to dialogue with them and watch them play. A couple of them used to stay with us, Tony Roach in particular, and we got to be big buddies.
Those guys were so good. You go out and play with them and if they didnt want you to win a point, you werent going to win a point. And I could play. I could win a few points. But again if they just wanted to let you but if they were serious about it, you were in awe at how good they were. And you thought that watching a match but you didnt know it till you got on the court.
Whats the most difficult thing about playing with a professional? Returning a serve orÉ?
It depends on what player youre playing. The ones with the big serves, obviously that was the biggest problem. I just think anything they wanted to make tough on us they could make tough. But it was fun.
Was there any turning point in the Racquet Clubs history, a particular tournament or particular event, that really set you to success?
Not really. We tried to put on a first-class event at the Racquet Club and the community really picked up on that. They really supported us, big time. I think the community support is what really made us get over the top -- the enthusiasm.
In those days we brought in the very best players. Weve always had one, two, or three of the top players. I think those were very important to the spectators and to the community. We sold the Racquet Club to Mac Winker in 1992. I sold it because I was trying to get an NFL team for Memphis. I just didnt want a conflict of interest with the NFL.
The community support is remarkable. Over the years, its always one of the key sporting events of the year in Memphis. Is that because you were able to get the top notch players, especially at the beginning when you got Bjorn Borg the first year and Connors came back 5 or 6 times?
Those are the keys to making a successful tournament. When you bring the number 1 and 2 players in the world on your court for a week to play tennis, and they play well, it makes it a no-brainer really.
How much credit would you give Tommy Buford?
Huge, huge amount of credit. Tommy was very instrumental in bringing these players to Memphis. What he was really good at was, he made them really feel good while they were here. Whatever they needed -- he would service those needs. In those days, it wasnt always the money. It was important. But, how you treated these individuals was really important.
Memphis got a reputation for treating the pros very well.
Tommy had a premier reputation of being a guide to the players, really respected, and would do exactly what he told then he would do. That was another great factor in making the tournament a success.
Do you miss not being as involved as you were?
The answer would be yes and no. Not really now. Not with all the things now that Im doing. Im glad Mac has it. Im glad Macs doing a good job with it, Im glad Macs still supporting it and we at Dunavant Enterprises still support it.
Im fine. Im happy for him. I would hate to see the tournament leave Memphis. I think its a real plus.
Talk about where mens tennis is today. It seems like it was a golden era when the tournament started with McEnroe, Connors and Lendel. Now it would be hard for the average fan to name 4 or 5 mens tennis players.
The avid tennis players, they can name me more than 4 or 5. I think the money has gotten so big in the sport thats its lost a little of its personal touch, in my opinion. That may be true in lots of professional sports. But, we like the guys. There were some jerks, obviously, but they treated us fair, they really did.
Do you think that the influx of European players, especially Eastern European players, has made the pro game suffer in this country? You cant name but a couple of American players that are really top notch right now.
Honestly, theres a lot more excitement when someone is an American playing here than if hes from Europe. Still, the people turn out to see the real, real top-notch players. But, is U.S. tennis on the decline? Sampras has been, hes probably going to go down as maybe the best player in history. Well bring another one along. Therell be another one come along.
Looking back, if you can, from a distance, how proud are you of bringing the tournament and bringing the tennis club into fruition? Will it be one of your lasting legacies?
It would certainly be one of the things I did in the sporting world that brought a lot of fruition to myself and to my family. It was successful and still is successful. That does give me a lot of gratification. Ive been in the basketball business and the pro football business and tennis. I guess probably the Showboats was one of my favorites. I really enjoyed that. Im sorry that we couldnt have made it. It was a good product for the people of the city of Memphis. Ive enjoyed all of it but É the Racquet Club had been a success, is a success, and will continue to be a success.
[This story originally appeared in Memphis magazine.]