Nov. 20, 2006, 7:38PM
U.S. clay courts leaving Houston in 2008
By DALE ROBERTSON
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle
The U.S. Men's Clay Court Championships will be played for the last time at Westside Tennis Club in April 2007.
Westside owners Jim and Linda McIngvale said the high costs involved in putting on the tournament and maintaining the French red clay courts, plus dramatically declining revenues and the disruption to the club led to the decision to not attempt to extend their contract with the United States Tennis Association.
The USTA owns the ATP tournament and, in effect, leases it to the McIngvales for a $250,000 annual fee. As mandated by the ATP, the event's prize money must increase by 10 percent to $418,000 in 2007 and at least $250,000 more figure to be paid out in appearance fees to the marquee players.
The tournament turned a profit in 2002, when Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi were in the field, and again in 2003 when Agassi returned. But it has lost significant sums the last two springs, Linda McIngvale said.
"People were losing interest," she said. "The clay court draw just doesn't excite the community like it used to."
The tournament has been unable to attract the best clay-court players in the world, most conspicuously Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Its dates are inconvenient, following a Davis Cup week and preceding a $2.5 million Masters Series tournament in Monte Carlo.
Jim McIngvale admits it's unlikely the club would host a tournament of any kind in 2008, but he hopes to maintain a relationship with the USTA to possibly bring in future Davis Cup or Fed Cup ties to Houston, or to become part a USTA American tour if one were ever to come to fruition.
He said he has lost "more than five million dollars" with the event, which he brought to Houston from Disney World in 2001. Until the McIngvales became involved, Houston had been without a presence on the ATP Tour since the mid-1980s.
"We've got to have more U.S. tennis superstars" to be successful," he said. "Andy (Roddick) and James (Blake) can't carry it by themselves."
McIngvale said losing Sampras and, this fall, Agassi to retirement contributed to their decision, as did the club's planning to remain involved in World Team Tennis, which requires matches to be played on a hard court.
The annual transition from the clay to a hard court in the stadium has proved logistically difficult and expensive -- $500,000 per turnover when the French contractors come to do the work themselves.
In fact, Linda McIngvale, the club's on-site manager, also said all of Westside's French red clay courts -- except one for a "souvenir" -- would be replaced with either American green clay or turned into hard courts after next spring's tournament, set for April 9-12.
Westside had previously announced it would stress fitness equally with tennis in the years to come and is changing its name to Westside Tennis and Fitness Club. In all, 13 of the current 45 courts will be removed, including the four "Wimbledon" grass courts that were part of the club's "Play the World" marketing strategy. Westside offered all four Grand Slam tournament surfaces.
The McIngvales said they have yet to speak with any USTA officials since sending them an e-mail late last week regarding their intentions.
"They're business people, too," Jim McIngvale said. "They know we've got to do what we've got to do. Nobody in the United States has poured as much money into tennis over the last 10 years as me and Linda have. I hope they're happy to have us in the game."
McIngvale had a bitter parting with the ATP after it decided not to bring its season-ending Masters Cup back to Houston for a third year in 2005, opting instead to sign a huge contract with the Chinese government to play in Shanghai. He said he couldn't foresee a scenario where he would negotiate directly with the ATP for a tournament to replace the Clay Courts.
"We're not big ATP fans, as you know," he said. "But we're huge USTA fans. Hopefully one of these days we'll hook up with them again."
A USTA spokesperson, requesting anonymity because he hadn't been officially authorized to comment, said he was "100 percent certain the tournament wouldn't be allowed to die."
Of the McIngvales, he said: "Obviously, Jim and Linda are two of the biggest tennis supporters in the country. We expect to continue a relationship with them, and the USTA will continue to provide players with the opportunity to play on clay. If we need to move the event, we'll look for a site to honor the history of the event while maintaining the interest the McIngvales generated in Houston."
The tournament dates from the late nineteenth century.