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Tennis: UL’s old ROLEX Tennis Classic attracted top teams

Bruce Brown, Special to the Advertiser, September 5, 2014


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Former UL tennis coach, Jerry Simmons, center, with two of his former players. (Photo: Advertiser file photo)



When Jerry Simmons was building a tennis program at then-USL in the 1970’s, he sought a way to get a seat at the table, literally a place on the court, with the power teams in college tennis.

How, he wondered, could he get schools like Georgia, Texas and Tennessee to pay attention to his Ragin’ Cajuns?

Just as importantly, how could his Cajuns improve to the point where they clearly belonged on the same court?

Simmons’ solution, which changed the face of collegiate tennis, was the ROLEX Tennis Classic, an NCAA-caliber invitational event in the fall semester that would shine the spotlight on the sport and feature its finest young college players.

The inaugural tournament in 1977 was the first time corporate sponsorship had been introduced to college tennis.

"I was looking for a relationship with the major universities," Simmons said. "We did it first class. We took care of their airfare, housing, rent-a-car … each team had a host … we fed them. Those kinds of things were unheard of at the time.

"As much as possible, I wanted to keep it like a pro event. We were looking at making it (like) the NCAA in the fall."

With a select, small field of 32 in singles, the event attracted top talent right out of the gate like Kevin Curren and Steve Denton of Texas. Yet the level of play was so high that Curren, a 1985 finalist at Wimbledon, couldn’t get past the ROLEX’s second round in 1977.

In all, the ROLEX would produce some 27 Grand Slam winners or finalists, 5 ATP Top 20 professionals, 4 players ranked No. 1 in the world in doubles, 2 American Olympic gold medal winners, 12 NCAA champions and 21 future ITA College Hall of Fame players or coaches.

That last group includes Simmons, now retired at age 68, who at 51 was the youngest coach ever named to the ITA Hall of Fame after compiling a 214-92-2 record in 11 years at USL and 278-105 in 15 years as coach at LSU.


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Former Ragin’ Cajun tennis great Tarek El Sakka was a star player for coach Jerry Simmons. (Photo: Advertiser file photo)



He was known as much for innovations as his 492 career coaching wins, organizing the first college tennis match televised by fledgling ESPN in 1979 and getting corporate sponsors for his scoreboard in addition to the ROLEX.

Joining him in the same Hall of Fame class were Curren, Peter Fleming and the Southern Illinois-Edwardsville doubles tandem of Ken Flach and Robert Seguso. Flach and Seguso (Olympic champions, No.1 in world doubles) and Curren all played in the ROLEX.

Now, Simmons is at the forefront of the revival of the ROLEX, the Cajun Tennis Classic set for Sept. 18-21 at Cajun Courts.

"College tennis has lost some of that allure," Simmons said. "I think bringing the tournament back will help to revive it."

UL coach Mark Jeffrey will provide players from his Sun Belt Conference champion squad, which finished 20-5 (the most wins since 1988) and reached the NCAA Tournament last spring, as the host team for the event. Cajuns picked up an impressive 37 ATP points in summer action.

Local product Jordan Daigle, who transferred from Virginia to LSU, is sure to have a following whenever he takes the court for the Tigers.

The event will also include No. 8 Texas, No. 9 Georgia, No. 12 Kentucky, No. 29 Oklahoma State, No. 30 Wake Forest and No. 49 TCU (rankings from May).

New faces are waiting to earn attention, joining standouts from the past.

Simmons recalled that Curren defeated John McEnroe in the quarterfinals, then Jimmy Connors in the semifinals, to reach the 1985 Wimbledon final against Boris Becker.

University of Georgia teammates Mikael Pernfors of Sweden and George Bezecny once faced off against each other in the ROLEX finals. Pernfors later reached the 1986 French Open finals, losing to Ivan Lendl, and also played Davis Cup.

Dutchman Paul Haarhuis of Florida State was another star in the making. He and countryman Jacco Eltingh would win five Grand Slam doubles crowns and he would earn over $7.7 million on tour.

Tennessee’s Paul Annacone earned the No. 1 rank in the world in doubles, then coached both Pete Sampras and Roger Federer.

The years are stacked with such future standouts.

Then came the autumn of 1982. Simmons had left for LSU, but prized Ragin’ Cajun pupil Tarek El Sakka won the ROLEX in Gary Albertine’s first year as USL coach, fulfilling Simmons’ dream of showing tennis powers that Cajuns belonged.

"Tarek was the best overall player I had at USL," Simmons said. "He could kill you on clay. He was a smart player, and a good doubles player. He and Boyd (Bryan) were a good team.

"With the ROLEX, we raised our level of play against the best. It’s amazing how quick it went. Our level of play went up and up. We were able to tell recruits who we beat."

The newly-minted Cajun Tennis Classic can provide the same lift for the Cajuns, and college tennis in general.

Classic returns

The Cajun Tennis Classic will be staged at UL’s Cajun Courts from Sept. 18-21, featuring members of UL’s 2014 NCAA Tournament squad facing a select group of players from LSU, Texas, Georgia, Kentucky, Oklahoma State, Wake Forest and TCU. The event got its start in 1977, giving college tennis a new look.