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Men's Tennis: A History Of The John Breaux Tennis Classic
LAFAYETTE—In 1977 head tennis coach Jerry Simmons of the then named University of Southwestern Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns had an idea, he wanted to bring top competition to Lafayette and showcase the University's growing tennis program. To do that he developed a tournament that would attract the best competition in the country and the USL Tennis Classic was born.
"I wanted it to be like a pro event," said Simmons. "It was the first time someone had approached a collegiate event like that and to do it in the fall was something new as well."
That concept quickly grew into one of the top fall tournaments around, creating an atmosphere of tennis in Lafayette that hadn't been seen in Louisiana before and allowed the great community of Lafayette to come out and see some of the country's best.
The '77 tournament brought in powerhouse competition such as, then ranked No. 2 in the nation Trinity University, big name schools like Texas, Michigan, Miami and Oklahoma among others to face the Cajuns on the court.
It was historic and it began a great run eight-year run were top competition would come into Lafayette each year ready for the challenge.
The time was perfect to create a tournament like the classic, since tennis was riding high during what could've been considered a golden age of tennis worldwide.
"You had a lot of worldwide attention on tennis and it was a popular sport in Lafayette," said Bruce Brown who covered the tournament for the Advertiser during its first run. "You had Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, making it a perfect time to put on a tournament of this caliber."
The original '77 tournament, which in its own right had 20 future professional players that would either win or play in a Grand Slam final take part in it, grew every season that it was around.
When it was all said and done it had seen five ATP top-20 singles players, 12 NCAA champions, four doubles players that reached the No. 1 world ranking and even a pair of Olympic gold medalists.
It became so well known, that in 1979 a little-known network in Bristol, Connecticut, with the name of ESPN, was looking for credible events to cover. The Cajuns Classic provided the credibility ESPN was looking for and they made the trip down to Lafayette to produce and broadcast the event.
Adding to that, Rolex came on board to become a title sponsor meaning that the winner of the tournament received a brand-new Rolex watch, not so bad for a weekend tennis tournament.
Among the group that made the trip to Lafayette were Kevin Curren, Robert Seguso and Ken Flach, all three went on to win at least one Grand Slam title making the tennis classic held in Lafayette one of the more prestigious events to be held every year.
"It quickly became a tournament where coaches said, wow this is a great tournament with high competition," said Brown. "It got to be one of the best fall tournaments around, and by the time it got faded out it had built a good reputation."
One season was memorable for the Cajuns and the home crowd since future tennis pro Tarek El Sakka became the first and so far, only Cajuns player to win the Classic when he took the singles title in 1984.
The top competition that the Cajuns faced through the years of the Classic helped prepare them for the spring season that followed and starting in the spring of 1977, right before the first classic was held, the Cajuns won six Southland Conference titles.
"The good thing for us was that we started playing the big-name schools in the dual match season because of the classic," said Simmons. "And off the competition we faced and the exposure we went on a great six year stretch where we won every conference tournament."
Unfortunately, all good things come to an end and after the 1984 classic was held, it was decided by the University and then head coach Gary Albertine to call it quits on the eight-year run of the tournament.
In 2014, it was time to bring it back and the Sun Belt Conference winning Ragin' Cajuns were preparing for a resurrection.
Thanks to the efforts of head coach Mark Jeffery, Simmons, Robert Daigle and Sharon Moss the classic was coming back to Lafayette. And joining the group was new title sponsor Sen. John Breaux.
"Again, the was perfect timing for coach Jeffery to bring back the classic," said Brown. "It was ironic that the original classic came the fall after we won the conference tournament and the reincarnation occurred the fall after yet another conference championship creating a connection between past and present."
With the help of Daigle, Moss and Breaux, coach Jeffery once again has fixated the focus of the collegiate tennis world back onto Lafayette for one September weekend a year.
"The John Breaux Tennis Classic is a unique event and it's very special, since it's 100 percent local," said Jeffery. "All the people who give to this event all have businesses here and they've given their backs to get this thing going again."
Much like the original classic did, the reincarnation has attracted some of the best competition across the nation. Including, in just the first year, Texas, Georgia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Wake Forest, LSU and TCU.
The classic has even reached as far out as California attracting, in 2015, the University of Southern California only increasing the prestige of the event.
"To get the University of Southern California to leave their area code is significant," said Brown. "I think that's it's great for the University, to have these schools come down here to play in the fall."
With Lafayette being a tight community that cares about its own, "Lafayette is such a community orientated town and they support the University and this event," said Simmons. It was no surprise that fans turned out to see what has been the highlight of the new tournament's run.
Even though Jordan Daigle was wearing LSU colors, the fact wasn't ignored that he was a local kid who grew up playing the courts around Lafayette. And in 2015 he made a run that people around town still talk about.
"That was the second year that I played in the tournament after transferring back to LSU from Virginia," said Daigle. "And I was excited to play in front of my friends and family.
"I had a chip on my shoulder coming into that 2015 tournament because I had lost in the first round of the previous year's classic. I came out with something to prove and I just felt great coming out in the first round and things just started clicking. I felt really good through the tournament and things just worked out for me to win."
"When Jordan was making his run, they had some big crowds to come out and watch him play, it didn't matter that he was in purple," said Brown.
"The tournament has done and continues to do unbelievable things for the Ragin' Cajuns tennis program and it really highlights us for that entire week," said Jeffery. "The local kids get the opportunity to see the best tennis they'll see in the state of Louisiana. For the kids to get out and see these guys play really reignites the dream that one day they could do what Jordan did or what others have come in here and done, to go on and be a great tennis player."
Simmons had an idea in 1977, that idea was to spread the Cajuns brand of tennis while exposing his athletes to top talent. That idea became a reality and that reality became one of the best fall tournaments in the country.
Great things have a way of sticking around, and with the efforts of the community here in Lafayette a long hiatus came to an end in 2014, and for the foreseeable future fans of Cajuns tennis know that they can look forward to seeing some of the best talent in the country every fall right here on Cajuns Court.
"It's so good for the community to see the schools and teams that come in and take part in the tournament since people in Lafayette and the surrounding areas," said Daigle. By far it's one of the best events of the year, and for me it was always extra special to play in the tournament."
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