Former top pros make Nationals
a family affair
Mark Winters | December 7, 2016
The final USTA National Father & Son event of the year was staged in early December at the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club. The picturesque resort, neatly nestled into the California coastline just north of San Diego, was festively decorated as the holiday season began.
Held in conjunction with the National Men and Women’s 40 Hard Court Championships and the Grandfather & Grandson Championships, the Father & Son competition drew major media attention and a good deal of tennis fans’ interest.
The reason was simple: There was an array of famous players from the past taking part. Brad Gilbert played with Zach, Murphy Jensen with Billy Givens Jensen, Jonathan Stark with Charles, Jeff Tarango with Jackson and Erik van Dillen took to the courts with Hague.
As a group, the former ATP Tour standouts had impressive doubles credentials, having won a combined 50 career titles that included Grand Slams. ADVERTISEMENT Individually, the “names” had been in the forefront of the game for decades.
Gilbert, who had been ranked as high as No. 4 in the world in 1990, retired from competitive play in 1995. He then became one of the first “famous name” coaches and began working with the likes of Andre Aggasi, Andy Roddick and Andy Murray. His communicative skills were such a boon to him that he was able to segue from coaching into providing candid tennis television commentary.
After retiring from the professional tour in 2006, the effervescent Jensen coached the Washington Kastles to a record five straight WorldTeam Tennis Championships, including flawless seasons in 2011 and 2012. Nevertheless, he is still best known for winning Roland Garros with his older brother, Luke, in 1993.
A year after the Jensens’ victory in Paris, Stark won the Roland Garros title with Byron Black of Zimbabwe. And in 1995, the former world No. 1 teamed with tennis legend Martina Navratilova to take the Wimbledon mixed doubles trophy. Not to be overlooked, he teamed with Rick Leach to claim the year-end 1997 ATP Tour World Championships. Stark retired from the tour in 2001.
During his career, van Dillen, who stepped away from the tour in 1982, was a doubles finalist at the Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open. He was the only junior to win singles and doubles titles in each of the 12s, 14s, 16s and 18s age groups. Later, he was a stellar Davis Cup doubles performer, appearing in 14 ties for the U.S.
As strong as the former pros playing credentials are, only Jensen, Stark and Tarango had previously played in Father & Son competition. The tournament officials making the draw kept this in mind, seeding Peter and Tanner Smith, the USC men’s coach and his eldest son (a member of his current team), at No.1 seed, followed by former University of California, Irvine, All-American Bruce Man-Song-Hing and current UCI attendee Bruce Man-Song-Hing Jr. at No. 2.
At No. 6, the Gilberts were the top-seeded “name” team. The Starks followed at No. 9, and the van Dillens were No. 10. The Jensens were slotted at No. 12.
In the quarterfinals, the Man-Song-Hings downed the Gilberts, 6-4, 6-3, who had earlier sidelined the van Dillens, 6-2, 6-1, in the round of 16. The Smiths defeated the Starks in that same round, 6-1, 6-2. Andrew and Thomas Lake stopped the Jensens in another round-of-16 contest. Tarango and his son, Jackson, one of the youngest competitors in the draw, came up short in the first round.
Finally, in the all-Southern California final, Peter and Tanner downed Bruce and Bruce Jr., 6-2, 6-2, to capture the title.
Every competitive tennis event has a different dynamic, and this was clearly the case at the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club, which hosted the first USTA National Father & Son Hard Court Championship in 1959. It was intriguing to watch things play out. In some instances, the father was stronger, which allowed opponents to put pressure on the son with a barrage of shots. In other situations, the son was the stronger player, and that served to put the father in a “get it back” position.
“Most of the teams that did well had a youngster in his late teens teaming with a father who could still move around the court,” Gilbert said. He actually admitted that he had last played a USTA national tournament when he was 18 or 19. He then added, “I really wasn’t surprised. I knew that there were some good teams. I wish I had played better. I also wish we had done this six or eight years earlier. That was the optimum time for us, but it was hard to do because of our schedules.”
The Starks took part in their first Father & Son event in 2015 and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. After this year’s tournament Jonathan said, “It is a ton of fun being out on the court with Charlie. Each time creates a special memory that we will always have.”
Looking at the list of past Father & Son champions, Dick Leach, the former USC men’s tennis coach, leads the way with 10 titles (six with Rick and four with Jonathan). As impressive as this may appear, Brian and Brett Joelson, who have nine championships overall, claimed eight in a row from 2003 and 2010.
Taking a page from the Leach “How To Do It” manual, Smith now has four gold balls (which are awarded with the championship trophy), winning two each with his sons Riley and Tanner.
“It is great to be playing the Father & Son with fathers who have won Grand Slams and played Davis Cup,” Smith offered. “The draw is really strong. There are so many good teams, and only the Joelsons are missing.”
The loquacious Gilbert put the tournament in perspective, saying, “It’s a great event played at a beautiful club near the ocean. It’s really unique. But, then, it’s the Father & Son. …”
What a great way to spend quality time with family.