Sweat builds on the tennis player as he waits in the sweltering heat for his opponent to serve the ball. Bouncing foot to foot with his racket in hand, the athlete hears the soft bounce of the ball on the clay court and the grunt of his opponent before seeing the yellow streak fly towards him.
It seems the whole town comes here to watch the tennis players, some of whom are parents, friends and classmates, during our summer tournaments, Mt. Lebanon Tennis Center professional trainer Mark Pemu says. “People think tennis is a religion in this area, not a sport,” says Hank Hughes, the Mt. Lebanon Tennis Center head tennis professional.
Starting next week, tennis will take over Mt. Lebanon. At the clay courts of the Mt. Lebanon Tennis Center two separate annual tournaments, the National Collegiate Clay Court Championships West Penn Amateur and United States Tennis Association (USTA) Professional Circuit, will happen simultaneously. Also on Sunday at noon, the Tennis Center will offer free tennis lessons for 5- and 6-year-olds.
From July 1 to July 6, about 100 players will compete in the collegiate part of the National Collegiate Clay Court Championships West Penn Amateur in events including men’s singles, men’s doubles, women’s singles, women’s doubles and mixed doubles. The tournament has opportunities for both college and high school players from the northeast.
A Mt. Lebanon staple, the National Collegiate Clay Court Championships West Penn Amateur tournament started in 1889. The tournament, originally called West Penn Tennis, had been at several venues around Pittsburgh before settling at the Mt. Lebanon Tennis Center in 1967. The oldest amateur tennis tournament in the United States, the West Penn Amateur joined the National Amateur Clay Court Championships in 1975. In the ‘70s, after many students competed in the tournament, the “National Collegiate Clay Court Championships” joined the title.
The USTA Pro Circuit added Mt. Lebanon’s clay courts to the schedule of tournament locations 13 years ago. This year the professional level tournament begins July 2 and ends July 7. Out of the 64 players competing this weekend, 34 individuals and 16 doubles teams will qualify for the tournament. The winner of the tournament receives tournament points and prize money.
Professional Men’s Tennis has four levels: Futures, Challengers, ATP Tour and Grand Slams, according to Tennis.About.com. The Mt. Lebanon athletes compete in the Futures level. “This is world class tennis,” tournament director Dan Hackett says. “It’s up close phenomenal tennis.”
Players to watch for during the professional matches are Christian Harrison, younger brother to professional player Ryan Harrison, from Shreveport, Louisiana; Chris Mengel, number one player for Duke University Men’s Tennis, from Pittsburgh; and A.J. Catanzariti, who reserved a wild card for the World Tour, from Mt. Lebanon.
But Hackett says you never know how things will end up; players can surprise the audience. Several athletes from this tournament move on to “Grand Slam events,” Hackett says. One of the joys of coming to the tournaments is seeing the younger players, many locals, who might move onto world tours, Hughes says.
Hackett believes the Mt. Lebanon Tennis Center has the nicest courts around. “I’m biased of course,” he adds. But, Hackett mentions how players from around the world come to the clay courts and think the center is a club instead of a public facility that is constantly packed with players of all levels.
With 12 Har-Tru clay courts available during the warmer months and six clay courts covered for athletes to play on for the winter, the Mt. Lebanon Tennis Center’s amenities are rare in this country. European players grow up on clay courts but few Americans have the opportunity because maintenance of these courts is difficult and costly, Hackett says.
Clay Courts are easier on the body than hard courts, such as asphalt, that make players sore by the end of a match. Playing on clay courts is a completely different game because the ball moves slower and bounces differently, leading to a sport that is more about strategy than hitting hard.
To join the fun, sign up by noon on June 29 to play in The National Collegiate Clay Court Championships West Penn Amateur. And make sure to stop by and greet Dan Hackett, who will be stepping down as tournament director after 13 years in the position. (See the September issue of mtl for details).
The tournaments are sponsored by PNC. To learn more and keep up on the statics visit: www.mtlebanontennis.com.