Saturday, December 24, 2011

With clay court, California dreamin' becomes reality

Players warm up on the Har-Tru (green clay) court at Ben Combs' house in Orangevale.
   The players met for a coveted clay-court trophy, a tidy sum of money and bragging rights.
   But the hotly contested final -- which featured a paid chair umpire, ballgirls, sponsor banners, VIP seating and food for spectators -- did not take place in a packed stadium of raucous fans in Europe or South America. 
   It was held in front of 30 fellow competitors, family members and friends in the back yard of Ben Combs' home in bucolic Orangevale, a suburb of Sacramento.
  Jordan Boyls and Mark Tappan defeated Chris Evers and Dave Hagiwara 6-4, 6-4 last month to win the  Sacramento Clay Court League. Afterward, Boyls and Tappan received an envelope containing $1,200 in cash. Evers and Hagiwara split $500, and third-place finishers Mike Smith and Bryan Paveglio shared $300.  

Posing after the final of the Sacramento Clay Court League in November are, left to right, Har-Tru executive Tim Beyer,  runners-up Chris Evers and Dave Hagiwara, Commissioner Ben Combs and champions Jordan Boyls and Mark Tappan.

   "I love playing on clay," said the 53-year-old Tappan, who won the NCAA Division III singles title in 1979 and led Redlands to the team championship. "It's easy on the body, and the pace is a little slower."   
   Clay courts are the norm in Europe and Latin America and common in the eastern and southern United States. But they're about as rare as hockey rinks in the western U.S. Tim Beyer, the new markets manager for Har-Tru  (American green clay), said less than 1 percent of all courts in California are clay versus more than 50 percent in Florida.
   The ratio is reflected on the ATP World Tour and the WTA tour, the major leagues of men's and women's tennis, respectively. Of the 124 tournaments combined this year, 41 were on clay. Thirty-one of those were in Europe, six were in Latin America, two were in Africa (Morocco), and two were in the United States.
   The U.S. Men's Clay Court Championship is held on maroon clay in Houston and the women's Family Circle Cup on green clay in Charleston, S.C., both in April.
   Since Combs, a 52-year-old former co-owner of the Sacramento Capitals in World TeamTennis, built his clay court in 2000, two other league members have followed suit. Combs said there's also one in Loomis, one in El Dorado Hills and perhaps two others in the Sacramento area.
   Why so few?
   "Good question," Beyer said. "A lot of people think they're hard to maintain. A lot of builders aren't familiar with (clay courts)."
   In contrast, "Two builders in Florida really embraced clay courts in the '70s," Beyer noted. "It's close enough to Virginia that shipping is not a big deal."
  Combs also suggested that "there's a perception of high maintenance" concerning clay courts. But isn't that true in Europe and Florida?
   "I don't get it," Combs confessed. "The truth is, it's not high maintenance. Maybe people in Europe are not as lazy."
   Beyer concedes that "you have to top-dress (a clay court) once a year in California and twice a year in Florida. The disadvantage is you have to take care of it. You can't leave it alone."
   But Beyer says it's worth it.
  "We believe clay helps develop your game -- the patience, the shot development, the spins," he said, adding that 88 percent of the top 10 players in the world in the year-end rankings since 1974 grew up on clay.
   Spain, where players grow up on clay, has three of the top 10 men in the world (No. 2 Rafael Nadal, No. 5 David Ferrer and No. 10 Nicolas Almagro), six of the top 30, eight of the top 50 and 13 of the top 100. Nadal, a 10-time Grand Slam singles champion, led Spain to its third Davis Cup title in four years this month.
  The United States, with more than six times Spain's population (313.2 million to 46.7 million), has one man in the top 10 (No. 8 Mardy Fish), three in the top 30, four in the top 50 and nine in the top 100.
  Is it any wonder that Patrick McEnroe, the general manager of USTA player development, is emphasizing more clay-court training and events for U.S. juniors? Nor does it hurt that Jose Higueras, the USTA director of coaching, is a former top-10 player from Spain.
   For the first time since 1998, the recent Orange Bowl junior tournament in Plantation, Fla., was held on clay.      
   " ... Higueras and I firmly believe that providing our juniors with more training and competition on clay will ultimately lead to more well-rounded players, and will better serve these players as their careers progress," McEnroe told "Moving our largest and most prestigious international (junior) event back to clay will help teach our players more court awareness and better movement."
* * *
   Combs had planned to build a hard court, but Ramey Osborne, the Capitals' previous owner who re-purchased the team this month, urged his friend to put in a clay surface. Osborne lives in a planned development, featuring two hard courts, that his real estate company built 30 years ago in Fair Oaks. 
   "You know Ramey," Combs said. "That guy's a bulldog. I said, 'Ramey, I'm not going to put in clay.' He said: '(A clay court) is not much to maintain. If you put in a hard court, people won't play on it. They'll just meet at a club. But if you put in a clay court, you'll have something special. Everyone will want to come over and play.' He was right."   
    Combs chose Har-Tru over European-style red clay.
   "It's more suitable for California's climate," he explained. "It's not as dusty, and it doesn't stain clothes. It holds moisture better. You need something to retain moisture in a dryer climate. Moisture is important for the clay to stay compact and level so it doesn't dry up and blow away. Otherwise, it gets dusty."
   Har-Tru, actually composed of crushed stone, is made from billion-year-old Pre-Cambrian metabasalt found in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Forty tons, enough for a one-inch layer on one court, were transported from a quarry in Shadwell, Va., one mile from Har-Tru's headquarters in Charlottesville, by two flat-bed trucks, a train and then trucks again to Orangevale. Workers spread 3,000 bags of Har-Tru over a four-inch gravel base, weighing 150 tons, from a local quarry and a one-inch layer of rock dust.
   The court, including lights and an underground sprinkler system, took "seven or eight days" to build at a cost of $50,000, Combs said. The price today without lights is $80,000, about the same as a hard court, he added.
   Combs said he uses the sprinkler system up to four times a day in the summer but rarely in the winter. He does minor maintenance on the court annually and re-levels and re-rolls the court for $3,000 every three years. Combs said it costs approximately the same amount to resurface a hard court, which is recommended every five years.
   The biggest difference between playing on hard courts and clay, Combs said, is clay "is just slower. It's harder to put the ball away. I read that the average decrease in speed when a ball hits a hard court is 18 percent and that it's 43 percent on clay. You have more time to get to the ball. There are a lot of rallies. That's why a five-set match at the French Open is longer and more demanding."
   Boyls sees a "substantial difference" between playing on hard courts and clay.
   "On hard courts, you feel you can change direction at will," he said. "Here, you have to take (small) steps. My first season, I was all over the place falling down. You have to be more careful with your steps. You can't expect to make hard stops.
   "Movement is the biggest thing. You're going to get some different bounces. The ball is not always going to be where you think. You have to be able to adjust."
   David Floth, a 39-year-old league member who played at Iowa State, said "playing on clay is a blast. The points are longer, which makes it fun. I feel I can play a lot longer and play again the next day. The court is soft, so it's easier on the body." 
   Mike Norton, a 45-year-old league member and former Sac State player, said he prefers clay to hard courts.
   "It's fun sliding around. In the summer, (playing on clay) is huge. It can be 15 degrees cooler. You don't get the radiation from a hard court," Norton said.
   Clay also minimizes arguments over line calls because the ball leaves a mark where it bounces. According to league rules, the court is swept before a third set (to avoid confusion from multiple marks), and the losing team sweeps after the match.
* * *
   Combs began the league five years ago with an eight-player doubles round robin. Since then, it has grown into 24 doubles teams divided into four balanced divisions. Combs serves as the commissioner.
   The league did not offer singles this year, but Combs is contemplating a weekend tournament for next year.
   "It's easier to do a singles tourney and a doubles league," he said. "Not a lot of guys will play singles. It rains in the winter, and it's hot in the summer. We're experimenting."
   Most league members have a rating of 5.0 (very advanced) or higher, and the minimum is 4.5. Many, including all four finalists, played collegiately, and a few played professionally. Kelly (Pace) Wilson, 38, one of three women in the league, beat Lindsay Davenport in the juniors and reached the top 200 in the world in singles and doubles. Ages of league members range from 22 to 57, Combs said, with most in their 30s and 40s.
  Players paid an entry fee of $50 for the five-match, nine-week season, which lasted from Sept. 3 to Nov. 19. Matches were two out of three tiebreak sets with regular scoring. The top three teams in each division advanced to the single-elimination playoffs.
  Everything about the league -- from the caliber of play to the trappings of professional tournaments to the web site ( -- is first-class. No details are overlooked.
   The web site includes rules, standings, results, live scoring, a photo of the trophy (an acrylic tennis racket and ball on a base listing the past champions) and a countdown of the number of days until the 2012 season.
  League matches are "very serious," said Combs, a 5.0 player who reached the quarterfinals of the playoffs with Norton. "You watch someone try to serve out a match, and some good players can get tight and double-fault because they're close to winning.
   "It's not just the $1,200. It's nice to have a little pocket money, but it's not going to change anyone's life. People talk about (the league). It's special because there are a lot of good players."
   The "Wall of Shame" attests to the seriousness of the competition. Twenty-one smashed, weather-beaten rackets, each with a metal dog tag specifying the offender and date of the infraction, are attached to a waist-high fence on one side of the court. None, however, belong to Combs.
   "I'm not a racket thrower or breaker," he said. "We have plenty of guys that are, though. I saw a kid get hit in the teeth with a racket. I'll never forget it. His front teeth got knocked out. It was horrible.
   "A guy on my (high school) team threw his racket into the net. It caught the tape and bounced up. The match was over. I remember seeing blood going on the court."
* * *
   Combs' success on and off the court belies a difficult childhood, minimal tennis training as a junior and little college education.
   He owns Judi's Cleaners -- which has three stores, all in the Sacramento area -- and 20 percent of house2home Showcase, a home improvement publication based in Folsom. He and his wife, Mary, live in a four-bedroom, 3,800-square-foot California Spanish Style house. They have three children, all daughters in their 20s, and will celebrate their 30th anniversary in February.
   But Combs and his four siblings endured a rough upbringing. His mother was mentally ill, and his parents divorced when he was 11, throwing the family into poverty. He played competitive tennis for only one year in high school, and he did not even earn a two-year college degree.
   Two years after the divorce, Combs accidentally discovered tennis.
   "I saw some guys playing tennis in the park behind our house," he recalled. "I found a beat-up wood racket in the park, hit against the wall and got pretty good."
   Combs, the second of three children born in less than two years, played No. 3 singles as a sophomore in high school before his mother made him quit.
   "She thought it was frivolous," he said. "She had her own problems. She had five kids and no husband. She wanted me home. I had an interesting childhood."
   Combs' mother, Carmen, "struggled with what's now called bipolar disorder," he said. "Then, we just thought she was nuts. We didn't know why she said 'No' -- she just said it. She'd wake us up in the middle of the night to move furniture. We didn't know why. She had a hankering to get something done."
   Combs' younger sister Angela wrote and directed a movie loosely based on their mother's childhood, "Nothing Special," that premiered last month in Beverly Hills. Ben solicited almost all of the $300,000 budget for the film, starring Karen Black ("Easy Rider" with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, "Five Easy Pieces" with Jack Nicholson and "The Great Gatsby" with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow), from the Sacramento tennis community and contributed $15,000 himself.
   Combs' father, Charles, earned a master's degree in mathematics and worked as college professor and computer engineer. Ben described him as a "really smart guy" who "bounced around." After the divorce, Carmen and the kids went on welfare and food stamps.
   "If you don't think that's embarrassing for an 11- or 12-year-old ... " Combs lamented. "I remember trying to figure out how to pay at the supermarket without my friends seeing. That was my motivation. I thought about making money rather than going to school."
    Combs initially tried the conventional route, studying journalism at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, but did not graduate. 
   "I started making money," he said. "I (later) told my kids, 'You're not going to do that. You're going to go to college.' That's the smartest way to go. I got into the advertising business at 19. I made $4,000 in one month and thought I was set for life."
   Added Combs: "People are surprised when they find out I don't have a degree. But I was in a hurry. I wanted to make money. By following through and doing the right thing, I've been able to overcome not having a degree. You can learn a lot from attorneys, accountants and bankers. Trust me, I have a degree, just not a conventional one."
   Combs appears to have emerged from his childhood unscathed.
   "I work hard," he explained. "I'm kind of an overachiever. I enjoy business and productivity. That's one of the keys to coming out unscathed. I always remembered as a kid there would be a day when I'd control my own life. When I was 18, I moved out."
   Asked whether her husband has any emotional scars from his past, Mary said: "There are some issues, but even family members say they don't know how he came out of it. He's upbeat and doesn't dwell on it. He got past it. All the others have mental health issues and depression. He doesn't."
* * *
   Combs reluctantly picked up tennis again at 32 when he and Mary, then a 3.0 player and now a 3.5, went to a clay-court tennis resort at Hilton Head Island, S.C., in 1992 for their 10th anniversary. Mary wanted Ben to start playing with her.        
   "I didn't want to go to Hilton Head," Ben admitted. "She made me go."
   When they returned home, Mary began going to clinics at the Johnson Ranch Racquet Club in Roseville.
   "She said, 'You've got to see assistant pro Cris Bacharach,' Ben recalled. "I said, 'I'm not going to play. I'm too busy.' She made me: 'We're going to go to a drop-in drill.' That was the first time anyone helped me with instruction."
   Combs took a weekly private lesson from Bacharach, now the head pro at Johnson Ranch, for 10 years.
   "He started out as a "C" player, a garden-variety guy," Bacharach said. "He worked at it, and now he's one of the better men in town."
   And Bacharach plays in Combs' league.
   "He has a really good attitude," Bacharach said. "He enjoys himself all the time out there no matter now serious it gets."
   Especially on the clay court.
    "He's so happy," Osborne said. "He has friends he never would have had, he plays (three or four times a week), and he has the best players in Sacramento in his back yard. Dmitry Tursunov and other pros have played there, and up-and-coming juniors play there, too. Ben's the happiest guy in town."    


  1. I wish SoCal had more clay. I found some in Irvine and a new facility in Riverside. After playing a few years in FLA. I prefer clay over hard curt any day. Yes, I am in my 40s and a 4.5 player


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