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Texas Tennis History

Tennis Comes to Texas

Tennis in the Late 19th Century

When tennis made its way to Texas, sometime in the early 1880s, the open frontier of Texas was disappearing. New technology was introduced that would change the lives of people forever. Improvements in communications and transportation spread ideas across the state. Seventy-nine new newspapers began publication between 1880 and 1890. The telephone was patented in 1876 and in 1886 Karl Benz received the first patent for a gas-fueled car. Train travel allowed people to get to different cities in much less time and helped expand commerce. Cotton, livestock and lumber added to the wealth in Texas as commercial enterprises and industry expanded. The population in cities tripled from 1880 to 1890. Galveston, San Antonio, Houston, Austin and Dallas were the largest cities in Texas in 1880. By 1890, Dallas was the largest city with San Antonio, Houston and Fort Worth also growing rapidly.


Within these cities were people in the middle and upper classes that had the wealth and the leisure time to participate in sports, including tennis. The earliest story of tennis competition in Texas comes out of Dallas. In the 1880s, the population of Dallas doubled and it became known as the wealthiest and most populated city in 1890. In her book Dallas Country Club: The First 100 Years, Diane Gallloway recounts how Richard E. Potter, an Englishman, was instrumental in introducing tennis to Dallas. Potter, who ran the Texas Land and Mortgage Company, was involved in the first competition in Dallas. It took place at the home of G. Arbuckle on Ross Avenue sometime in the early 1880s. Potter, along with H.L. Edwards, also founded the Dallas Golf and Country Club and introduced golf to Dallas.


By early 1890s, Dallas built tennis courts in City Park, which brought about the formation of the Surprise Tennis Club. Among the top players was J.B. "Tiste" Adoue. In 1908, Adoue founded the Dallas Lawn Tennis Club. The club became the focal point of tennis through the 1930s. Adoue served as mayor of Dallas from 1951 to 1953.


In 1887, the Austin American Statesman reported that the city's Cricket Club was discussing adding a lawn tennis club. By 1888, tennis had become popular in Austin. In an article from May 25, 1888 in the Austin Statesmen: "The game has obtained a strong foothold in the city and is becoming universally popular with a very large class of young people who have the means and the leisure to indulge in its healthful fascinations."


San Antonio

The first tennis club in San Antonio was organized in 1895. Prospering as a cattle, distribution, mercantile and military center, San Antonio was the largest city in Texas by 1900 with a population of 53,321. Paschal Walthall describes tennis in San Antonio:

As in many towns, the first tennis here was strictly "lawn tennis" played on private courts. Most of these were on the grounds of the finer residences and just as the name implies, many were simply nets stretched across smooth lawns. Surprising to some may be that fact that there were many such courts here. (Paschal Walthall, History of Tennis is Old San Antone, 1955)


A group of several young men, including members of the Walthall family, Charley Cresson, Henry Holden, Gus and Franz Groos, George and Grant Pancoast, and Semp Russ organized the first tennis club in San Antonio around 1895. The club was located two blocks south of the present site of the Bexar County Courthouse on Dwyer Avenue. They started with one mud court. Facilities also included a shower shack, wooden bleacher seats. They later added two more courts.


The San Antonio Country Club was founded around the turn of the century. Tennis activity moved to its three courts between San Pedro Avenue and North Flores Street around Summit Avenue, near where the McFarlin Tennis Center now stands in San Pedro Park. Tennis activity then moved to the San Antonio Country Club's present location on North New Braunfels Avenue.


In 1889 the Houston Tennis Club was organized. Matches were played at a home on Rusk Street. In 1891 the club moved to the corner or Pierce and Main Streets. 

Homemade Tennis Courts

In other cities around the state, people had to build their own courts. Travis Smith, born in Waco, Texas, described the development of such a tennis court in Waco, "About 1950, the neighborhood kids used to play baseball. Mr. Shead had a piece of land and a tennis book showing how to play tennis and he got us all interested in it. We constructed a court and it was rather homemade. We had a wire stretched between two posts and we tore up the bed sheet and draped the wire and that made the net."


Howard E. Butt, Sr., founder of the HEB grocery store chain, cleared off a vacant lot by using salt to kill the grass. As a young boy growing up in Kerrville there were no courts in town. Butt later helped fund tennis courts through donations and loans throughout Texas, believing that since tennis had contributed so much to his own well being, it should be extended to others.

The First State Tournament

Not long after tennis arrived in Texas, players competed in a state tournament. The earliest recorded state tournament was played in October 1888 in Dallas at the State Fair.

Tennis Spreads Through Texas

Dr. Daniel A. Penick was the major force in the spread and organization of tennis in Texas.  Penick arrived at the University of Texas in 1887 as an undergraduate. He played on the baseball team for three years while he also picked up tennis.


After earning a B.A. and an M.A. from Texas and a Ph.D. from John Hopkins, he returned to the university in 1899 to teach Latin and Greek. Penick immediately went to work to provide tennis equipment for students who had to pay for nets, racquets, balls and the use of courts. In 1908, Penick became the first tennis coach at the University of Texas, a position he held for 45 years. As coach at the university, tennis director of the University Interscholastic League, president of the Southwest Conference and president of the Texas Tennis Association was a key contributor to the development of tennis throughout Texas.

One of Texas’ great businessmen and philanthropists, Howard E. Butt, Sr. (1895-1991) recognized that life in Texas communities could be enriched through sport. His contributions toward public tennis facilities greatly contributed to the growth of tennis in Texas. Butt appreciated the need for youth to learn and have fun, especially during the Depression years. Remembering how much he himself enjoyed tennis as a child, he found a way to bring this joy into the lives of many Texas children. Through large land and monetary contributions, Mr. Butt supported construction of public tennis centers in Corpus Christi, Harlingen, Donna, Edinburgh, Mission, Mercedes, Laredo, Victoria, Kerrville, Fredericksburg and New Braunfels, several of which still operate today. These community tennis centers were accessible to everyone, a factor that was very important to Mr. Butt. In addition, he and his company have given abundant support to tennis collegiate programs, especially at the University of Corpus Christi (now Texas A&M University Corpus Christi). 

Dr. Daniel Penick and the 1899-1900 UT Men's Tennis Team

HEB Tennis Center opens in Corpus Christi. 

Tennis in Texas Since its Arrival

Since tennis first was played in Texas, the state has experienced a number of historic events in tennis history. The River Oaks International Tennis Tournament was founded by Jack Norton in the early spring of 1931 at the River Oaks Country Club in Houston.   In 1971 the tournament was part of the Grand Prix tennis circuit. From 1973 to 1977, it was part of the World Championship Tennis circuit. In 2008, the River Oaks International was merged with one of the oldest and last remaining clay court tournaments in the United States, the U.S. Men's Clay Court Championships. The only ATP World Tour event in the U.S. played on clay, the tournament continues to be played at the tennis stadium at River Oaks.


Gladys Heldman began publishing World Tennis Magazine out of Houston.  In 1971, WCT, World Championship Tennis played its first of 19 finals in Dallas, where the tour was headquartered. That same year a group of woman, with the help of Gladys Heldman, formed the Virginia Slims Tournament in response to inequalities in prize money between men and women. It later merged into what became the WTA, the Women's Tennis Association. In 1973, in what may be one of the most famous and influential matches of all time, Billie Jean King defeated Bobbie Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes at the Houston Astrodome.

River Oaks Stadium 1940

Battle of the Sexes Scorecard on display at the museum

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