L AFAYETTE — Former University of Louisiana at Lafayette tennis coach Jerry Simmons has returned to the school to assist in reviving the elite collegiate tournament he created 37 years ago.
With the help of UL-Lafayette’s athletic department and area businesses, the university will host the Cajun Tennis Classic, once a hotly contested stop for U.S. college tennis programs.
“It’s going to bring the best teams in the country to see them play,” UL-Lafayette Athletic Director Scott Farmer said. “Having high-ranked teams and coaches in our facility will be great. Our players will get to play against some of them and get to watch and learn from them. It will bring recognition and familiarity.”
The Sept. 16-21 tournament will pit the Sun Belt Champion 61st-ranked UL-Lafayette against eight of the nation’s tennis powerhouses, including 8th-ranked Texas, 9th-ranked Georgia, 12th-ranked Kentucky and 46th-ranked LSU.
Being the home team for once is something Damian Farinola, a senior standout doubles player and a native of Adelaide, South Australia, said he’s looking forward to.
“It’s pretty cool, actually,” Farinola said. “It’ll be nice to stay in Lafayette and not have to travel. We’ll have our own supporters coming out.”
Mark Jeffrey, UL-Lafayette head tennis coach, said his team shares Farinola’s excitement.
“I don’t think they understand the magnitude of it just yet, but I think they’re excited,” Jeffrey said. “I think once all the teams get on campus, that’s when they’ll get really excited.”
Coupled with the collegiate tourney will be a children’s tennis clinic, which will host more than 500 local elementary school students, teaching them the ins and outs of the sport.
In 1977, a then-unknown University of Southwest Louisiana coach, Simmons decided to start a tennis tournament in Lafayette. The twist: the tourney would be corporately sponsored.
Profits from the tournament, coupled with donations and corporate sponsorships, would cover travel expenses for all the participating teams.
Simmons also found families to house the visiting teams.
“They didn’t just provide housing for these teams,” Daigle said. “They provided anything these guys could possibly need on the trip. They fed them, they entertained them, they took them wherever the needed to go.”
For smaller collegiate sports like tennis, being able to cover travel expenses like that is very rare. The classic was the first collegiate tennis tournament in the nation to be corporately sponsored.
The gamble paid off.
The Rolex Tennis Classic captured the attention of college tennis programs across the nation. Coupled with the region’s unique culture, Daigle said, the classic was one of the most sought-after tournaments in U.S. collegiate tennis at the time.
“At the end of the day, what Jerry created was a tournament stop that was second-to-none,” Daigle said. “His idea was to create a tournament that teams in future years would be fighting to get invited to.”
An invitation to the Rolex Tennis Classic became one of the most prized things a program could get at that time, Daigle said.
The tournament continued until Simmons accepted an offer to coach LSU men’s tennis team in 1983, taking the classic with him. Simmons would lead the Tigers to 13 NCAA tournament appearances, one 1985 SEC championship and three runners-up in 1991, 1992 and 1995. In 1998, Simmons became the youngest coach ever inducted in the Collegiate Tennis Hall of Fame at 51.
In the tournament’s tenure, it produced 20 Grand Slam winners or finalists, two U.S. Olympic gold medal doubles players and hosted 12 NCAA championship programs.
Some of the more famous players include U.S. Open doubles champion Steve Denton and the six-time Grand Slam doubles champion Paul Haarhuis.
“This is what we live for,” Jeffrey said. “When I was a player, (playing in these kinds of tournaments) is what I did. I want these guys to live these kinds of experiences. It’s a wonderful experience for them.”