A zip tie holds the fence to a pole at the Whitaker tennis facility which the University of Texas tennis teams are using while new facilities are being built on Thursday, May 4, 2017. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Tennis

Three-year journey without a home almost finished for Texas tennis

Longhorns continue to maintain their top-25 status despite going on 3 years without a permanent tennis facility

Posted May 9th, 2017

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Story highlights
  • UT officials approved $16.5 million for a new facility in East Austin, with $2 million more expected to come.
  • Under Michael Center, the Longhorns' men's tennis team has reached 17 NCAA championships.
  • Said one UT player: “We could stay here, ride it out and bitch and moan. Or, we go and just try to do the best we can.”

Imagine if the University of Texas took a wrecking ball to Royal-Memorial Stadium. And then UT officials asked football coach Tom Herman to play three seasons at House Park.

Or, what if the school bulldozed the Erwin Center and sent the men’s and women’s basketball teams to play in the Westlake or Lake Travis high school gyms. For three years.

That is essentially what’s happened to the UT men’s and women’s tennis teams. The school demolished the historic Penick-Allison Tennis Center in the spring of 2014 to make room for the Dell Medical School. The Horns have been vagabonds since.

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Three years, two school presidents, two athletic directors and $18.5 million later, UT officials are inching closer to opening a new as-yet-unnamed tennis facility east of Interstate 35. It’s on track for a November debut.

 

Still, it’ll be a far cry from UT’s makeshift home, the intramural tennis courts at Whitaker Fields just off West 51st St., which have a quaint prison-yard feel.

“We could stay here, ride it out and bitch and moan,” said UT senior George Goldhoff. “Or we go and just try to do the best we can.”

Through it all, UT’s two teams have continued to win, maintain their national profile and take down some of the best in collegiate tennis. Both top-25 squads are back in the NCAA Division I tennis championships, which begin this weekend.

The men’s team will host NCAA first- and second-round matches at Caswell Tennis Center, located at 2312 Shoal Creek Blvd. The women’s team is headed to Columbia, S.C.

George Goldhoff practices at the Whitaker tennis facility which the University of Texas tennis teams are using while new facilities are being built on Thursday, May 4, 2017. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

 

Caswell is the All England Club compared to the Whitaker courts, which are basically painted concrete, chain-link fences — some held up by zip ties — and unlimited heat. A player’s lounge? Forget it. Restrooms? Well, it’s a short hike. Need to get new racket strings? Coach Michael Center struck a deal to meet a woman in the CVS parking lot to trade newly-strung rackets for cash.

It’s practically another planet compared to where Texas lived on May 10, 2014 — the final home match at Penick-Allison. Texas knocked off Mississippi State in the NCAAs, and from that point on, nobody knew what was next. Nobody could offer a take-this-to-the-bank vision for where Texas tennis would end up.

“I’m thinking I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Center said. “Really don’t know where the future of Texas tennis would be. But we’ll figure it out. I just have to keep going, keep working and we will figure it out.”

The entrance to the Whitaker tennis facility which the University of Texas tennis teams are using while new facilities are being built on Thursday, May 4, 2017. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

No home facility? No problem. The men reached the NCAA’s round of 16 in 2015 and 2016. The women’s team reached the round of 16 last season for the first time since 2012 under new coach Howard Joffe.

This season, the UT men have smashed their way through No. 2 Ohio State and No. 13 Oklahoma. Center, now in his 17th season at Texas, has reached the NCAAs 17 consecutive times. Christian Sigsgaard (No. 25), Harrison Scott (No. 36) and Yuya Ito (No. 55) can all be found in the ITA national rankings.

Goldhoff said this is far and away the best team he’s been a part of with the Longhorns. “You know how many transfers we’ve had? None,” he said.

Oh, and there were plenty of opportunities for players to leave.

Former UT President Bill Powers agreed to knock down Penick-Allison to build the new medical school. While the decision was understandable, there wasn’t a bullet-proof plan in place, multiple UT administrators said.

Neda Kopricina practices at the Whitaker tennis facility which the University of Texas tennis teams are using while new facilities are being built on Thursday, May 4, 2017. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

At the time, former athletic director Steve Patterson told Center and UT tennis alumni that they alone would have to raise the funds for a new facility. Normally, the school takes out long-term debt for most facility projects.

Powers initially believed a permanent facility at the Whitaker courts would make a good facility. But after internal discussion, it was decided that was too far from the central campus and wasn’t ideal.

Then before leaving UT, Powers struck a deal with the East Austin neighborhood association to expand beyond I-35. In May 2015, the UT System Board of Regents approved a $166.4-million plan to build graduate student housing, a parking garage and a new tennis facility adjacent to UFCU Disch-Falk Field.

New school president Gregory L. Fenves dismissed Patterson in September 2015 and in came Mike Perrin. “And I feel like life was born for our facility to actually happen,” Center said.

Another six-month delay was created when it was discovered that underground utilities would need to be moved. “We’re going to build the tennis center. It’s going to get done,” Fenves told the American-Statesman last June.

Initially, UT regents approved $16.5 million for the new facility. They were expected to approve another $2 million at this week’s board meeting. The new money will extend the building to include an indoor weight room and in-ground plunge pool, according to the UT regents’ agenda book.

Two sheds sit between trailers and the courts at the Whitaker tennis facility which the University of Texas tennis teams are using while new facilities are being built on Thursday, May 4, 2017. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

“I will readily admit that it’s been difficult for them to recruit when you are comparing our lack of a facility to others around the country when they have things in place,” said Perrin, who praised Center and Joffe for maintaining top-25-caliber programs. “At the time, we were showing concepts and vacant land.”

The courts are projected to be ready in September and the final building should be open in November, UT officials said. By that time, Center hopes to have a new NCAA championship banner to hang during the opening ceremony.

It’s been a long three years, but the final product no longer requires imagination.

“There were two ways you can look at something like that,” Center said. “You could say, ‘I don’t have what I need, so it’s OK not to do well.’ I never really looked at it that way. I’m going to fight for this program. I’m not going to use this as an excuse that we can’t continue to be successful. Otherwise you’ve accepted defeat before you’ve even walked out there.”

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com.

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