'The Woody' Celebrates 20 Years of Graphite-Free Tennis

The Woody Tennis Championships honors a bygone era of tennis, when grass courts, white balls and all-white attire were the norm -- and rackets were made of wood.

When wooden rackets ruled the courts, there was no greater dream than to play Davis Cup and wear those awesome red, white and blue sweats. It was a time when tennis fans rooted for their heroes, like Stan Smith, Arthur Ashe and Bob Lutz. When players watched, with jealous admiration, the athletic mastery of the greats John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg.

The era of wooden rackets was a time when patriotism (when America paid attention to Davis Cup), integrity (surrendering the next point for a bad line call in your favor), honor (when pro vs. amateur boycotts paved the way for the ATP and the "open" era), and of course, guts (best represented by Arthur Ashe) where the true measure of sportsmanship.

And for the past 20 years, a small tournament in La Quinta, California, takes place to honors these ideas and the players who helped define them.

The Woody began as an idea shared between Jim Settles and Granville Swope, two long-time friends who grew up playing through the USTA Southern California juniors tennis programs. While on a camping trip in the Mojave desert, the two sketched out an event that would be played with only wooden rackets.

The first tournament was held in 1992 on a hard court in Orange County, California. But for the last 19 years, The Woody has enjoyed the luxury of the grass courts of the PGA West in La Quinta. John Austin, then Director of Tennis at PGA West, appreciated the significance of the event and was delighted to offer his courts for competition.

Many of the competitors in The Woody are teaching pros, tennis industry representatives, and all are crazy about tennis. 2010 marked the youngest-ever tournament winner when 18-year-old Spencer Hing defeated one of the tournament's oldest players, 83-year-old Jim Settles, Sr, proving that although the history of tennis may be old, there's no age limit to play the game.

As the sport changed, so has The Woody. The tournament soon began sending extra cash from the event to tennis-related special needs, like Andrea Jeager's Silver Lining Foundation, NJTL programs, ultimately settling upon The Freedom Alliance, a scholarship fund benefiting the families of fallen American soldiers.

At first, the funds generated by the entree fees from 20 or so players was meager, equaling only a few hundred dollars. Settles and Swope soon began a raffle and auction, offering products generously donated by friends, co-workers and representatives of major tennis brands. A signed Andre Agassi Head Radical raised $650 alone, but the auction still seemed inadequate when comparing the totals to the sacrifices of its recipients.

With 2011 marking the 20th anniversary of the event, and the year following Jack Kramer's memorial event, the tournament's founders are offering Jack Kramer memorabilia from their private collection for auction, featuring two autographed Jack Kramer rackets: an original woody and a "Millennium Kramer" graphite racket -- a tribute racket offered in a limited edition by Wilson Sporting Goods.

Over the years, The Woody has become a celebration of what is best about tennis. It is both a memorial and a tribute to the majestic history of the sport and the technological advances in the game. As Jack Kramer once stated:

"I think of the great feeling I had with a wooden racket," he said during a 1995 interview. "Quite frankly, you could almost judge where the ball was going to land by the sound of your racket. And if you had really good ears and your opponent hit the ball really well, why, you could sort of tell where it was going to bounce."

The Space Age may have introduced new materials to the game -- aluminum, steel, fiberglass and graphite -- but the true spirit of tennis lives on in this quaint tournament that celebrates the material that started it all.

For more information on The Woody and to purchase tickets for the 2011 event, visit TheWoody.net.

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