By Steve Williams
Louis Royal enjoys talking tennis. The former University of Tennessee player and head coach and longtime teacher of the game has many stories. It was also around this time of the year, summertime, that many of his memories were made.
Englishman Andy Murray’s recent Wimbledon championship led to Royal recalling one of his earliest special times in the sport. As a 12-year-old in 1946, Royal said he got to see Fred Perry play in a professional tournament in Chattanooga. Perry was Wimbledon champion in 1936, the last time a Great Britain player had won the game’s greatest trophy prior to this year.
This fact alone – that he had seen the English player on the front end of that 77-year connection – reveals Royal’s unique perspective of tennis.
“I may have been a ball boy for him,” said Royal. “I don’t remember for sure, but I was a ball boy at 12 years old. He had beautiful tennis strokes, even at that time, I remember.”
Bobby Riggs and Bill Tilden also played in the tournament, said Royal. “Tilden was in his 50s and had won about six or seven national championships in the 1920s when he was the No. 1 player in the world. Riggs had won Wimbledon. (Many years later, in 1973, Riggs gained even greater fame, playing Billie Jean King in the Battle of the Sexes.)
“This was a big tournament. They had a lot of Coca-Cola money in Chattanooga. They were probably sponsoring it, and probably paid the winner three or four hundred dollars, which at that time was a lot of money.”
Royal had moved to Chattanooga from Greeneville in 1943 when his father, John Austin Royal, got a job with the Internal Revenue Service. A young Louis “fell in love” with tennis at nearby Citizens Park.
“A very famous Civil War cemetery was there,” said Royal. “At the end of the cemetery were two little clay tennis courts. You also could pitch horseshoes or play baseball or kickball or shoot marbles. There must have been 100 youngsters hitting tennis balls. I was nine. Naturally, I got beat a lot, so you’d have to get back in line.”
Nearby was a storage building with a smooth side, and Royal told of hitting a tennis ball time and time again off that wall, as it bounced back to him. “I would go up there, because I just loved it, and I would start hittin.’ My daddy had bought me a tennis racquet for 98 cents, and I wore that baby out,” he added, laughing.
Royal’s accuracy became so sharp, “I got somebody to stand up there where I could outline them,” he recalled.
“Later on, they had a little tournament at the park. I didn’t know what a tournament was, but I won it. Then you had to go play against the other parks’ winners . . . I got my picture in the newspaper.”
Royal’s tennis career as a player was on its way. At age 14, he won the Tennessee state boys championship. He was ranked No. 2 in the South and No. 16 in the nation in 1949. The following year, he won the State 18-under at age 16 at Tyson Park in Knoxville.
Royal became an outstanding high school player at Baylor, which was an all-boys military academy when he was there. He also played middle linebacker on the football team and hit .517 as a second baseman in baseball.
“But I found out I better stick to tennis,” after going up against a tough left-hander from Columbia Academy in the Mid-South Conference championship game, he recalled. “That pitcher ate me up.”
Royal lettered in tennis as a freshman at Vanderbilt in 1954. He then served two years in the Army before resuming his collegiate career at Tennessee, where he played No. 1 singles for the Vols for three seasons and was seeded No. 4 in the SEC tourney as a senior in 1960.
“I was a good player, but not a great player,” summed up Royal.
Tommy Bartlett was UT’s head tennis coach at that time, but also had his hands full as one of Ray Mears’ assistants in basketball. Royal became a valuable assistant to Bartlett, helping pick up the slack. The two, who have become best of friends over the years, had earlier teamed together to win the 1962 State doubles title.
Royal became UT’s head coach in 1968. “We played with wooden racquets,” he said. “It was a different game back then than it is now.”
Royal’s 1970 squad, led by two-time All-American Tommy Mozur of Sweetwater, captured the SEC championship. Royal finished with a nine-year 120-69-1 overall record and 38-24 SEC mark.
“Georgia, over the last 25, 30 or 40 years, has been the best in the conference,” admitted Royal. “Before that, it was Tulane, but they got out of the SEC.”
For the record, Georgia has captured 27 SEC regular season titles and nine SEC tourney championships. Tennessee and Florida are a distant second, with 13 combined conference crowns. From 1939 through 1964, Tulane won 18 SEC tourney titles.
Royal recalled an emotional battle at Georgia in 1972 in which he had to stop a physical altercation between one of his players and a Georgia player, Manuel Diaz, who is now the Bulldogs’ head coach.
“We were playing a doubles match,” said Royal. “Georgia had won the first set. The next point won would be match point for Georgia or set point for Tennessee. Our player, Paul Van Min, has a return shot right at the top of the net. Instead of just hitting it right into them, he hits a flipping lob, and the Georgia boy is running back, and as soon as the ball lands, he hollers, ‘Out!’ Well, the match is over.” But not the action.
Royal continues: “My player, Bob Peirce, who is standing beside me, climbs over the fence and drops down onto the court and screams, ‘The ball is good!’
“You had about 5,000 fans there. Georgia would draw that many to a tennis match. I had to run past two other courts, and by the time I got there, the present coach of Georgia (Diaz) and Peirce, who wasn’t even in the match, had a hold of each other. I grabbed the Georgia boy. I wasn’t going to let him hit my Tennessee boy. He (Diaz) and I are good friends now. Anyway, the Georgia people started booing me. I just said, We’ll be back, because the tournament was going to be back down there. We finished second that year and Georgia finished first. That was an exciting time, and I guess I was highly emotional, and I would take up for my kids.”
Beginning in June of 1964, Royal headed up the City of Knoxville’s tennis program at Tyson Park for almost 24 years. “I loved teaching, giving lessons. I liked the people that I met.”
Today, at 79, Royal, who says he is a “born-again Christian,” lives in South Knoxville with his dog and companion, “Bear.”
When asked to pick the top tennis players he thought the Knoxville-area has produced over the years, Royal named Jack Rogers, Ben Testerman, Chris Woodruff, Mozur and Bill Davis.
“Rogers played in the ‘40s,” said Royal. “Bobby Riggs once said, ‘Rogers had the world’s greatest overhead,’ which also meant he had a great serve.
“Testerman won a lot of national junior titles and made it to the semifinals of the Australian Open (1984). Woodruff was a NCAA champion (1993) and has been a longtime assistant coach at UT. Mozur played with Arthur Ashe in doubles. Ashe once wrote a story and called him “The Sweetwater Kid.” I think he’s been the best doubles player UT has ever had. And Davis was a SEC champion, playing No. 1 singles.”
Although he very much remains a fan of the game and watches the Grand Slam tourneys, Royal acknowledged the interest in tennis now is not what it once was for the average sports fan.
“We had great tennis players,” he said. “America was tops in tennis. Before that, the Australians were, and now it’s foreigners. We don’t have a person in this country probably ranked in the top six or seven. Now in women, we do in Serena Williams, but even she lost in this recent Wimbledon. I guess you’d say American tennis is at its lowest ebb in a long time.
“We used to have Jack Kramer, tops in the world, and Bobby Riggs, tops in the world. We had Pete Sampras, who won about 13 or 14 national championships. We had John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe, a black guy, who won it all. Ashe even beat Jimmy Connors one time at Wimbledon. These are all Americans. Where are they now?”
Royal said there aren’t many youngsters left in his old neighborhood, but if there are any who want to learn about tennis, he’s willing to give a lesson if he’s able, or for sure, tell a story.
By Steve Williams