Elliott: Homecourt Advantage tournament provides tennis pros a much-needed diversion

Helene Elliott
LA Times
A few friends and family watch a match between Brandon Holt, left, and Marcos Giron at the Homecourt Advantage tournament in Rolling Hills on Sunday. <span class="copyright">(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)</span>
A few friends and family watch a match between Brandon Holt, left, and Marcos Giron at the Homecourt Advantage tournament in Rolling Hills on Sunday. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Wimbledon has its genteel strawberries and cream. The U.S. Open has the pulsating energy of New York City. The Homecourt Advantage tournament had peacocks occasionally shrieking behind the trees that towered above the beautifully tended clay court where six of Southern California’s finest male tennis players tried to remember how to strategize, compete and handle pressure they hadn’t faced for more than two months.

The setting was idyllic and intimate at the two-day event, which was staged before about two dozen responsibly distanced spectators at the Rolling Hills home of tennis fan and real estate investor Scott Douglas. Sam Querrey defeated Ernesto Escobedo 4-3 (6), 4-1 in a semifinal and outlasted Brandon Holt in the final with a 3-4 (7), 4-1, 10-8 victory, but the scores were less important than the fact players had something to play for and saw familiar faces after weeks of isolation and limited workouts that had left them longing for more of a challenge.

With the sport on hold worldwide because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this is as close to competition as tennis is likely to see for a while. It wasn’t a tour-level event, but it was a step up from a practice, providing players a pleasant diversion and serving as an ideal model for the sport’s short-term future.

Sam Querrey, left, takes a drink of water while umpire Albert Ton, masked for protection against COVID-19, waits for action to resume against Brandon Holt during the final round of the Homecourt Advantage tournament on Sunday. <span class="copyright">(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)</span>
Sam Querrey, left, takes a drink of water while umpire Albert Ton, masked for protection against COVID-19, waits for action to resume against Brandon Holt during the final round of the Homecourt Advantage tournament on Sunday. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

“I think there should be more of these,” said former USC tennis coach Peter Smith, who coaches Querrey and used to coach Holt. “It’s like we’ve been transported back to the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. Backyard Opens.”

Players shared a prize pot of $10,000. Again, not at the level of a tour event payoff, but every bit helps when there’s little other income flowing in for most players. “When you’re playing in front of a couple of people and for a few dollars, it’s a little bit more motivating than playing no one,” Smith said.

Tennis began to come back to life with an exhibition series in Germany a few weeks ago and a UTR Pro Match Series men’s event at a private home in West Palm Beach, Fla., last weekend. A women’s UTR tournament is scheduled next weekend at that site. Those events had no spectators, though. The fans in Rolling Hills, most of them players’ friends and family, added a homey touch. "My dad hasn't watched me play for a couple of months," said West Covina resident Escobedo, whose father, also named Ernesto, works for UPS.

Querrey, the highest-ranked player in the group at No. 45 in the world, also hopes to see more small events like this one that draw on locally based players. “If the tour is going to keep being suspended, the more of these that can pop up the better because they’re really fun and the guys really appreciate it,” he said. “It was awesome. They did a great job.”

Sam Querrey returns a shot from Brandon Holt during the final round of the Homecourt Advantage tournament on Sunday. <span class="copyright">(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)</span>
Sam Querrey returns a shot from Brandon Holt during the final round of the Homecourt Advantage tournament on Sunday. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Holt, the youngest player at 22, had quite a weekend. On Friday, he had his virtual graduation from USC. On Saturday, he acquitted himself well in round-robin play but narrowly missed advancing to the semifinals. At about 9:20 a.m. on Sunday, Douglas called and asked him to replace Bradley Klahn, who had suffered a back injury and couldn’t play. Holt, who lives nearby, was happy to oblige.

Holt began the day with a 4-3 (5), 4-3 (8) semifinal victory over former UCLA standout Marcos Giron, who hasn’t forgotten the Bruins-Trojans rivalry. “That cuts deep,” Giron said, smiling.

In the final, Holt won his first-set tiebreaker when the hard-hitting Querrey double-faulted, but Querrey regained his footing in the second set by breaking Holt’s serve in the third and fifth games. The match was decided by a super tiebreaker, clinched when Holt hit a forehand long.

“It was so much fun,” Holt said. “I think that as long as people are being safe and social distancing, as we did at this tournament, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to start up playing tennis. I don’t think anyone here ever felt like they were in any danger, ever. We’re able to play tennis far enough away so we’re not close to each other.

Sam Querrey, left, and Brandon Holt touch rackets instead of shaking hands after Querrey wins the final round of the Homecourt Advantage. <span class="copyright">(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)</span>
Sam Querrey, left, and Brandon Holt touch rackets instead of shaking hands after Querrey wins the final round of the Homecourt Advantage. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

“I guess that’s the name of the game, trying to figure out how to get fans and trying to figure out how to travel. Things like that are what’s going to be tough when the pro tour starts back up.”

In the meantime, Escobedo said he had heard of some exhibitions taking place in the next few weeks elsewhere on the Palos Verdes Peninsula but wasn’t sure where. Holt was ready to play again in Rolling Hills. “I’m going to tell Mr. Douglas to get Round 2 going,” Holt said.

That didn’t scare Douglas. “We’d love to do it again,” he said.

Backyard Opens do, indeed, rule.

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