For 66 years, some of the finest tennis players in the world have come to Montgomery in early spring to do battle. How did Montgomery come to host one of the most prestigious tournaments in the country? The answer lies in Montgomery’s “Mr. Tennis”– Jack Bushman.
In 1949, Mr. Bushman, a Montgomery resident, was the President of the Southern Lawn Tennis Association. He wanted to tie-in a world class tennis tournament to the prestigious Blue Gray football classic. He envisioned starting an event similar to the world renowned Sugar Bowl junior tennis tournament that is played in conjunction with the Sugar Bowl football game. However, he decided the tournament should feature top college players rather than juniors.
Mr. Bushman was the captain of his tennis team at Louisiana State University. His memories of the excitement and color of college tennis was no doubt rooted in his decision to feature college players.
For the first 30 years, the Blue Gray tournament was an individual contest rather than the present day team competition. In the beginning, the tournament was held at The Montgomery Country Club. In 1969, the site was moved to Huntingdon College for a few years until it was moved to the present locations of Lagoon Park and O’Conner Tennis Centers.
During this time of individual competition, many of the finest college players in the country came to Montgomery to play the Blue Gray. Many of these players went on to become some of the top professional players in the world. A brief list of names would include: Stan Smith, Tony Trabert, Barry McKay, Chuck McKinley, Charlie Pasarell, Tim and Tom Gullickson, Kevin Curren, Steve Denton and Vince Van Patten.
The tournament continued to bring in top players such as exhibition matches by Pancho Gonzalez, Frankie Parker, Jack Kramer, and Bobby Riggs.
In 1983, Mr. Bushman went to the NCAA Championships and approached top college coaches about the possibility of changing the event to a team competition. The coaches liked the idea of playing in a team tournament to prepare them for the season ending NCAA team championships. Thus, the tournament was reborn as a team event and remains so today.
Since becoming a team sport, the top tennis programs in the country have played the Blue Gray. Storied tennis programs such as USC, Pepperdine, Notre Dame, Harvard, Illinois, Florida, Michigan, Georgia, as well as our local favorites Alabama and Auburn have participated.
Perhaps the most unique feature of the Blue Gray is the southern hospitality it offers. Tennis fans across Montgomery open up their homes and keep the players throughout the tournament. Life long friendships have developed between players and host families.
Many of the players from the current era have gone on to great success in the professional ranks. Some of the more notable former Blue Gray players would include Paul Annacone, Mikael Pernfors, Richey Reneberg, Murphy and Luke Jensen, Mali Vai Washington and current stars – Mahesh Bhupathi and James Blake.
In all, there have been seven Grand Slam (Wimbledon, U.S. Open, French Open and Australian Open) single finalists and over thirty Grand Slam double champions that can trace their careers back to Montgomery and the Blue Gray.
It is a unanimous consensus among college coaches that the Blue Gray National Collegiate Tennis Classic is one of the top tennis events in the country. Mr. Bushman’s legacy and his spirit live on in this great sporting event.