Tennis event 'circa 1952' always a classic

COSTA MESA — South Coast Plaza was likely to be out of tennis gear this weekend because practically every player and spectator at the 12th annual Wood Racquet Classic was rocking white shorts, polos and crazy socks. Seriousness was checked at the door, but style was definitely required with the RSVP.

Held at co-founders Clay Peterson and Johnny McCray's adjoining homes on East 20th Street, the yearly event attracted an estimated 1,000 people — more guests than last year by about 30% — to benefit the John Wayne Cancer Foundation.

Becca Peterson, Clay Peterson's wife, said every year the day raises $15,000 to $20,000.

Representatives from the John Wayne Cancer Foundation were on hand, even putting a bedazzled racquet up for auction. The racquet is part of the foundation's Children's Healing Project, an art therapy program designed for pediatric cancer patients.

Film director McG (Joseph McGinty Nichol, a Newport Beach native) and his doubles partner, Kevin Forbes, came back this year to defend their title as reigning champs. However, they faced stiff competition with former Wimbledon finalist Mark Philippoussis and his partner, surfer Rob Machado. Both teams almost made it to the end, landing in the final four.

McG and Forbes were beat by Matthew Fletcher and John Rinek, and Philippoussis and Machado lost to Martin Zaccardo and Mark Hansen. In the final set between the two victors, Zaccardo and Hansen won.

However, as all the guests contended, the event was more about the cause than the competition.

McG, who arrived accompanied by actress Bridget Moynahan ("Coyote Ugly," "I, Robot") , goes way back with the founders of the event.

"I have been friends with Johnny McCray, Clay and Shane Baum for a long, long time … since we were all in high school," said McG, who grew up in Corona del Mar and produced "The O.C."

Baum is the owner of Costa Mesa-based Baumvision, co-sponsor of the event, which makes sunglasses for Penguin and Paul Frank.

"We've all had our lives touched by cancer in one way or another and for the community to come together with this much style … is a very, very cool thing," he said. "It's part of what is right in Newport Beach."

McG said he was excited to celebrate the event with other players such as surf pros Kelly Slater and Machado, skate and surf designer Bob Hurley, and Philippoussis.

"It's just things like this that give the Newport-Mesa area its identity," he said. "There's a lot of family integrity, artistry, athletics, fun to be had … we see all these elements today in the name of style."

Besides growing up in CdM and attending UC Irvine, McG maintains his ties to the Newport-Mesa area. A Restaurant, which catered the classic's VIP section, is co-owned by McG, Hurley and Sugar Ray's Mark McGrath, among others.

"We're all like-minded individuals that love the Newport-Mesa area and we like to think of the restaurant as the embodiment of the Daily Pilot … in the food world," he laughed.

In addition to growing up reading the Pilot, McG said he also delivered the newspaper when he was a kid.

Philippoussis thought the event was the "perfect way to spend a Sunday." He had no second thoughts when some friends in San Diego asked him to hit with a wooden racquet in the name of charity.

"It's a great cause," Philippoussis said. "My father had cancer twice and I almost lost him, so it's a cause that's close to my heart."

Machado, a three-time winner of the U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach, admitted that it had been a few years since he's rallied.

"I played a lot when I was a kid," Machado said. "I remember breaking wood racquets."

Last year Machado came as a spectator. Originally, he wasn't as much drawn to the competition as much as the nature of the day.

"It's just the whole idea of rocking the old gear … old wood racquets. It's right up my alley," he said. "I try not to take things too seriously."

Although the game carried some heavy hitters, it wasn't a typical day at the courts. Mickey Avalon was heard playing over the sound system and a cocktail bar was within reach of every player. Court attendants brought players champagne flutes between games.

Peterson said the event might be slightly changing its tune in the future.

"It's fun because a couple of the pros have said that they want to bring more pros next year … so it looks like we might be on the path to a pro event, as opposed to an amateur event," he said.

A far cry from Peterson and McCray's original idea for a colorful summer party, the one-day tennis event, complete with a charity and a costumed crowd, is getting more posh as the years progress.

"It went from a drunken group of friends the first year … to this," Peterson said. "It's nice. It's polished the way it should be. We have kids and families now, so it's the right step."

The competition may get stiffer, but it's easy to assume that the enthusiastic crowd — with an affinity for "circa 1952 Wimbledon" tennis wear — will never be outdone by new courtside rules or seasoned pros.

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