Barnes Supports Game Behind, In Front of Scenes

By John Packett, RTA Contributing Writer

Barnes Supports Game Behind, In Front of Scenes

Growing up in Baytown, Texas, Bill Barnes enjoyed playing baseball in high school. He weighed all of 150 pounds soaking wet.

“After I started working, I can remember there was a picture on the wall in my house, and my sister-in-law said, ‘You don’t look like that anymore,’” said Barnes. “I didn’t really understand what she meant by it.

“So I just immediately went down to a hospital and weighed myself. I had gained about 60 pounds. That was what prompted me to start playing tennis. For weight reasons, and [tennis] hit right home for my competitive nature, along with the exercise.”

Barnes continued playing the game after he moved to Richmond in 1986, and while he has enjoyed a lot of success in the U.S. Tennis Association’s rated divisions, he has also been a big promoter of tennis tournaments, too.

He is best known as the leading sponsor and organizer of the McDonald’s Mid-Atlantic Open Clay Court Championships every July at Salisbury Country Club, but he has given thousands of dollars for the McDonald’s Juniors Series every summer.

The junior circuit gives those kids just starting to play a chance to compete in one-day tournaments in different clubs around town.

For all of his contributions, both on and off the court, Barnes is being inducted into the Richmond Tennis Hall of Fame during a gala celebration and dinner at the Westwood Club on Oct. 28. Tickets are now on sale at richmondtennis.org.

“Bill has always been extremely enthusiastic about the game and he thinks out of the box,” said long-time friend John DePew. “He has a lot of passion for tennis, that’s for sure. Although he’s a player, he loves playing, he’s a real promoter of the game.”

After taking some lessons from high school kids in Baytown, Barnes kept improving to the extent he became a decent 4.5 player under the tutelage of Junie Chatman, who was the pro at Briarwood (now acac) when he moved to Richmond.

“Tennis really got going for me when I came to Richmond and got involved In U.S.T.A team tennis,” said Barnes, 68, who owns 11 McDonald’s restaurants in Richmond, more than anyone else who sells Big Macs and fries in the city.

Barnes recalls playing every Wednesday at the old Robious Sports and Fitness Club (now Midlothian Athletic Club) when he first got here.

“Playing next to me was Ward Hamilton, Jimmy Milley, Tom Hood and John DePew,” he said. “I was like a little doggie in the window, watching them all the time. As things worked out over time, I became good friends with all those guys.

“Tennis, for me, number one, fulfilled the competition desires that I had, but at the end of the day, it allowed me to meet people that I would never even remotely have met. And that’s probably been the biggest reward for me.”

Barnes got some more rewards when he captained and played on three U.S.T.A rated teams that won national championships at the 4.5 level. The first came in 1993 and then back-to-back titles in 2000-2001, quite an accomplishment.

“In 10 years, we went to the nationals six times and won it three times,” Barnes said.

“When we started the team stuff, we would start in October building our team for the next year. A lot of people don’t start until December or January, so we always had a head start on getting the good players.

“Another thing I realized pretty early is that it was going to be very difficult for a team from one club to have enough good players to be able to win the national championship, so what I did was have an independent team and we played out of Collegiate for about five years.”

The way Barnes operated riled up some folks but it didn’t deter him from building those powerhouse teams.

“My approach, and Tom Bailey was my co-captain, when we started the year, we would tell guys that our goal is to go to the nationals and hopefully win the nationals, and everybody in the room will be qualified to play,” he said.

“But when you get into the playoffs, it’s going to be the best eight guys. So we would tell them if they wanted to go somewhere else and play every week, if that’s your goal, go ahead. But if your goal is to get to Tucson [Arizona, site of nationals] or San Diego, then this is the right place.”

Barnes stopped trying to take teams to the nationals when the U.S.T.A. changed the rules to make it more difficult for teams to repeat.

That’s around the time he began to promote the clay-court tournament at acac with Chatman.

The McDonald’s Virginia State Clay Court Championships moved from acac to Salisbury Country Club in 1999, but it wasn’t until 2006 that Barnes and tournament director Scott Steinour decided to make it a much bigger and stronger event.

It became the McDonald’s Mid-Atlantic Open Clay Court Championships and prize money was increased substantially. That attracted players who competed on the minor pro circuit, as well as the area’s top pros and collegians.

“After two or three years at Salisbury, Scott and I talked about it; my goal was to have a tournament at the prize-money level of the CVITT,” said Barnes, referring to the Central Virginia Invitational Tennis Tournament held at the Oakwood CC in Lynchburg since 1960.

“Well, Scott made the comment to me that he didn’t know how big the club wanted the tournament to get. I told him, well we need to go rectify that right now, because if the club doesn’t want this tournament to get any bigger, then I’m in the wrong place.”

The club agreed to allow the tournament to expand its draws, while increasing prize money, and gradually the event has become the premier tournament in the area, not only because of the quality of the tennis but the party atmosphere every night.

“The tournament kind of started out being a tennis tournament with a party,” said Barnes, “and one year, a couple of the golf guys (at that time Salisbury was more of a golf club) came down and saw the event and the social aspects, and after that, it went from a tennis tournament with a party to a party with a tennis tournament.”

Sponsors increased from 10 to the present level of 60. Prize money is now $30,000, with the men’s and women’s winners taking home $7,500 each. In the next year or so, Barnes would like to see total prize money go up so the winners receive $10,000.

Along the way, Salisbury has improved its tennis facilities, adding lighting to eight of its courts, improving the landscaping and – the coup de grace — putting in an $80,000 skybox between the two show courts and four other main courts that allows sponsors to mingle, eat and sip beverages.

“The tournament has brought a lot of assets to the club,” said Steinour, the director of tennis at Salisbury. “The skybox, the lit courts. A lot of other amenities that Salisbury has benefited from, due to the tournament.

“He jumped into the clay courts. He wants to be a big part of it. He wants to make it bigger. He does things right. He’s really taken the tournament to a whole new level, which the average person could not do. He’s been the heart and soul of the tournament.

“He’s definitely been a big asset to Richmond tennis, as a whole.”

The Richmond area has been fortunate to have Barnes and his seemingly boundless energy for the game.

“I have this philosophy in life,” said Barnes. “When you get to our age, you have your family, your friends and your memories. Tennis has given me an abundance of friends and memories. It really gives you a good feeling … to know people appreciate having this type of event [clay courts] in Richmond.”

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