Billy Porter and the Order of the Clinch Belt
May 16, 2019
If names like Serena and Venus Williams, Roger Federer, John McEnroe, Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova, Stefan Edberg, Arthur Ashe, or Billie Jean King mean anything to you, you might just be a tennis fan. And if you’re a fan of the game, you know that it is primarily an individual sport—unless you’re talking about those fierce doubles matches. Young athletes who grow up on the grass, clay, or hard courts are used to playing for themselves, trading volleys and groundstrokes with a single opponent across the net and making their own names in the rankings.
“But when you get to college,” says Billy Porter, head coach of the men’s and women’s tennis teams at Southwestern University, “it’s all about the team. One of the hardest parts for an incoming freshman is getting them to buy into the team concept.”
While supporting his student–athletes at a postseason tournament hosted by the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs last year, Porter found himself contemplating just how to encourage such teambuilding. As he wandered beneath the stands that snowy day, he noticed that two of his players, good friends Anna Schneemann ’18 and Taite Drews-Jones ’18, were playing on adjacent courts. “They were both up a set in their match and dominating the second set, and I watched them talk smack to each other about who was going to finish the match first and get the team a clinch,” Porter recalls. As the two teammates were battling against their respective opponents, they were also competing with each other because they wanted to be the one to win the tournament for the entire Southwestern team.
“So I was leaning on a pole, thinking, ‘What an awesome moment! What can I do to make this fun—to incentivize this type of behavior in the best interest of the team?’” Porter says.
Enter the Clinch Belt. A Miami native, Porter grew up an avid Miami Hurricanes fan, and in 2017, the football team captured America’s attention with the Turnover Chain, which was successively awarded to the player who achieved the highest number of interceptions or fumbles in a game. The original trophy was a 36-inch, 2.5-kilogram, 10-karat Cuban gold link chain embedded with 450 orange and 400 green sapphire stones in the shape of a U; last year, the team upgraded the design, replacing the simple U with their mascot, Sebastian the Ibis, depicted in more than 4,000 colored gemstones. Porter wanted something similar to motivate and reward his players. He decided that that something was a Clinch Belt.
(No word on why it was not a tennis bracelet, but it might be because “holding the belt” is how his players, led by captain Alexis Dimanche ’19, were already referring to winners of ping-pong matches and FIFA video games.)
Of course, the 2018 version of the Turnover Chain purportedly cost $98,456, a price tag that went slightly over Porter’s budget. So instead of hitting Jared’s and splurging on a near-six-figure girdle of gemstones, the SU coach went to Target, spent $20 on a faux WWE championship belt, slapped a piece of white tape across it, and wrote “Clinch” on it with a Sharpie.
“I’m a very simple person,” Porter says matter-of-factly.
Players who clinched a match would win the honor of donning the coveted belt—at least until the next match. Dimanche, who has donned the trophy thrice, opines that the belt achieved exactly what Porter intended: building a strong, supportive team culture. “It honestly makes us closer. We’re a super tight group of guys for being a group of 12, but all my best friends are on the tennis team,” he says. “It’s really meaningful to be part of this, and I think that shows in how we play. Our motto this year was ‘all heart’: we play for the team and make each other proud, not for rankings.”
Dean Dulthummon ’20, who holds the current record for the most clinches, agrees. “This really motivated us to play better and definitely improved our winning statistics,” he remarks. “We have the best Southwestern tennis team the school has seen, with really great additions to the team. We are currently ranked #28 in the country, and this is due to how motivated our team is. ”
MAX PEARSON WITH THE CLINCH! pic.twitter.com/WQrhOEvUXX— Southwestern Men’s Tennis (@Southwestern10s) April 8, 2019
Part of that motivation comes from not just what Porter calls his “simple idea” but also the “over-the-top scene” that emerged from it. Specifically, the men’s team became so invested in the ritual that they began planning and filming outrageous ceremonies, in which the Clinch Belt would be revealed after a pillow fight in the style of Game of Thrones, during their version of the Harlem Shake, or as a special delivery. Porter admits that the videos are “ridiculous,” but they’re also winning attention throughout DIII: the ceremonies caught the eye of a DIII tennis blogger, and a top player from CalTech told Porter that they were disappointed SU’s season was over because the men’s creative hijinks would be on hiatus until the 2019–2020 season begins.
Porter predicts that the tradition he and his players have started at Southwestern will inspire other schools to bring the same level of fun to team tennis. “Give it a year, and you’re going to see other teams doing something else like this, but we’re doing it now, and we did it first,” he says.
Here’s the clincher: Porter remains not only amused by his team’s fun-loving antics but also in awe of their stellar and ever-rising performance, with both the men’s and women’s teams ending their seasons this year boasting the highest national rankings in program history. He believes that what makes playing tennis at Southwestern special is that his players are pioneers. “We weren’t even relevant until four years ago, so they have the opportunity to do the unthinkable,” he says. “We’ve enabled them to create their own legacy, not just for themselves but for the University. We talk of uncharted waters or uncharted territory because every year, they’ve raised the bar. I tell them, ‘You’re part of something no one’s been a part of, and no one can take that away from you.’”
But wait … there’s more!
Step over Clinch Belt, there’s a new kid in town–the Clinch Crown.
2019 was the year of the Clinch Belt. 2020 will bring the Clinch Crown. With a team high 7 clinches this year @esther_bowers has the honors of introducing it. #besouthwestern pic.twitter.com/QTj0SjOf3O— Southwestern Tennis (@SUPiratesTennis) May 9, 2019