The Long Knives of Newport

Wednesday, February 24, 2010 /by

53197325 by Pete Bodo

Nick Bollettieri has confirmed that he was bypassed for induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, that odd institution situated in the once-formidable bastion of the America's elites, Newport, R.I. The town was a playground for the rich and well-born of the Gilded age, those Astors and Vanderbilts, whose spectacular stone mansions still line Bellevue Ave., within walking distance of the ITHF. But it was a Navy town for a period as well, and today, as a kind of quirky resort town, it's an interesting hodgepodge of historical and cultural values.

I write "odd" because the ITHF, housed in the Newport Casino, is a shrine still (and appropriately) enveloped in the honeyed glow of the game's patrician roots. But it has striven mightily to remain relevant in the new, Open era (if anything 40-plus years old can be called "new"). Anyone can book a court and play on the grass courts of the Casino, and hosting an unabashedly commercial event like the Campbell's (Soup) Hall of Fame Championships (the ATP 250 that takes place right after Wimbledon), certainly doesn't smack of hoity-toity elitism - although one suspects that one or another Campbell must have at some point put his feet up in one of those spired mansions. Belcourt Castle, perhaps, or Rosecliff?

Actually, it's easy to go all Monty Python on historical Newport, but here's a telling fact that sums up the past hundred or so years in tennis: the tiebreaker wasn't the brainchild of some savvy former player, television executive (although Bob Monsbach of CBS still sacrifices a virgin daily in sheer gratitude for it), or pushy ITF type. It was thought up, promoted (to deaf ears, for quite some time) and ultimately sold to the Lords of Tennis by James "Jimmy" van Alen. Now there was a guy (Jimmy, that is), for whom Belcourt Castle itself might have seemed like nothing more than a cozy guest house somewhere at the back of his property. Somewhere along the line I heard that van Alen was heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune, but I can't confirm that.  But his blood lines certainly were blue.

Van Alen gave the USTA the Newport Casino in 1954, and yet another national landmark was saved from becoming a parking lot (that's the literal truth). Once you get over asking yourself, Why couldn't he give it to me instead?, you can see the beauty in the gesture. Van Alen was what you might call a progressive patrician, in that he was eager to see the game of tennis outgrow places like the Newport Casino, and he wholly supported the idea of opening up the place to the public. That helps put into context his stroke of genius, the tiebreaker. Van Alen's original version was a sudden-death, nine-point affair, with the players alternating two serves each. If the score reached 4-all, the receiver had choice of court in which to take the final serve.

I'm old enough to remember the days when the umpire would take out a little red flag and plant it in the chair, indicating that a tiebreaker was in progress. And at that point, if van Alen was present, he would rise from the chair in his court-side box (he was an elfin man with a shock of white hair and a florid, cherubic face - not exactly an image that evokes the word, "patrician") and rather dramatically wave to the crowd.

There you have it, the old world of tennis helping to shape the new. A very welcome symbol of continuity in a sport that was in some other ways buffeted and torn asunder by professionalism. It's a distinctly American story, I think, and a tribute to flexible society where lines of class and other imposed distinctions (like degree of wealth) are not as clearly drawn or as difficult to cross, one way or the other or even back and forth, as in many other societies.

Which more or less brings us to Bollettieri. I can't for the life of me figure out how he was not selected for induction into the ITHF without pulling at the loose threads dangling in the paragraph above. Bollettieri was nominated in the Contributor category, which acknowledges the value of selected administrators, officials, coaches and even members of the media. The enshrinees in those categories are not selected by a vote (as are those in the "Recent Player" category, to which I annually contribute my own vote), but by an "International Masters Panel" that includes enshrinees as well as "individuals who are highly knowledgeable of the sport and its history." (That's from the HoF's own copy.)

I suspect that this panel is just another variation on the Old Boy Network, and that the long knives of prejudice were out in Newport when it came time to discuss Bollettieri's nomination. Bollettieri has certainly been a controversial figure through much of his career, if less so now. Yet he's always been ignored or villified less for anything he did (presuming we've gotten beyond that simplistic notion that tennis academies are evil incarnate) than for his personal style and image. The genteel selectors presumably don't have a taste for mirrored shades, or for the kind of guy who has sat bare-chested on the balcony of his room in Paris's George V hotel, taking the sun with his portable reflector.

The Contributors category includes a pile of journalists, but few people I can identify by name as coaches (Harry Hopman is an outstanding exception). And I know that a fair number of enshrined contributors lobbied vigorously for enshrinement, while others - Rex Bellamy, anyone? - have been ignored, probably because they didn't push themselves or work their contacts on the panel hard enough.

I point this out because I imagine that one of the impediments Bollettieri faced to enshrinement is that he has lobbied vigorously - he'd love nothing more than to be recognized by the ITHF. One of Nick's better qualities is that he isn't afraid to admit that. But if others have helped promote themselves into the hall, why should Bollettieri be shunned for doing the same? The only real answer I can come up with is personal  prejudice against Bollettieri - something like the animus that kept Graham Greene from being awarded the Nobel Prize for literature (if you believe the literary gossip). That's what happens when a "panel" picks and chooses whom to honor, and whom not.

I'm got going to bore anyone with a recitation of Bollettieri's credentials; they are manifest and multi-faceted. Whether you like his style or not, his track record speaks for itself. But I will make one point that strikes me has highly ironic, given the presumption that Bollettieri's image as a vulgar fellow (in the dictionary sense of the adjective) is an obstacle to enshrinement: Nick has always promoted a Harry Hopman-esque brand of discipline and he tolerates no on-court misconduct. Andre Agassi, his most renowned protege, certainly had his innings as a screwball  early in his career. And look where he stands in the public eye now (curiously, I see a parallel in the "journeys" taken by Andre and Nick). A few other Bolletteri-ites have had their moments, too. But that's all they were. Is there a better citizen of the tennis community than Jim Courier? Or Monica Seles? if you make a list of the most controversial players of this era, you won't find a single Bollettieri protege graduate on it.

In other words, Bollettieri has represented values that can be said to be desirable in and appropriate for a coach aspiring to earn a place in the HoF (although there's no "morality" clause in the nomination guidelines).

Or think of it this way: Bollettieri represents continuity in tennis much more convincingly and even honorably than many of those who deny him admission might like to think. That just adds another insult to injury. It's nothing less than perverse to deny Bollettieri a place in the HoF, and when you look at the names of some people who are in as contributors, and compare their accomplishments in tennis to those of Bollettieri, it just adds to the suspicion that the admissions panel operates in an imperious and self-interested manner, blind to its own mandate.

I'd like to think that Jimmy van Alen himself is rolling over in his grave. The same "traditionalists" who think Bollettieri is too much of a self-promoting showman (while ignoring the conflicts, self-interested motives, or other flaws of some enshrined contributors) also tried to stop the tiebreaker from "ruining" the game.

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