The Battle of Newport
NEWPORT, R.I.—Held inside the 134-year-old Newport Casino, the Hall of Fame Tennis Championships is one of the most affordable methods of time travel. There’s the museum, where you can pore over artifacts and learn about real tennis, a predecessor to the modern game that’s still played today. I know that because I watched a match unfold from the temporary media center, set directly above one the few real tennis courts still in existence.
Outside, you can mill around the matches in a venue that gives new definition to a term in vogue with home-buyers: “open concept.” Sitting on center court, you’re shielded by exposed planks of wood, weathered steel, and awnings striped in vintage green and creamy white. A full day of second-round play was completed by 5 p.m.
It was all as quaint as I had pictured, perhaps even more so. Except for one thing: A heckler.
“There’s always going to be fans saying stuff and it’s usually never a big deal,” said Jack Sock, who was playing Rajeev Ram on the intimate Court 1, “but this was something that crossed the line.”
I didn’t hear all of what was said, but when I arrived in the second set, I could tell that something had been going on for a while. My vantage point was excellent: I stood inches from the court and was a few feet from the bench where the sounds were coming from. I did hear someone in the crowd tell Sock, a newly crowned Wimbledon doubles champion, “Don’t be proud of yourself.” When the American smacked an ace to win a game, he gave the guy a heavy glance that he made sure was seen.
The 21-year-old went on to inform chair umpire Fergus Murphy, who sent an attendant toward the troublemaker.
“On these outer courts here, the fans stand right behind,” said Sock. “There’s a lot going on, people always walking around. You definitely got to keep focused on your court and on the ball. You can definitely lose track of it pretty quick.”
But that, incredibly enough, wasn’t even the biggest conflict of the day.
Newport is waged in an eternal battle of old versus new. Its grass courts, used most prominently when wood was the weapon of choice for tennis players, are now dented by serves struck at over 130 M.P.H. with technologically advanced racquets. Scoreboards are changed by hand after each game, while umpires tap results on an iPad after each point. The mission of the Hall of Fame is to bring history to life—to make new what is old.
The best example of this conflict reveals itself when you step back and look at the week as a whole. It is about current players like Sock and Ram, trying to win a title at this ATP 250 tournament, but conversely it is about those whose past achievements have earned themselves enshrinement. Nick Bollettieri, one of five who will be inducted on Saturday, has waited a long time for this recognition.
“If I had griped about it, I don’t think I would have gotten in,” said the 82-year-old who helped shape the modern baseline game.
Bollettieri, excited as always, pointed out a few passages from his speech that he’ll read from the podium. The words were written in a large type and in a variety of colors—the man does not do subtle. “I want to get them so worked up that I inspire them to go out and do things.”
It seems fitting that Newport keeps the grass-court game alive for one more week after Wimbledon. Two months of hard-court play is on the horizon, and there’s even a clay-court swing taking place in Europe, but old habits die hard here. When I asked Nick what he thought about the surface, the first word he said was, “Footing”—and he followed that with a tip: “A good strategy on grass is to hit behind the person.”
Not 30 minutes after I spoke to Nick, Ram, trailing by a set, held for 2-2 in the second by hitting the ball behind his scampering opponent. Sock didn’t have a chance.
Both Sock and Bollettieri know the importance of teamwork. Last week, Sock and first-time doubles partner Vasek Pospisil improbably ran through the draw at Wimbledon, culminating with a five-set win in the final over Bob and Mike Bryan. (At right, Sock's shoes that he wore during the match, which he donated to the Hall of Fame.) Sock says he’ll definitely play the U.S. Open—where he won the mixed doubles title with Melanie Oudin, in 2011—with his Canadian friend.
Despite a whirlwind travel schedule, Sock looked fresh on the lawn, particularly on serve, mixing flat bombs down the middle with curvaceous kickers.
“We played the final on Saturday and the Champion’s Ball was on Sunday…I wasn’t going to miss that,” said Sock. “My dad and I went to that on Sunday night, and I flew here and got in on Monday afternoon. Practiced then played Tuesday.”
Bollettieri doesn't own any Grand Slam trophies, but he’s had a hand in many that have been won. Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, and Monica Seles, all former Bollettieri pupils, combined to win 21 singles majors.
Induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame is Bollettieri’s Wimbledon, his major title. He will be honored as an individual, but in the case of this coach, it’s a bit of a misnomer, which he stressed.
“I’ve been blessed with a team that’s believed in me, rescued me,” said Bollettieri. “I realize more than ever before that I could not have done this without my team. My team of friends, my team of coaches, players, the people I work for. This is a team effort.”
If you ever have a chance to play tennis on grass (you can, year-round, in Newport), you’ll notice a few things right away. You can’t wait for the ball to come to you. You can’t take big swings. The ball hardly bounces—and when it does, it may not do so in the way you’d expect. “Funky, crazy bounces” was how Sock described them in his match, and I can vouch for that from the view I had. You can’t take a thing for granted on grass.
That includes a lead. While a big server can mow through a game in mere seconds, you can be broken just as quickly if you aren’t sharp. Sock did that to Ram, at love, for a 4-2 lead, but fell behind 0-40 in the following game.
Sock swung the pendulum back with a series of big serves to reach deuce, then held for 5-2. Reeling, Ram gave Sock a match point in the very next game. He played it well, and his shot appeared certain to elude Sock, steps away from the incoming ball. But with a dash of improvisation, Sock slid toward his target, and with an abbreviated backswing snapped a cross-court forehand that whizzed past Ram for the win.
Immediately, I recalled another one of Bollettieri’s commandments of grass-court tennis: “You can’t slide.”
In this case, advantage, New(port).