No sport tells its story more globally than tennis. Consider Chinese tennis star Li Na. A native of Wuhan, in her youth, Li traveled more than 7,700 miles to train at Australian tennis legend John Newcombe’s ranch in Texas. Roland Garros, 5,500 miles west of Wuhan, was the site of her first Grand Slam singles title win, the 2011 French Open. Three years later came a second Slam, 5,100 miles south from home, at the Australian Open in Melbourne. Last summer, Li traveled 7,400 miles east, from Wuhan to Newport, Rhode Island, for her induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame (ITHF).
It had been a remarkable global odyssey. Raised in China, an educational sojourn to the United States, grand achievements in France and Australia, celebrated on American soil, hundreds of matches elsewhere—thousands and thousands of miles, deep into diverse cities and nations, all strung together by their shared passion for racquet, ball, court.
Thousands of these journeys form the texture and layers of tennis. As these athletes compete and connect with fans on every continent, it doesn’t take long for them to rack up one million air miles as they enter and shape the planet of tennis and its epic history.
For a few such as Li Na, as their stories become legend, they weave their way into the sport’s grandest mosaic. This is the tapestry of tales and triumph that define the ITHF and its impact. “History informs our future and our present more than just about anything else,” says ITHF CEO Todd Martin. “We can’t get to here unless we were there.”
The ITHF began at the Newport Casino, located in the quaint, seaside New England town of Newport, Rhode Island—the spot where the first U.S. National Championships had been played in 1881. Inspired by a visit to the baseball Hall of Fame, Jimmy Van Alen opened one for tennis in 1954. For its first two decades, the focus was strictly American. In 1975, the Hall of Fame went International, British great Fred Perry the first non-American inductee.
As has been the case for a great many museums, in recent years, the ITHF has taken steps to bring its vast trove of stories—players, moments, objects—to all corners of the globe. Says Martin, “With that overarching notion that history is the great informer of what it is to come, it’s incumbent on us to imagine ourselves as more than a museum, more than a historical landmark.”
In 2017, the ITHF embarked on a long-range project to digitize its entire museum collection, and in the process, make tennis history even more accessible all over the world. This digitizing effort includes more than 200,000 photographs, tennis-related stamp collections, publications, and postcards, as well as various trophies, paintings and the ITHF’s entire collection of racquets, tennis ball cans, and fashion. Six curated digital exhibits are also available on such topics as “Tennis Toys and Games,” “French Open: A Tribute,” and “Inspiring Artifacts.” One compelling item in the latter is a telegram sent from baseball trailblazer Jackie Robinson to Arthur Ashe, congratulating Ashe on his historic title run at the 1968 US Open. “Inspiring Artifacts” also features such distinct objects as the tennis ball that survived a world record 14-hour and 31-minute rally, as well as the music that inspired wheelchair champion David Hall.
“A huge part of what we are doing is integrating our content in a way that can help everybody see our Hall of Famers,” says Martin. “Digital storytelling is a fantastic way to do that.”
During the current pandemic, Hall of Fame Live has given fans the chance to see vivid, engaging interviews conducted by Blair Henley with such inductees as Tracy Austin, Marat Safin, Gigi Fernandez, Todd Woodbridge, Lindsay Davenport, Jim Courier, Stan Smith, Mary Pierce, and Kim Clijsters.
Besides watching and listening to tennis history online, fans also participate. In 2018, the ITHF announced that fans would have the chance to cast votes for each year’s nominees. Since that began, votes have come in from 130 countries.
Beyond the Internet, the ITHF has hit the road with a number of traveling exhibits. Among the most notable: “Breaking the Barriers: Honoring the ATA and Black Tennis Pioneers,” an exploration of the rich history of Black tennis in America, featuring Hall of Famers Ashe, Althea Gibson and their legendary mentor, Robert “Whirlwind” Johnson.
All over the globe, the ITHF conducts ring ceremonies, honoring its inductees at such events as Roland Garros. “To see someone like Amelie Mauresmo walk on to the court with 15 Hall of Famers is remarkable,” says Martin. “This all adds to the fan experience. You start to see how we’re an effective and vital partner of the sport for its presentation to the customer.”
Perhaps never is that more vivid than during the year’s first major, the Australian Open, when the ITHF announces its inductee class and the newly honored enter Rod Laver Arena alongside such icons as Laver, Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe, Evonne Goolagong and a host of other legends.
“We have a responsibility,” says Martin, “not just to the tennis world, to ensue that our content is accessible, educational and contributes to the improvement of our society.” Tennis begins in places like Wuhan, China. Or the ant bed court in Queensland, Australia, where Laver first held a racquet. Or, 7,500 miles from there, on the streets of Compton, California, where future Hall of Famers Venus and Serena Williams commenced their tennis saga. Then, strand by strand, match by match, the roads lead to such familiar spots as Rod Laver Arena, Court Philippe Chatrier, Centre Court and Arthur Ashe Stadium – and even, for some, the Newport Casino. A little ball, endlessly circling the big ball.
A donation today will put your name in the Hall of Fame!
Hall of Fame experiences and tennis memories will always have a special place in our hearts. Help commemorate this historic pause in tennis and put your name in the Hall of Fame at tennisfame.com/yourname
With a donation of as little as $25.00, your name and photo will be a part of this new interactive exhibit in the Museum at the International Tennis Hall of Fame. A virtual rendering of the exhibit will also be online to share with the world!
Join thousands of tennis fans from across the globe to be part of this once-in-a-lifetime exhibit to have your name alongside the names of the 257 legends of the game. Your contribution enables the International Tennis Hall of Fame to continue our work to preserve tennis history, celebrate its champions, and inspire generations to come.