The Rally: Why the International Tennis Hall of Fame matters so much

The Rally: Why the International Tennis Hall of Fame matters so much

The ITHF is not there to preserve the past for its own sake; it’s there to let tennis fans feel connected to a community, and feel a sense of continuity.

Throughout this week, TENNIS.com will feature stories about tennis' ultimate storyteller, the International Tennis Hall of Fame. We'll conclude the week a special edition of Tennis Channel Live: Hall of Fame Special, airing this Saturday on Tennis Channel at 8 p.m.

To kick things off, Joel Drucker and Steve Tignor return for a Rally about the Hall, what it means to tennis, and the players who will have to wait until next year to take their places in it, Goran Ivanisevic and Conchita Martinez.


Hi Steve,

Usually, in this week after Wimbledon, the tennis world turns its eyes back across the Atlantic, to Newport, R.I. Newport, of course, is the home of the International Tennis Hall of Fame (ITHF), whose intended inductees were a pair of Wimbledon champions, Conchita Martinez and Goran Ivanisevic.

I say “intended” because, with its concurrent ATP tournament canceled for this year, the ITHF has opted to postpone its ceremony. Martinez and Ivanisevic will be inducted in 2021. But that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate all the rich history that’s so much a part of the ITHF—the emotional moments, the significance of such a venue, and more.


Conchita Martinez and Goran Ivanisevic, who will take their places in the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2021. (Getty Images)

Of the many ITHF moments I’ve witnessed, a delightful one came in 2004. It was on a Saturday afternoon. Two inductees were enjoying a smooth and friendly hit on the grass. One had just been inducted that afternoon. Her name was Dorothy “Dodo” Cheney, who on that day was 87 years old and would eventually earn a record 395 USTA national age-group titles. Across the net was the man who’d introduced her at the ceremony, 1999 inductee John McEnroe. Cheney’s mother, May Sutton Bundy, had been the first American to win Wimbledon, all the way back in 1905. Thirty-three years later, Dodo was the first American to win the Australian championships. How wonderful to see the connection between mother and daughter, across a century—and that most relentlessly contemporary of tennis personalities, McEnroe, taking part in it too.

What memories do you associate with the ITHF, Steve?  


Hi Joel,

First off, how can you not love a museum that’s housed in a building designed by Charles McKim and Stanford White? When you walk through the front door, you leave a modern commercial street and travel straight back to 1879, the year the Newport Casino opened. We should be thankful that the ITHF has never moved to a modern structure, which I’m guessing would inevitably be shaped like a giant tennis ball and colored optic yellow. (Actually, now that I mention it, that sounds kind of cool, too.)

I’ve attended the tournament and the induction ceremony three or four times in the past. It’s a nice way to come down off the frenetic two weeks of Wimbledon, while keeping the vintage-tennis vibe going. The highlight for me was seeing Steffi Graf induct her husband, Andre Agassi. Steffi gave a more moving and emotional speech than I think many of us expected. I also had a chance to see Rod Laver play doubles with McEnroe there. From what I remember, it was an early sign that the Rocket was recovering from the stroke that he had suffered a year or so earlier.

For me, and maybe for you, the Hall is also a tremendous resource. If you’re going to write about tennis history, the library there is a Mecca. When I wrote my book, High Strung, about the men’s game in the Borg-McEnroe era, I camped out at the Hall for a week, combing through every back issue of World Tennis and Tennis Week. It was probably the most enjoyable part of the whole book-writing process. You really feel like you’re excavating history that doesn’t exist anywhere else and bringing it to light.

I like the Goran-Conchita combination, and I’m bummed that they won’t get a ceremony until next year. Both had their most memorable victories in Wimbledon finals, and both have been Slam winners as coaches. I love to listen to Conchita talk tennis, and Goran, of course, is one of the sport’s all-time personalities.

When we think of the Hall, of course, we think about who should be in and who shouldn’t. With so few top players retiring in recent years, it can be hard to find suitable candidates. Is there anyone you think should be in who isn’t, Joel? The player who comes to my mind is Sergi Bruguera, a two-time Roland Garros champion and now a Davis Cup winning captain. I mean, why is Yannick Noah in and Bruguera isn’t? I know why, of course: Noah was a fan favorite everywhere and a legendary figure in the sport, and there’s no doubt that he deserves to be a member. But from what I know of Bruguera, he seems like a cool guy, too.

Once upon a time, the Hall was focused on American players at the expense of non-American players, but that has become less true in recent years. If that continues, maybe players like Bruguera will get their due.


Ivanisevic on being inducted into the Hall of Fame:


Steve,

It’s interesting to see how various candidates play out in the minds of voters. Certainly, Bruguera’s back-to-back Roland Garros titles warrant consideration. The latest imminent inductees, Martinez and Ivanisevic, were on the ballot a year earlier and were not voted in—but earned the honor this year.

Voters have their own behavior patterns. Heck, nine baseball voters did not deem Hank Aaron and his record tally of 755 home runs worthy of induction his first year of eligibility. Twenty-three felt the same way about Willie Mays and 28 passed on Joe DiMaggio. It’s hard to believe the same will happen when Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams and Venus Williams become eligible.

Regarding the international dimension, the Hall of Fame was originally intended only for Americans when it opened in 1954, but then went International in 1975. 

I liked your explanation of Hall of Fame architecture—past, present, and even future. The current vintage layout and the summertime village feel of Newport has an old-time New England quality to it I find rather comfortable and familiar too. My family lived in Connecticut for two years when I was a child, so there’s something evocative to me about things like clam chowder, oyster crackers and ice cream on hot July days.

Then there’s that notion you cited of a big yellow tennis ball, like some sort of science-fiction movie. Perhaps the smooth tone of Roger Federer’s voice greets you and welcomes you into the pantheon of tennis opulence. (There is, in fact, a Federer hologram inside the Hall of Fame that offers the ten reasons why he loves tennis, so maybe that’s the start of what’s to come.)

But the writer in me was even more intrigued to learn of your week in Newport researching High Strung. When you weren’t focused on Borg-McEnroe, Steve, what were some of the other aspects of tennis history you encountered? And how was it to be immersed in all those magazines, photos and more?


Joel,

Even among us tennis lovers in the States, it can be hard to conceive of tennis as a big-time sport in the way that football, baseball and basketball are here. Part of that, I think, has to do with how much effort those sports put into curating their histories and making fans feel like they’re connected to something that has a broader cultural significance. Being a fan of a certain team is, among other things, a way of carrying on a family tradition, of doing what your parents and grandparents did. Even in the U.S., where memories are notoriously short, that sense of continuity and connection to our own pasts is important to us.

If you’re a baseball writer, you can be proud of the fact that you’re plowing the same ground as greats like Roger Angell and Red Smith; there’s a good baseball writer in virtually every city in this country. It was only in the library at the ITHF that I began to understand what that feels like. Seeing bookshelves lined with the collections of U.S. and British tennis writers of the past, who worked for prestigious papers like the Telegraph, the Herald-Tribune, the Evening Standard, the Times of London, New York, and Los Angeles, made me feel as if I was part of a tradition in a way I hadn’t before. And that’s what makes the ITHF important in general. It’s not there to preserve the past for its own sake; it’s there to let tennis fans feel connected to a community, and feel a sense of continuity.

That’s why we’ll miss the induction ceremony this year. I mentioned earlier that the Hall can sometimes seem like a personality contest—e.g. why is Noah in, and not Bruguera? But there’s no denying that personality is a big part of why we love tennis, and seeing players from the recent past enter the Hall is a way to celebrate tennis’ great diversity of personalities. With Goran and Conchita, we would have heard from a Croat and a Spaniard, and seen again how easily tennis crosses borders.

In that way, the debate over who should get into the Hall is similar to the never-ending GOAT debates. On the surface, they can be tedious at best and pointless at worst. But they also get tennis fans thinking about, talking about, and appreciating the sport’s past. The more you know about its past, the more you’ll care about its present.


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