There were days in the career of Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov that would leave even his most optimistic fans shaking their heads.
But in the grand scheme of things, not one of those occasions should have prompted voters not to induct the brilliant all-court player into the International Tennis Hall of Fame this summer in what is certainly the worst snub of a deserving player in the Open Era.
Not voting in a man who won Roland Garros in 1996 over Pete Sampras (semifinals) and Michael Stich (final). Captured the 1999 Australian Open. Won the gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Secured four Grand Slam doubles titles, and reached the No. 1 ranking is an atrocity, pure and simple
Officials at the Hall of Fame themselves are not to blame for the sub, no it’s those voters who do not take the time to actually study tennis’s past – much less Hall of Fame history – to see how he stacks up against other entrants.
But it has been my suspicion since I became a voter both in the Current Players category and then later in the Masters and Contributors category, that there are too many folks who are selected to vote who do not take their role seriously enough, or who should have never been picked in the first place because they don’t bother to follow the sport as intently as they should, or they let their personal biases get in the way of what should be a calculated, fairly objective vote. Rating a player’s career should not be seen as a popularity contest.
In 2008, the voters inducted Michael Chang, a contemporary of Kafelnikov’s and one of the classiest men ever to walk on court. On a journalistic level, I found it much easier to deal with Michael over the years, as I’m sure most my colleagues did, and I also had to suffer through a few interviews with a dour Kafelnikov that I wish I was never part of, but in reality, the Russian was a more accomplished player than Chang was all around.
Chang did win 34 singles titles to Kafelnikov’s 26, but the Russian also won 27 doubles crowns, while Chang could not manage one. Kafelnikov had a 44-28 record in Davis Cup play, and was part of Russia's 2002 Davis Cup winning team, while Chang barely played the competition, competing in just five ties, holding an 8-4 record and only playing a key role in one year, 1990, when the USA beat Australia for the title.
Chang did not reach No. 1, nor did he win two Slams in singles. He held an 0-4 record against Kafelnikov. At best, you could say that he was the near equal – or even the equal of Kafelnikov, but if you thought that way, you would have to vote the Russian in, too.
Here are two other players who were inducted in 2006 who are not better either: Patrick Rafter (two Slams in singles and a brief stint at No. 1) and Gabriela Sabatini, who only won one major, the 1990 US Open and never reached No. 1.
Rafter was a Davis Cup warrior, a two -time US Open winner, a two-time Wimbledon finalist and also won the Aussie Open doubles in 1999. But as another contemporary of Kafelnikov, he only won 11 singles titles and 10 doubles titles. And by the way, he had a 2-3 record against Kafelnikov.
The Argentine Sabatini had a very good career, winning 27 singles titles, 14 doubles crowns and the silver medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. But her career high ranking was No. 3, which means she was never a truly elite player like two other legitimate Hall of Famers Steffi Graf and Monica Seles, who beat her again and again.
So why did Rafter and Sabatini get in and Kafelnikov did not? Perhaps because they are both well liked, international sex symbols, which he is not.
France’s Yannick Noah, who was inducted in 2005, also falls under the category of a crossover celebrity who snuck in, as he only won one Slam in singles (Roland Garros) and one in doubles, but he wowed voters with his rock and roll personality.
That same year, another one-time Slam winner, Czech Jana Novotna, who won her sole singles major at 1998 Wimbledon, also got in, but at least she could claim 12 Slam doubles titles to her name, an impressive mark.
The Hall of Fame began as US institution and did not begin inducting players from outside of the United States until 1975 when it inducted Britain’s Fred Perry, so it’s not even worth discussing how Kafelnikov compares to anyone before then, because he was twice the player of at least a dozen previous American inductees.
But here are four other men who played at least partly in the Open Era (1968 to present) whom Kafelnikov’s record stands up to: Jan Kodes, Stan Smith, Tony Roche and Arthur Ashe.
Perhaps there is a lesson in this snub for Kafelnikov, although I am not sure how much he cares. Had he given his best in every match (for example, if his effort in a first round loss in Prague in April 1999 when the tournament director refused him it pay him his appearance fee alleging he was tanking, had matched that of his determination three months earlier in the Aussie Open final when he claimed to have “mentally broken” Enqvist), or if he even looked like he was giving his best every match, he might have been inducted.
Had he not become a professional poker player after he retired, there might not be suspicion that he had a gambling habit. Had he just simply been a more polite person overall during his player days, he might not have stepped on some potential voters’ feet.
The 38-year-old single father will be Hall of Fame eligible for the next two years if the Enshrinee Nominating Committee thinks it's appropriate to put his name back on the ballot again, but unless he wages his own publicity campaign, it’s hard to see this group of voters waking up and admitting that they were wrong.
And that’s too bad, because like him or not the Russian owns a critical piece of tennis lore at the turn of the century and deserves not to be tossed into the dust bins of history.
_______________Matt Cronin is a senior writer for Inside Tennis magazine, and the co-owner of the award winning TennisReporters.net. He writes the Ticker for Tennis.com, contributes regularly to Reuters, and is a radio analyst for all the Grand Slams. He just published the book, “Epic: John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg and the Greatest Tennis Season Ever.”