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Steve Flink: Five worthy inductees make Hall Of Fame

7/17/2012 1:00:00 PM

My annual journey to Newport, Rhode Island for the International Tennis Hall of Fame induction ceremonies is always celebratory, memorable and highly enjoyable. Held the Saturday after Wimbledon out on the stadium court during the Campbell’s Hall of Fame Championships, the setting is idyllic. The current inductees and their presenters—along with Hall of Famers from years gone by—assemble on the grass court, and somehow the sun almost always seems to be shining when the honorees accept the highest accolade in their sport.

This time around, as I drove with my wife Frances from our home in Katonah, New York up to Rhode Island early that morning, the skies were gray. Up until shortly before the proceedings, it remained cloudy. But, as if by design, the sun broke through just in time, and the event was staged under blue skies and a bright sun. That could not have been more appropriate.

Five new members moved into the Hall of Fame, and first up on the program was Randy Snow, almost unarguably the greatest wheelchair tennis player of all time. Snow passed away from a heart attack a few years ago, but his proud father Tom was there to accept the honor for his deceased son. Tom Snow spoke with clarity and conviction about his widely accomplished son, and saluted Randy for the way he “changed the game of wheelchair tennis around the world.” He spoke of the role fellow wheelchair tennis standout Brad Parks played in Randy’s life. “Randy’s hero,” said Tom Snow, “was Brad Parks.”

Tom Snow’s sadness as well as his joy in standing in for his son was apparent on such an auspicious occasion to one and all in Newport. He spoke with eloquence, style, and a certain grace that was poignant even to those who did not follow wheelchair tennis closely. His tribute was a very distinguished piece of public speaking.

But perhaps no one all afternoon was more articulate or stylish than Anne Worcester, the former CEO of the WTA Tour who currently is doing an excellent job as tournament director of the New Haven Open at Yale University. Worcester was there to talk about Mike Davies (CEO of the New Haven Open), who entered the International Tennis Hall of Fame as an outstanding contributor to the game. Davies was No. 1 in Great Britain and a Davis Cup player for his country. He turned pro in 1960 and had a decent career as a player in that forum. But he served the sport much more substantially during his tenure working for World Championship Tennis.

Davies was C.O.O at WCT, joining that organization in 1968 and remaining there for 13 years. Later he went to work for both the ATP and the ITF and he did remarkable things for both bodies, but it was at WCT that he did his finest and most productive work. Among other things, he managed to get WCT a major television package on NBC, and across the board he helped establish WCT as a serious force in tennis and a crucial place for the advent of change.

As Worcester said so eloquently, “Mike is probably the most extraordinary innovator and businessman our sport has ever known.” It was Davies, after all, who was the prime mover behind yellow tennis balls for better visibility on television, 30 second intervals between points, 90 second breaks at the changeovers, and a host of other important advances for the game.

Worcester fittingly referred to Davis as “this bold and brave man.” She continued by saying, “He introduced concepts that are mainstays in today’s game…. Over his tennis career this one man created a masterpiece—one that forever changed how we view our sport. His fifty years in this sport have created a work of art that will hang forever in the Tennis Hall of Fame… His accomplishments and contributions will influence tennis for generations to come. He has left an indelible mark on the sport of tennis and his legacy will live on forever. Now that is a true Hall of Famer.”

How could Davies have asked for more than that as a soaring tribute to his stature and importance? Worcester had more than established his credentials as an authentic Hall of Fame inductee. But Davies followed with a self-deprecating speech, spending more time lauding the likes of the estimable Butch Buchholz (a 2005 inductee who was seated at courtside) and others than he did heaping praise upon himself. He told the classic story of turning pro and walking into a barren locker room where there were no actual lockers or even hooks to hang his clothes. Trabert removed a nail from his bag, took his shoe, and banged the nail into the wall. He told Davies to bring along his own nail to the next stop, and admonished his fellow pro in a friendly way to “get used to it, rookie.”

Davies later turned his attention to Lamar Hunt and the WCT years. “Lamar taught me many things,” he said. “One was that that there are two words in ‘show business’ and most people forget the second word.”

He spoke with quiet passion about WCT becoming “a powerful force for pro tennis.” But he saved his best comments for the end of his moving talk.

“I will close,” he said, “by accepting this award on behalf of all those professional players who were banned from playing Grand Slams for so many years but were so instrumental in bringing about Open Tennis to our sport. Pancho Gonzales, Lew Hoad, Kurt Nielsen, Robert Haillet and Barry MacKay have passed on, but there are still some of us left to remember where we came from.”

After that dignified speech from a man who has always been deeply respected among those who authentically know the game, the stage was set for International Tennis Hall of Fame President Stan Smith to introduce Manuel Orantes, the 1975 U.S. Open champion who was voted in as a Masters Player category. Smith jovially pointed out that “it was not easy to play against Manuel, particularly on clay. He had a lethal forehand, a solid backhand and a tenacious all court game. He created a nightmare for anyone who played against him. But he was not only a great player but a wonderful sportsman…… I remember Manolo as a great competitor and as a man who really loved the game.”

Orantes seemed delighted to have been introduced by Smith. The Spaniard recalled reaching the semifinals of Wimbledon in 1972 and losing to Ilie Nastase, who then was beaten by Smith in a five set epic. Orantes saluted Smith for that towering performance on the Centre Court, and made it clear how impressed he was after sticking around to witness an outstanding spectacle. He spoke of how “tennis has given me many things in my lifetime,” making it entirely clear that the Hall of Fame honor would rank at or near the top of his many achievements. He told the audience in Newport that his string of wins at the 1975 U.S. Open over Nastase, Guillermo Vilas (Orantes rallied valiantly from two sets down and later from 5-0 down in the fourth, saving five match points to prevail in five) and Jimmy Connors (in a shocking straight set final) for his only Grand Slam crown “were the three best matches of my life,” and then paused to acknowledge the applause of an appreciative crowd.

Another renowned left-hander took over the microphone next. Nine-time major singles champion Monica Seles—inducted at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2009, was there to speak about her old friend and rival Jennifer Capriati, and what a fine job Monica did! She said at the outset of her speech, “Jennifer and I grew up together. We were two teenagers on the tour, thrown into the adult world when the spotlight was so bright, the expectations and demands intense. While we competed fiercely against each other, we could also relate to each other. We shared a bond and great admiration and, most importantly, mutual respect. It was impossible not to respect Jennifer. From the moment she started on the tour at the age of 13, she was a force.”

Later, Seles lauded Capriati for her remarkable comeback after some serious setbacks early in her career, including arrests for shop lifting and marijuana possession in the nineties. Capriati had celebrated a career defining moment in 1992 when, at 16, she took the gold medal at the Olympic Games in Barcelona, toppling Steffi Graf in a stirring final. But she did not win a Grand Slam championship or even reach a major final in her early years out on the tour. She was gone almost entirely in 1994 and 1995, but returned to her profession with vigor, more maturity, and a growing sense of confidence.

In 2001 and 2002, Capriati more than made up for lost time, securing two Australian Open titles, winning the French Open once, reaching No. 1 in the world. As Seles put it in her speech, “In a comeback for the ages, she [Jennifer] would win all three of her Grand Slam titles and become No. 1 in the world.”

But Seles got to the heart of her old rival most when she summed up the essence of Capriati’s qualities as a competitor. “As powerful as her groundstrokes were,” said Seles of Capriati, “it was her fight that was her greatest weapon. No matter what challenges there were for Jennifer, she fought and she fought and she fought.”

Capriati took the stage in a highly emotional state, overcome with emotions as she started her speech. She would say at one point, “I left the game earlier than expected, earlier than I wanted to. It was not on my terms,” she lamented, referring to the injuries that forced her to stop after playing her last match in 2004.

She spoke reflectively about what the game meant to her in a larger sense. “I dreamed of tennis as a little girl. I dreamed of being the best. I have to say that I achieved all of my dreams and more. Even though my life took some twists and turns that I didn’t expect, I still managed to overcome adversity, win Grand Slams, pocket a gold medal, become the No. 1 player in the world, and now stand her at the podium of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. This is one milestone I never thought I’d achieve.”

And so the ceremony was ready to come to an end, leaving only the inimitable Gustavo Kuerten to be enshrined. His charming mother Alice toasted her son, displaying the kind of humility and decency that she clearly passed on to “ Guga”.  Among the many wonderful things she said about her immensely popular son who captured three French Open crowns and also finished 2000 stationed at No. 1 in the world, the most stirring part of her message was when she pointed out that the reason why “ dreaming is allowed. Believing in dreams while fighting for them with discipline, dedication, humbleness and perseverance is a way to make them come true.”

Surely, Gustavo Kuerten exemplified and was worthy of that characterization. Alice Kuerten added, “I didn’t mention his titles and accomplishments—those are well known. I chose to talk about the things that cannot be seen but can be felt by the heart.”

Following that wonderful tribute, Kuerten came forward, genuinely overwhelmed by the sentiments of his mother, with whom he is clearly very close. His humility was fully on display as he expressed himself freely without the benefit of a prepared text. He joked that Capriati was more worthy of the Hall of Fame honor than he was. He reflected on the tragedy of losing his father at a young age to a heart attack in an umpire’s chair, saying of his Dad, “He was the person who got me to love this game. He is my hero, my father, my idol.” He let everyone know how fortunate he felt to realize so many of his largest goals.  

The most amusing part of his talk was about his wife, Mariana. He said she had never seen him play a match. He also mentioned that he had told her he won three Australian Opens, three Wimbledon titles, and three U.S. Opens. The truth, of course, is that he did not win any of those championships. But, he laughed, “She believed it. Then she decided to marry me.” He laughed heartily after that remark, and so did the fans who were so impressed with his sense of humor.

All in all, it was an uplifting afternoon under the hot sun of Newport. Capriati and Kuerten, of course, garnered most of the attention, and gave the fans much to remember with their remarks. But the fact remains that Davies and Orantes were very well received, and Randy Snow, posthumously, was deeply appreciated. Driving back home the next morning, talking about the highlights of the previous day with my wife, I was reminded once more why the induction ceremony at Newport is one of the most important days of the year in the game of tennis.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.