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Steve Flink: The 2013 Hall of Fame Class

7/16/2013 2:00:00 PM

Perhaps there is no more festive time in tennis than the annual International Tennis Hall of Fame  induction ceremonies at Newport, Rhode Island. Held the weekend after Wimbledon on Saturday afternoon, elegantly staged on the lawns during the Hall of Fame Tennis Championships, presented with understated class, sophistication and distinction, this is an occasion not to be missed. Every July, I get up at the crack of dawn at my home in the suburbs of New York, drive three hours across largely empty roads, and arrive in Newport ready to celebrate the estimable individuals who are worthy of enshrinement at the chief historical landmark of their sport.

This year’s class was particularly distinguished. The headline honoree was, of course, Switzerland’s highly accomplished Martina Hingis, but she was joined by four other standouts that more than deserved their time in the spotlight. Australia’s Thelma Coyne Long—described as “94 years young” by International Tennis Hall of Fame Chairman Chris Clouser—did not make the long journey from “Down Under”, but she was represented by none other than Rodney George Laver. Meanwhile, a trio of prodigious contributors to the game—Ion Tiriac, Cliff Drysdale, and Charlie Pasarell—were given their keys to the kingdom. All in all, despite an unfortunate rain delay in the middle of the ceremonies, it was one of my favorite induction days of all because the speeches were so memorable, the occasion so bright and uplifting, and the recipients all so worthy, proud and grateful to be there.

Laver got it all started with his remarks about Coyne Long, a prolific achiever over the course of three different decades, one of the great Australian competitors of all time, and a woman who was probably overlooked for too long as a worthy candidate to attain Hall of Fame status. As Laver aptly put it, “Her remarkable career lasted more than 20 years, starting in 1935 and finishing in 1958. Her remarkable accomplishments, given the limits on Australian women players and what they faced at that time, are amazing. She won a total of 19 Grand Slam titles. Thelma holds a record 12 Australian National Championships—now known as the Australian Open—in doubles. In 1952 she completed an Australian triple, winning the singles, doubles and mixed doubles competitions. Thelma won 16 titles in other countries along her tennis career… I’m proud to be here to accept this award for Thelma, a very deserving and wonderful lady. I saw Thelma play in 1956 and 1958 and she’s quite a tennis player.”

The stage was set for a man of immense stature to introduce Tiriac. That was the Honorable former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, who has also set himself apart as United States Special Ambassador and United States Special Envoy. Mitchell was always a voice of reason, integrity and authority during his years in the Senate, and as dignified a public servant as I have observed in my lifetime. He has known Tiriac for a good long while, and the 74-year-old Rumanian was wise to select such a widely accomplished man from another field to be his presenter.

Mitchell spoke with striking clarity and insight about the multi-faceted Tiriac, a player who led his nation into three Davis Cup Finals, a masterful manager of players including Guillermo Vilas and Boris Becker, and a bold and innovative promoter of tournaments over the years including the ATP World Tour Finals and the Masters 1000 event currently held in Madrid. Tiriac has known the game on every imaginable level, and Mitchell put the man into perspective in the space of several minutes. In my view, no one surpassed Mitchell among the day’s speakers; his delivery was impeccable, his poise unmistakable, his understanding of Tiriac unassailable.

Senator Mitchell said, “It would be difficult to describe adequately any person in just a few minutes. Those of you who know Ion Tiriac are aware that, given his colorful life, it’s impossible. But I’ll try. All who enter the Hall of Fame have made major contributions to tennis. Few have done so for as long and in so many ways as has Ion Tiriac. Raised in poverty by a single mother in the mountains of Romania, he’s truly a self-made man who achieved great success in tennis, and in business. His ferocious determination and his relentlessness to win were evident for all who saw him compete at the highest level of international tennis.”

Mitchell then saluted Tiriac for his triumphs alongside Ilie Nastase and Vilas, for his Davis Cup career, for his promotional skills, his coaching credentials, and for all he did as a promoter and a manager of players. But the most memorable part of his speech was a story he told about a match Tiriac lost to Laver in the quarterfinals of the 1968 French Open. Tiriac led two sets to love before bowing in five sets against a player many still consider the best of all time. Mitchell recalled being with Tiriac at Roland Garros many years after the Romanian had given Laver such a scare at the world’s premier clay court event. He asked Tiriac to describe what had happened on the day he came so close to toppling the redoubtable Laver.

Tiriac told Mitchell, “At the beginning, the weather was good, the footing was firm, and I took the first two sets. Then the weather turned, the court got slippery, and Laver pulled it out.” The following month, Mitchell was at Wimbledon and he was coincidentally seated next to Laver. “Naturally, I couldn’t resist asking him if he remembered the match with Ion. ‘Oh yes, he said. ‘I remember it very well. At the beginning, the weather was bad, the court was slippery, and Ion won the first two sets. Then the weather cleared, the footing got firm, and I won the last three sets.’ ”

The delivery of Mitchell was ineffably good. The audience roared with laughter. Mitchell then used the humor and lightness of the moment to segue toward another point. He said, “Well, most great athletes I’ve known have amazingly detailed and clear memories of the important events in their careers. Rod and Ion did have slightly different recollections of the weather that day. And as the players today here know, a fraction of an inch here and there, a little rain, a let, a call, and a different history might have been written. Ion, despite that loss, you are a winner.”

Mitchell’s pacing was perfect. He continued, “Although the criteria for admission to the Hall of Fame are appropriately limited to tennis, it must be said of Ion Tiriac that his extraordinary success in tennis and in business has enabled him to devote much of his life to helping the people of his country in ways too many to describe here, often quietly and without publicity. Ion has used his success in life to give many, many Romanians a chance to succeed in their lives. Ion, as you enter the tennis Hall of Fame today, you earn our congratulations, but you have already earned our admiration because long before today, you have been a Hall of Famer in the game of life itself.”

Tiriac was deeply touched by the words of his old friend, humbled and appreciative, seemingly overcome by a reservoir of emotions. Lauding Mitchell, he joked about why he was not a politician, acknowledged International Tennis Hall of Fame President Stan Smith “for what you have become in your second life”, and paid tribute to his family. “I’m not going to number them,” he said, “because there are too many [of you] and I don’t want to take more time because [John} McEnroe set up the 5-minutes time for these speeches after the two-and-a-half hours that he had.”

That drew a robust laugh collectively from the audience, who recollected the American’s endless induction speech in 1999. Now Tiriac injected some self-deprecating humor into his speech. “International Tennis Hall of Fame is very high, very highly-regarded. Ion Tiriac, member of the Hall of Fame. I don’t think I deserve it, but I’m going to keep it.”

He then decided to give his own take on the contest he had with Laver at Roland Garros 45 years ago. He referred affectionately to Laver as “his royal highness.” Tiriac recalled being the lone amateur at that first French Open of 1968, surrounded by seven professionals. He said with humility, “I didn’t know how to play tennis. I never knew. I never learned. But I had two very good pair of legs, and I could run from here to New York and back. So I run against Mr. Laver from A to Z. And I was thinking, this guy maybe makes again the Grand Slam. It wouldn’t be fair to beat him. I don’t say that I gave him the match, but I say that he didn’t really beat me. So it’s something between the two of us. We’re still great friends. I respect him for a very, very long time.”

At the conclusion of his talk, Tiriac said, “I promise you I don’t regret one thing with my life, being a tennis player, a coach, a manager, a promoter. That is the way it was. I am not jealous. Let them make the tens of millions of dollars a year, but they’re never going to have the times that we had.”

The moment had arrived for the induction of the incomparable Drysdale, a player who won the U.S. Open doubles title with Roger Taylor in 1972, reached the singles final at Forest Hills in 1965, resided among the top ten in the world, and established himself as the first top of the line player to use a two-handed backhand. Drysdale even upended the top seeded Laver at the first U.S. Open in 1968. But he accomplished more meaningfully as the first President of the Association of Tennis Professionals in 1972. He was an outstanding leader for the ATP when they boycotted Wimbledon in 1973. Since 1979, he has been the premier broadcasting voice for ESPN on their tennis telecasts. He is universally respected across the board in his field for the depth of his devotion to his craft.

Introducing Cliff Drysdale in Newport was his son Greg, who did a terrific job. Greg Drysdale spoke straight from the heart, and got to the heart of his father’s wisdom, insight and importance. He said, “My father, in my humble opinion, is the best man that I have ever known, in all the ways that matter. He taught me everything I know that’s worth knowing. He’s a great Dad, and I’m very lucky. But I’ve had to share him. He’s given his whole life to tennis, unreservedly, playing, promoting, organizing and eventually broadcasting. Thirty-four years he’s been on television. Thirty-four years! Johnny Carson wasn’t on television for 34 years. That’s a very long time, and still going. Where were you last week, Cliffy? Fourth of July and we could have been on the golf course, but no, had to go to England again. I was so happy when I heard my father was being inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame because I think it’s the most magnificent way for all the great people in tennis that mean so much to him to express appreciation and affection for my Dad for a lifetime spent in the sport. Personally, there is no possible way I could ever thank my father for all that he means to me. But I can try. Thanks for all that you have done. I love you. Ladies and gentleman, I give you Cliff Drysdale.”

Drysdale rose from his chair, hugged his son, and approached the microphone in an emotional state we have seldom if ever seen from him in public. His son had not needed to recite his accomplishments. Instead, he lauded his Dad for the man he is and father he has been. For those of us who have known Cliff Drysdale for decades, it was the most poignant moment of the afternoon.

Clearly moved by what his son had said, visibly on the edge of tears, his voice slightly cracking as he spoke, Drysdale began, “ I just knew I was not going to bawl like a baby, and I’m going to try my damnedest not to. Greg, I hope that one day you realize how strong a human being, and how strong a personality you are. To my wife, Deanna, she thinks this is all about history, and it’s not. It’s about what’s been past and what’s going to come in the future. Just one quick thought for you, Deanna, and that is that these last years that we’ve been together, I’ve seen the world in a different light. I know it’s not just from the courts to the hotel anymore. It’s a much happier place than I ever thought it was before I met you, and I thank you for that.”

He now shifted from his family to some amusing memories of his lifetime in the sport. Drysdale recalled playing a pro tournament on the same court on which he was standing. That event was back in the sixties, when Newport’s audacious innovator Jimmy Van Alen was experimenting in a fascinating way with the way tennis was scored. As Drysdale mentioned, “Jimmy was responsible for the tie-break and he tried so many times to change the scoring system, and succeeded obviously.”

Drysdale regaled the audience with a story of playing Hall of Famer Butch Buchholz in that pro tournament at Newport. In those days, Van Alen tried introducing table tennis scoring in tennis and other moves along those lines, as well as establishing the tie-break as a crucial means to bring matches to an end sooner. In his duel with Buchholz at a round robin event, Drysdale infuriated Van Alen. “I figured out a way to subvert his system if I lost a couple of points or maybe a game. Somehow I’d get to the semifinals automatically. And poor Jimmy came out on to this court and he was livid. I thought he was going to explode. I want to apologize to Jimmy Van Alen and to Butch for that moment.”

He reminisced about the many ways he and Buchholz have been intertwined in the business of tennis. He then lauded Laver, remembering his second week in Europe as a player, and how the locker room in Rome emptied out because all of the players felt compelled to watch Laver display his greatness. “You actually had a topspin backhand,” Drysdale said to Laver, “which was basically unknown at that time.”

Drysdale spoke of many others, including WCT founder Lamar Hunt, his daughter Kirstie, and a wide range of people from ESPN who have become his “family.” He said, “Pammy Shriver is like my sister, so I don’t even need to thank her.” He spoke genuinely about his respect for Chris Clouser. In closing, Drysdale said, “It is a privilege and an honor to be a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. And from the bottom of my heart, I thank you.” 

It was a speech well delivered from as fine a broadcaster as tennis has ever had. Now the time had come for Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe to introduce her old friend Pasarell. But before she could start her speech, the widow of Arthur Ashe had to wait for the rain that had been falling during Drysdale’s speech to cease. She did not let the delay dampen her enthusiasm. Moutoussamy-Ashe was the ideal person to speak about the widely revered Pasarell, a player who rose to the top of the U.S. ranking list in 1967, a founder of the National Junior Tennis League, a crucial leader of the ATP, a leading voice on the Men’s International Professional Tennis Council, and, most importantly, the man who worked for three decades on the Indian Wells tournament and turned it into one of the world’s premier events.

As Moutoussamy Ashe put it, “Under his leadership as tournament director of what is now known as the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California, the tournament has grown into largest combined ATP and WTA combined event in the world after the Grand Slams. But for those of us that know Charlie, we know that the commitment that he takes most seriously is his commitment to his service of family. When Charlie Pasarell gives you his word, his word is as good as gold.”

Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe said, “Some of you know that Arthur Ashe and Charlie were not only roommates and teammates at UCLA, they were best friends. If Arthur were alive today, he would be introducing Charlie. I’ll stand in his place and try not to cry, because I know Arthur would have been welling up with tears of joy for his dear, dear friend…. Thank you, Charlie, for including me in this wonderful celebration. You are not only a great example of the athletic spirit but also the quintessence of everlasting love, family and friendship. It gives me great pleasure to introduce him with the words that are most fitting: Ladies and gentleman, Hall of Famer, Charlie Pasarell.”

Up stepped the esteemed Pasarell, every bit as humbled as the other honorees, perhaps even more so. He fittingly commenced his speech with a tip of the hat to his parents, Charles, Sr., 95, and Dora, 92, who made the trip to Newport. He informed the audience about his Dad winning the Championships of Puerto Rico on eight occasions, and his mother capturing that title once. He fondly recalled the USLTA naming his family Tennis Family of the Year in 1965. He paid homage to his wife of 42 years. And then, of course, he mentioned his two children.

Pasarell addressed other family members, and found room to mention Welby Van Horn, the renowned coach who got Charlie started with tennis at the age of eight. He turned to his ATP network of friends, including Mark Young and Mark Miles, who were both present at courtside. Pasarell then demonstrated his reverence for where he stood and the honor being bestowed upon him. “Just imagine,” he said with obvious sincerity, “to be included in this hall among so many legends and outstanding individuals such as Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, Jack Kramer, Pancho Gonzales, Tony Trabert, Chris Evert, Stan Smith, Butch Buchholz, all the great Aussies, Laver, Anderson, Newcombe, Roche, Rosewall, Davidson, and of course, my Davis Cup captain and great friend, Donald Dell. It truly is a great honor and humbling experience.”

Now the last member of this sterling cast of inductees—Hingis, of course—was presented by her longtime agent and friend, Phil de Picciotto. Client managers like De Picciotto are always well versed about the business of the sport, but many do not fully understand the game itself and all of its intricacies. De Picciotto is probably as knowledgeable about the way the sport is played as anyone in his field. He demonstrated that point emphatically in his thoughtful speech.

“Martina,”, he said, “ you have accomplished so much since we first met when you were an 11-year-old surrounded by stuffed animals. On your journey to get here, you won 81 tournament titles, including 15 Grand Slam titles. You spent 209 weeks as the world’s No. 1 ranked singles player, and you attained the rare status of holding the No. 1 ranking in singles and doubles at the same time.”

De Picciotto was just warming up, and now he got to the heart of the matter. He said to, and about, Hingis, “We loved watching you play. You were always so natural and so authentic. You treated us to a modern, yet classical and timeless style of tennis, with a blend of superb technique and artistry reflective of your Swiss and Czechoslovakian heritage. Your extraordinary court sense enabled you to anticipate your opponent’s next shots and strategies. You creatively employed your feet, your head and your heart. Throughout, your coach and mother, Melanie, was a constant source of knowledge and support. And, in turn, you used what you learned to inspire others. Players lined up for a chance to play doubles with you, and you won titles with 15 different partners.”

After her good friend had finished his brief, probing and penetrating speech by complimenting Hingis for her “fairness and integrity”, the headline honoree rose to speak to an appreciative audience and to close out a program everyone had enjoyed immensely—with or without the unwelcome rain. “First of all,” she said, “I’d like to tell you how deeply I’m honored and moved to stand here in front of you today in this wonderful place with so much history. I can only find the words to express the feelings that I have being now a member of such an elite group our sport has elected to represent millions and millions of people worldwide playing tennis. I could repeat the words so many times [said] before here. Our sport has given me everything in my life, and it would be the truth.”

Hingis then moved into her essential message. “I was born behind the Iron Curtain,” she said, “and my mother wanted to tear the curtain apart for me. That is the reason I played tennis as a little girl. In 1980, my mother had not many choices for giving me a better life and a chance for freedom and to see the world. She chose the game of tennis as a way out of the world and the prison we lived in, so thank you, Mom. She also gave me the name Martina, after Martina Navratilova who was a great legend and a symbol of freedom in our country back in Czechoslovakia.”

Wrapping up her remarks, Hingis said, “Thank you, tennis. You gave me the world, and now I am honestly out of words because there are no words to explain what I feel as you chose to give me a place for eternity. When I was a little girl, I didn’t know there is a Hall of Fame. When I was at the top of the game, I did not know there was far more than sports. As I stand here in front of you, I am not sure if I deserve all of this, but what can I say more. Thank you all, and I love you all.”

And so the ceremony was over. Earlier, six players who performed from the 1880’s to the 1940’s were inducted posthumously: Daphne Akhurst and James Anderson from Australia, Wilfred Baddeley, Blanche Bingley Hillyard and Charlotte Cooper Sterry from Great Britain, and Hilde Krahwinkel Sperling of Germany.

Another memorable afternoon in Newport was over. The new inductees and all the Hall of Famers on site took their victory lap around the stadium court. There would be more rain later in the day, but for Hingis, Pasarell, Drysdale and Tiriac this was a shining moment in their lives that they will cherish forever.
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.