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Steve Flink: Ceremonial Class

7/14/2008 6:13:00 AM

by Steve Flink

Every year on the weekend after Wimbledon, the International Tennis Hall of Fame holds its induction ceremony in Newport, Rhode Island. The honorees walk out onto the grass courts on semifinal day during the Campbell's Hall of Fame Championships, and then take their chairs at courtside. They know full well that this is a moment that they will remember vividly for the rest of their lives. They appreciate their permanent link with the history of the game. They often seem overwhelmed with emotions, as was the case with a tearful Pete Sampras in 2007. In other instances, they are unable to keep their comments relatively brief, as happened in 1999 when John McEnroe made a 45 minute speech.

I have gone to every induction ceremony since 1995, and there is always a dignified air surrounding the proceedings. International Tennis Hall of Fame President Tony Trabert- who was inducted himself in 1970- presides over the ceremony with unparalleled class and character. He sets just the right tone with his remarks. He represents himself with an unforced sophistication. It is hard to imagine anyone handling that responsibility with more ease and elegance than Trabert, and this year was no exception to that rule.

Michael Chang, of course, was the most renowned inductee in the class of 2008. Chang--- the indefatigable warrior who won the 1989 French Open at 17 (becoming the youngest male French Open champion and the youngest man ever to claim any Grand Slam championship) and climbed to a career high of No. 2 in the world seven years later--- delivered his speech with heartfelt sincerity and extraordinary composure. He said, "This is a day I will remember for the rest of my life with much pride and fondness." He spoke about the "team" surrounding him across his career that made him a substantial individual, including in that category the man who introduced him to the fans at Newport, his brother Carl.

Chang saluted his family and friends, his agents Tom Ross and Kelly Wolf of Octagon, his inner circle. He was humble and yet self assured, seemingly as comfortable with a microphone in his hand as he once was with a racket, able to bring his comments across in a natural manner. He may have gone a bit overboard with his many references to Jesus Christ, but that is a genuine side of Chang and no one could say there was anything artificial about how he expressed himself.

Meanwhile, he spoke about his career only with appreciation for the opportunities he had rather than dwelling on any of the chances he may have missed. There were four members of the so-called "Greatest Generation" of American male players. Jim Courier (Class of 2005) was the first to make it into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Sampras was next a year ago. And Andre Agassi will inevitably take his place at the shrine of the sport in another three to four years. Sampras, of course, won a record 14 Grand Slam Championships. Agassi collected eight majors. Courier secured four of the premier prizes.

Chang was victorious only once at a "Big Four" event and that was his astounding run at Roland Garros 19 years ago. He had his openings thereafter. In 1995, he was back in the French Open final, but the industrious and physically imposing Thomas Muster beat him in the title match. In 1996, Chang made it to two major finals, losing to Boris Becker at the Australian Open and Sampras at the U.S. Open. Chang concluded no fewer than seven years stationed among the top ten in the world, which was no mean feat. He claimed 34 titles overall during his time in the pro game. So while he was clearly no Sampras or Agassi, and even if Courier had a much more substantial record, Chang did celebrate a remarkably consistent career. Reading between the lines of his speech that afternoon, I had the feeling he realized that he was fortunate to be in the Hall of Fame, and perhaps that made him all the more appreciative.

Chang was joined in this years' class by two prodigious men who had each passed away in recent years: Gene Scott--- a former U.S. Davis Cup player, renowned tournament director, and founder of Tennis Week Magazine--- and Mark McCormack--- the founder of International Management Group and an authentic tennis nut. Both men were represented by wives who did them proud. Polly Scott was far and away the most eloquent orator of the afternoon. She was introduced by none other than John McEnroe, who wrapped his comments this time into eight minutes of passion and clarity.

Among the many penetrating things McEnroe said about the hard hitting journalist Scott, perhaps his most memorable lines were simple yet directly to the point. "Gene always wanted to make people think...... He always gave his opinion loud and clear.... There has been a big void since Gene left us."

Polly Scott pointed out, "Gene cared deeply about tennis--- every aspect of the game... Gene had a penchant for stirring things up, and for finding solutions. No one was spared the Gene Scott needle but it was always done in the right spirit... Gene left an impressive legacy, one that can be seen and felt."

Monica Seles described the ubiquitous McCormack as "far ahead of his time". She said, "He was as loyal a friend as you could ever ask for." And yet, Seles remembered McCormack's zest for competition, and his will to win. "Mark hated to lose as much as I did," said the nine times Grand Slam tournament singles champion." An emotional Seles turned the microphone over to Betsy Nagelsen McCormack, who made her mark as an accomplished player and commentator. Nagelsen McCormack lauded her late husband for his love of the game, and said he had an uncanny knack for picking out the most important point in a match, and a sixth sense for when a player was about to double fault. And she recollected a casual yet highly competitive match McCormack played against 15-year-old Maria Sharapova, a future client.

All in all, it was a memorable and gripping ceremony. No one double faulted, and the crowd in Newport felt that the day was nothing less than a triumph.

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