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Steve Flink: Class of 2010

7/12/2010 6:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Last Saturday morning, six of the seven new members of the International Tennis Hall of Fame (Great Britain’s Derek Hardwick--- a major contributor to the emergence of “Open Tennis”--- was inducted posthumously) filed into a room upstairs in the museum at Newport, Rhode Island, and took their places in front of a long table, sitting alongside Hall of Fame President Tony Trabert, answering questions from a small press contingent. This was a very unusual year in Newport since no prominent singles players were inducted, but the fact remained that the remarkable Brad Parks was honored as the first wheelchair tennis player to be enshrined.

Parks was joined at the table by Gigi Fernandez and Natasha Zvereva, Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde, and Owen Davidson. All of those players were there because they accomplished so much in doubles. Fernandez-Zvereva took 14 majors together and never failed to delight the galleries with their flair and soundness as a partnership. Woodforde and Woodbridge--- better known as “The Woodies”-- secured eleven Grand Slam championships together, including six on the hallowed lawns of Wimbledon. The left-handed Davidson—an Australian through and through--- won a mixed doubles Grand Slam in 1967, taking the Australian Championships with countrywoman Lesley Turner Bowrey, capturing the other three majors with Billie Jean King.

I made the three hour drive from home that morning with my wife, Frances, and daughter, Amanda. It was a great pleasure to be there, and the gathering of the players with the media--- conducted impeccably as always by the dignified Trabert--- was both enlightening and amusing. Woodbridge— younger than his left-handed partner Woodforde--- talked about how both men had the capacity to lead and take charge on any given day. He then joked about what he brought to the partnership. “I came along with exuberance and youth,” said Woodbridge.  Woodforde countered, “I am only five years older!”

The Woodies then spoke about the formation of their illustrious partnership after Woodforde had found success with John McEnroe (winning the 1989 U.S. Open), and Woodbridge had joined forces with Jason Stoltenberg.  As Woodforde put it, “We were both looking for certain attributes. I was aware of Todd’s abilities coming up through the juniors. I was looking for a Todd Woodbridge type of character.” As Woodbridge recollected, “I think we won the fourth tournament we played together, and after that it was close to every fourth tournament [or more] that we won for the next ten years. That was some pretty good business.”

Fernandez lauded the virtues of her partner and spoke of her own skills. “It helped us [that we got along so well on and off the court]. One of us was cooler, one was more aggressive, and we worked together so well as a team. We knew how to communicate and we always talked a lot on the court. I would have my bad days and Natasha would have her bad ones as well, but rarely did we have our bad days at the same time.”

Davidson recalled how fortunate he was in finding good partners, and then added, “I got some beauties [including John Newcombe and Ken Rosewall] over the years.” He then remembered playing pro tournaments back in Newport during the sixties before the arrival of Open Tennis, when Jimmy Van Alen, the inventor of the tie-break, would try other forms of experimentation to liven up the game. As Davidson recalled, “We would serve from three feet behind the baseline on the grass. I also remember a large confrontation between Van Alen and Mr. [Pancho] Gonzalez.  It’s fantastic to see what they have done here at this facility with the Hall of Fame.”

Parks spoke movingly about how he became involved in wheelchair tennis. He had a terrible accident during an amateur ski competition in 1976 at the age of 18, and realized as he was in his hospital bed that he would be confined to a wheelchair.  He made up his mind after some encouragement from his parents that he wanted to play tennis in a wheelchair. He started playing in that capacity, and established himself as the founder of wheelchair tennis, and one of its great players. Putting the wheelchair tennis world and his role as a leader on many fronts in perspective, Parks said at the press conference, “We became the envy of the wheelchair sports world because we are a part of the game of tennis, not separate. This [his induction] is kind of the last straw for wheelchair tennis. We have accomplished so much.”

At the conclusion of the press conference, Trabert asked each of the inductees to explain what the honor means to them. Parks replied, “It was never a goal of something I ever thought would happen but it is a real thrill for me.” Fernandez said, “This is a proud moment for me and my family to have Puerto Rico represented in the International Tennis Hall of Fame.” Zvereva spoke of her pride in getting this kind of recognition. Explained Woodbridge, “This wasn’t something that was on my radar screen. To be in the Hall of Fame is beyond anything I ever dreamt.” Woodforde added, “We will treasure this forever.” Davidson was the last to answer, saying, “You grow up wanting to win Wimbledon and play Davis Cup for your country, knowing that out there is something called the International Tennis Hall of Fame. This is a doubles year and that is how it should be. When we first started playing, you played singles, doubles and mixed doubles. It’s great to be here with other people who have done so much for tennis.”

About 90 minutes later, everyone moved outside for the official ceremony, and early on it started to rain. Fortunately, the skies were still relatively bright, and before long the sun took over and the rain disappeared. Parks was as impressive on the court as he was with the media earlier, speaking without self pity, demonstrating how much he appreciated being the first wheelchair tennis individual to make it into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. He recalled the old adage, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

The ever affable Australian Fred Stolle was up next to present his old friend Davidson. He said, “Davo and I have known each other for more than 50 years… Australians are a sarcastic breed, and Owen Keir Davidson must be the most sarcastic tennis player ever to come out of Australia…. Owen is very loyal and he cares about animals and cares about people. He’s a down to earth sort of a bloke you’d like to have as a friend.” Davidson thanked Stolle not only for his kind words but also for managing to get rid of the rain and bring back the sun. He thanked his many friends that were on hand, and then it was time for Pam Shriver to speak on behalf of Fernandez and Zvereva.

Shriver spoke with immense passion and her usual insight about a doubles team she admired immensely, sprinkling clever humor on top of her more serious observations. At one stage, explaining why she felt Fernandez and Zvereva were among the great doubles teams of all time, she rattled off the names of other duos, and then interjected, “ And Martina Navratilova and what’s her name”, an obvious, self deprecating reference to herself. She said of Fernandez, “Her hands [at the net] were like lightening. She smothered the net and got so close to the net it was almost impossible to pass her.” She complimented Fernandez for how well she played the big points from the ad court, and then said of Zvereva, “ Natasha offered up these incredible spins and flick shots. “ She lauded Zvereva for doing her job so well that “she gave Gigi even more license at net…. When they played doubles, wondrous things occurred.”

Fernandez recalled a career breakthrough made on this very court in Newport back in 1984, when she made it to the singles final. She thanked her family members “all 48 that are here” for coming. She recollected how her father would take her out when she was 8 or 9, bringing a bucket of balls and making her react quickly as he drilled those balls at her speedily. “It was like he was trying to hit me with those balls to make me react quickly, and I started to develop the reflexes that have been my trademark.” Fernandez proudly proclaimed that she felt she was part of the “second best” team in the history of women’s tennis.” Her speech was heartfelt and humble, filled with rich anecdotes.

The shy Zvereva felt that Fernandez had virtually said it all for both of them in her speech. She joked, “This just about leaves me with 20 seconds [for my speech]”, but then got serious, adding, “I am very proud to be the first Bella-Russian athlete to be inducted at the International Tennis Hall of Fame. I have to say if it wasn’t for Gigi and her endless capability to mentally open me up and her perseverance, we would never be here.”

Along came Ray Ruffels, the former Australian Davis Cup player and coach for the Woodies. He jovially recollected how the Woodies started their partnership in 1991 with Woodforde in the deuce court and Woodbridge playing the ad court. He said, “Mark had won the U.S. Open with McEnroe so he was quite happy staying on that side.” The two players soon realized that they needed to switch sides, and move the left-handed Woodforde over to the ad court, where he remained for the rest of their years together. Ruffels concluded, “I believe in terms of range of shots and the ability to open up the court, they [Woodforde and Woodbridge] were the best I’ve seen.”

Out came Woodforde to speak first, and he mentioned how fortunate they were to also be inducted at the Australian Sports Hall of Fame and the Australian Tennis Hall of Fame. But, he added, “This is truly the greatest accolade of all.” His remarks were articulated beautifully, and he called attention away from himself and, more so, over to his partner. Woodbridge followed, and he, too, was not self centered or egotistical. To the contrary, Woodbridge kidded about becoming a “museum piece”, and then said, “Sports people like us by design tend to be very selfish. You train hard to play your matches but try to surround yourself with great people.” He then paid tribute to the legendary cast of Australian icons in tennis--- to Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, and Frank Sedgman and then put Davidson on that list among his mentors.

Woodbridge went on to salute John Newcombe and Tony Roche for the excellent job they did as Davis Cup captain and coach respectively. At the end of his speech, he said jovially, “We did better than well--- we did bloody great!”

And so the six inductees present had all spoken, celebrating a day they will carry with them in their minds forever. International Tennis Hall of Fame Chairman Chris Clouser--- a first rate master of ceremonies—congratulated the honorees and closed out the proceedings seamlessly. I hung around for a while, caught up with a few people, and then headed back home with my family. As is the case every summer when I go to Newport for the festivities, I was happy to have been there to see it all unfold. Already, I am looking forward to 2011 and the chance to witness a new set of inductees as they step forward to claim an incomparable honor.

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