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Steve Flink: Agassi and Kellmeyer Take High Honors

7/12/2011 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Going to Newport, Rhode Island for the International Tennis Hall of Fame induction ceremonies every year on the Saturday after Wimbledon is a journey I always treasure. This time around, I was accompanied by my soon to be 17-year-old daughter Amanda, and that made the trip all the more enjoyable. Newport is an idyllic place to be in July, a great American community of enduring value and importance, a part of the country that we all find endlessly appealing and symbolic of the best that summer has to offer.

For those who are inducted into the Hall of Fame, Newport is the ultimate land of achievement, a place to be recognized forever in their sport. This time around, the worthy recipients of the game’s highest honor were none other than Fern Lee “Peachy” Kellmeyer, and the singularly charismatic Andre Agassi. Their day of celebration came fittingly under bright blue skies and a powerful sun, the kind of weather that makes the honorees loom even larger at a moment that will remain frozen in their minds as long as they live. But Agassi, of course, has known for a long while that he would one day be coming to Newport; Kellmeyer was another story altogether.

That is why it was so heartwarming to her many boosters in the tennis universe when Kellmeyer was voted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in the “contributor” category. Measuring the value of a contributor is considerably more difficult than assessing the record of an all time great player like Agassi. Titles speak for themselves, and he is one of only seven men in history to secure all four Grand Slam singles championships. He resided at No. 1 in the world, captured 60 career singles tournaments, helped his nation win the Davis Cup, and was in and around the game’s upper echelons for nearly twenty years, from his teens into his mid-thirties.

Kellmeyer was a champion in an entirely different way, a tireless behind the scenes leader for the WTA Tour, a quietly dignified individual who never looked to promote herself while always doing her utmost to promote the sport. She was a modestly successful player in an earlier day, becoming the youngest ever female participant at the 1959 U.S. National Championships, an event which would morph into the U.S. Open in 1968. Kellmeyer played for the University of Miami, establishing herself as the first woman ever to play for a Division 1 men’s team. Peachy competed at Wimbledon, and was a player who knew how to get the most out of herself and understood what it took to succeed against all but the very best of her day; in 1966, she achieved a No. 10 U.S. ranking.

But in many ways her life was altered irrevocably in 1973, as was the future of women’s tennis. She was the first employee of the newly formed Women’s Tennis Association, and from that juncture forward she never ceased to be influential on a variety of fronts for her organization. To this day, her voice is heard by all of the top people in her profession, and with good reason. Kellmeyer is one of the most sensible individuals ever to serve in the upper regions of tennis, and she has garnered the respect of everyone in her field because her views are so well founded and steeped in knowledge and the essential truth.

Kellmeyer was introduced in Newport by none other than Stacy Allaster, the current CEO of the WTA and a deep admirer.  As Allaster said with such vigor, “Peachy has been singularly instrumental  in building women’s professional tennis into the leading global sport for women—from organizing the first women’s event in Madison  Square Garden, to the unprecedented growth in prize money from $300,000 [way back when] to today being almost $89 million, to the international expansion of the game. When she first started her journey there was primarily a U.S. based circuit to what is now 53 tournaments in 33 countries featuring 2000 athletes from 100 nations. Peachy and I sometimes pinch ourselves when we see Women’s Tennis Association written in Chinese--- to think that the WTA would have an office in Beijing is really a dream come true for Peachy and me.”

Allaster put into perspective the role Kellmeyer has played with every CEO ever to serve the WTA; all of them have known that it was really Peachy who was unofficially in charge. As Allaster put it, “I am the ninth CEO to work under Peachy—she has always been our boss and on behalf of myself, Bart McGuire (who is here), Ann Worcester, Larry Scott and former CEO’s who are with us in spirit, we have been proud to serve with you, Peachy. She has been the glue of women’s tennis, holding the WTA together as CEO’s and players have come and gone. Peachy has been a constant force for 38 years, propelling women’s tennis to unprecedented heights and never letting us forget that our past is our future. And I know today’s honor means so much to her because the past is critically important and the symbolism of the International Tennis Hall of Fame is everything she wants the WTA to be. She is selfless, she is humble, and it has never been about Peachy. She has given her entire life to this sport for the love of the game…….. Thank you for inviting me to be your doubles partner today. Now it is your turn to serve and to close out this Hall of Fame match.”

Kellmeyer is someone I have known for 36 years, and has always been exceedingly humble, self effacing, and ever unwilling to call attention to herself. I wondered if Kellmeyer’s humility would prevent her from accepting her Hall of Fame honor as if she fully deserved it. Once she began speaking, I realized that Kellmeyer was not shying away from the recognition she now understood was something she had earned through decades of earnest work, staunch loyalty to the players and her colleagues, and a larger vision of where the game once was and what it could eventually become.

As she said during her beautifully presented and passionate speech, “To the tennis fans here, to the Hall of Fame Board of Directors to the elite group of Hall of Famers, to my family and friends who are here for me today, it just doesn’t get any better than this. Now, look, I know I am not the main attraction today. But I just want you to know, Andre, that I will be the opening act for you anytime, anyplace, anywhere.”

Kellmeyer got a good laugh from the crowd with that line, and a kiss on the cheek from an appreciative Agassi. But then she proceeded to speak about things that mattered to her greatly. “I always promised myself,” said Kellmeyer, “that if I had a moment on Center Court, I would thank the two women who really were responsible for laying the foundation of the tour and the WTA. And those two women are the late Gladys Heldman and Billie Jean King. In 1970, Gladys founded the tour along with the original nine players led by Billie Jean King and Hall of Famer Rosie Casals. These nine players signed a one dollar contract and a handshake and we had a women’s tour. In 1973, Billie Jean founded the WTA at Wimbledon along with 60 other women players. They had no contract but they had a lot of handshakes, and the good news for me was that I had a job.”

After alluding to the joy of working with not only players but tournament directors, sponsors, administrators, WTA board members and others, Kellmeyer saluted the woman she believes unfailingly bolstered her over the years. As Kellmeyer explained, “Today I have many friends here but there is one woman who stood by me in good times and not so good times and she became the most powerful woman in tennis. She is my life saver, Stephanie Tolleson. Believe me, in this sport, you need friends, so it isn’t always what you know but a good bit of the time it is who you know. It is who I know that made it possible for me to stand here today. My former boss Larry Scott spearheaded my Hall of Fame nomination along with former USTA President Jane Brown Grimes and Billie Jean King, my hero and everyone’s champion.”

Kellmeyer was rolling now, expressing herself with an eloquence and self confidence that was inspiring to witness for all who know her well. “I don’t stand her here alone,” she said. “I feel I represent a generation of women who have done their best in this sport and worked hard. And we have a common bond and common purpose—to give back each and every day so that this sport will be better tomorrow than it is today. In life, we pick our friends but not our family, so we have to wish for a little luck, and I have been one very lucky person.”

She then spoke of her siblings and her family, before adding, “As for me, [in some ways] I was not quite so lucky. I inherited my grandmother’s name Fern Lee and I also inherited a clubbed foot, but it was pretty easy to get rid of Fern Lee [with Peachy}. It is not so easy to get rid of a clubbed foot, but it taught me a very important lesson in life: you don’t have to be a hundred percent to give a hundred percent….. So who would have thought that those handshakes that launched the tour and the WTA would result in so many happy memories and friendships and make tennis the No. 1 professional sport for women. So for me, my life is very simple. I love my family and my friends, and I love women’s tennis.”

Kellmeyer had done herself proud, earning an effusive round of applause from the fans. That set the stage for the Agassi induction, and up came Simone Ruffin to be his presenter. Ruffin is a 2009 graduate of the Andre Agassi  College Preparatory Academy in Las Vegas, and was valedictorian of that inaugural class. She is currently a student at Concordia University, and she walked up unabashedly to give her speech. At courtside among the Agassi contingent were his longtime trainer and close friend Gil Reyes, his former coach and longtime admirer Nick Bollettieri, and his friend and former coach Brad Gilbert, not to mention his father Mike Agassi and his wife Steffi Graf.

So why would Agassi choose a young lady like Ruffin when he had so many options? Because he is a confirmed non-conformist. He loves confounding everyone, being fundamentally different, going against the grain of conventional wisdom. He likes springing surprises, and always has. So Simone Ruffin spoke on his behalf. The young African American was youthfully effusive. “I stand here, “she said, “and I am the voice of so many children whose lives are changed by one man.”

She made several references to Agassi as her “hometown hero”. As she then added, “ To this hometown hero, I say that you have changed my life and because of you so many doors have been opened for me and my classmates…You are not only an amazing athlete but you are an amazing person who I will always hold up as an example. From the students of Las Vegas and all the people whose lives you have changed and from the generation after, we love you and we will continue to honor your legacy.”

Ruffin concluded her remarks by saying, “Okay, so maybe you guys are wondering who is this hometown hero? Well, he is the son of Mike and Betty, he shares both the footprints and initials of the great Arthur Ashe, he is the husband of fellow tennis legend Steffi Graf, he is the inspiration for communities worldwide, a tennis master who is world renowned on and off the court, one of the best players in the history of the game, one of the best role models in Las Vegas, forever immortalized here and within the lives of people worldwide. I give you my hometown hero, Andre Agassi.”

Agassi seemed to enjoy that unorthodox tribute to him immensely, although I spoke with a number of fans who would have preferred a speech from a member of the Agassi inner circle who could have addressed his career in the sport in a far more comprehensive and personal way. Be that at is may, he took the microphone and spoke with somber understatement, good humor, and remarkable erudition. Agassi is a man of deep complexities and ever present contradictory layers, a fellow who seems to relish keeping those who observe him guessing and off balance. In his autobiography published two years ago, he frequently refers to how much he hated tennis during his career.

But on Saturday in Newport, there was a disconnect from the way Agassi came across to his readers less than two years ago. He spoke in very positive terms about what tennis had done to make his life more meaningful. That was the way it should be. He was honoring those who were honoring him, saluting the sport that had given him a platform in life that he would never have otherwise attained. “What Andre did, “said Hall of Famer Butch Buchholz, “was terrific. He made it a great day for tennis, and showed how much the game has meant to his life.”

He opened his remarks by recollecting how he had been at that podium twice before: once when he introduced his wife Steffi Graf in 2004 and the second time “in my father’s imagination, in his mind’s eye. From the day I was born, my father Mike saw this day in my future and described it to me many times.”

He then recalled giving a talk in Las Vegas recently that included a question-answer session. A man got up and asked, “How do you know when to stop telling your kids what to do?” The man posing the question was Mike Agassi, his own father. Agassi then admitted he could not recall his answer that day. But as he said in Newport while his father sat a few yards away, “Dad, when I was five you told me I would win Wimbledon; when I was seven, you told me I would win all four Grand Slams, and more times than I can remember you told me I would get into the Hall of Fame. And when I was 29, you told me to marry Steffi Graf. That was the best order you ever gave me. So, Dad, please don’t ever stop telling me what to do.”

He had set a certain reverential tone with his comments to and about his father, and Agassi kept moving in that direction. “If we’re lucky in life,” he said, “we get a handful of moments when we don’t have to wonder if we made a parent proud. We don’t have to ask them. We just know. I want to thank tennis for giving me one of those moments today. It’s one of the many things for which I need to thank this sport.”

Agassi thanked tennis a number of times. He explained, “I fell in love with tennis far too late in my life, but the reason that I have everything that I hold dear is because of how much tennis has loved me back. I’m thrilled, humbled, quite terrified to be honest to stand in front of you right now. I’ve felt vulnerable on the court many times but not quite like today. I’ve grown up in front of you. You’ve seen my highs, my lows.. We’ve laughed together, we’ve cried together. But what is so clear to me standing here today is that you have given me compassion, understanding, love, more than I expected, many times more than I deserved.”

He displayed a writer’s knack for analogies and metaphors when he turned his attention to the tennis vocabulary and how it applies in a larger sense to life. “It’s no accident that tennis uses the language of life, service advantage, break, fault, love. The lessons of tennis are the lessons of maturity. In tennis you prepare and you prepare, and then one day your preparation seems futile; nothing is working, and the other guy has got your number cold. So you improvise. In tennis you learn what I do affects what you do, and vice versa. Tennis makes you perceptive, proactive, and reactive all at the same time. Tennis teaches you the subtlety of human interaction, the curse and the blessing of cause and effect.”

Agassi paid tribute to those who provided invaluable help and support along the way. “Tennis,” he said, “gave me all my personal teachers that I owe a debt I can never repay. They lifted me up and carried me across many finish lines, sometimes literally.  My Dad Mike and my Mom Betty; my big brother Phil; my friend, protector and trainer Gil Reyes; my coaches Nick Bollettieri, Darren Cahill, Brad Gilbert; and the person who means more to me than words can express, the woman who still takes my breath away, Stephanie Graf.”

He spoke of a man who was “one of the most influential people in my life”, a leader he met only once but could never forget: Nelson Mandela.  “I can still close my eyes and hear his words of wisdom from that evening,” said Agassi.

Near the end, Agassi said, “ This honor today leaves me deeply humbled but also makes me think of others who don’t get their due: teachers, nurses, caregivers, struggling parents, all the people who do the right thing, who win their own private Grand Slams. They know already what took me decades to figure out: that we are here to do good quietly, to shine in secret, to give when there’s no crowd applauding, to give of ourselves to someone who can offer us nothing. Tennis gave me the chance to meet so many of these people, to travel the world and visit places where the human spirit shines brightest because life is darkest. Tennis taught me that the needs of the world are great but they are no match, nor will they ever be a match, for the human spirit. So thank you tennis, for enabling me to find my life’s work.”

Agassi ended the ceremony on a high note, addressing his own two kids sitting there as well as children across the board, encouraging them to change a complicated world that was not of their own making. He then waved to the fans in Newport, as did a jubilant Peachy Kellmeyer. In the end, Kellmeyer was not really overshadowed by Agassi, and she was more, much more, than an opening act for him. The best part of it all was that both Agassi and Kellmeyer were humbled by the highest honor tennis can offer anyone. As I drove back home the following morning with my lovely daughter, that was all I could think about.

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