July 11, 2009

It's Only a Game, After All

This morning I came as close as I ever have to tennis royalty. At the 2009 induction ceremony at the Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, I had the great pleasure of sitting a row behind 1994 honoree and long-time writer Bud Collins and only a few feet away from this year's youngest inductee Monica Seles.

What struck me most was the diversity of this year's class -- some of whom I didn't know the others who've grabbed headlines for years. And each, not surprisingly, made his or her own very important contribution to the sport of tennis.

"Those That Make Dr. J Mad..."

Dr. Robert Walker "Whirlwind" Johnson might not be a name you recognize -- he started out as an athlete on the gridiron, not the tennis court, and played football for Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. After college, though, he founded the American Tennis Association Junior Development Program, a all-expense paid tennis bootcamp in Lynchburg, Virginia which gave young plack athletes the only opportunity they had to get into the sport in a still-segregated South.

Dr. J instilled in his students a discipline and honesty that was unparalleled. Accepting the certificate on behalf of his grandfather, Lange Johnson told of how he would instruct kids to concede a point to their opponent whenever a ball dropped even two inches outside the lines, stressing that in a racially-divided society, minorities could not afford to be accused of cheating. Young players at the academy didn't dare break the rules as the punishment was immediate ejection.

Johnson was also instrumental in bringing a young Althea Gibson into the spotlight. He discovered the Harlem teenager in 1946, brought her to his school and gave her a chance to play at Forest Hills. The rest is history, and Dr. J can rightfully claim the lion's share of the credit.

"I'm a Lucky Guy"

Donald Dell was once ranked #4 in the world in singles, #1 in doubles. He played Davis Cup for the U.S. from 1961 to 1964 and served as captain for the winning '68 and '69 teams. Though he left the Tour to get his law degree, he couldn't ever really leave the sport. As a businessman he dove into the world of sports marketing and claimed Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith as his first clients.

In 1972 Dell founded the Association of Tennis Professionals, the precursor to today's ATP, a big step in his efforts to legitimize tennis as a career. In his acceptance speech he stressed that he didn't want athletes to be considered tennis "bums", as if it was merely a pastime, and in essence began the first real union for the sport. The ATP in its current form is somewhat different from what it was in the seventies, but clearly the landscape of the professional world has evolved because of Dell.

El Matador

Andres Gimeno said that, towards the end of his career though he'd already won seven singles titles and climbed to #9 in the world, he thought he'd leave the sport without ever having won a Major. But then, he joked, God felt sorry for the poor Spaniard and, in 1972 at the ripe old age of thirty-four and ten months, allowed him to claim the title at the French Open -- the oldest man ever to do so.

It's ironic that he now shares the Spanish stage with one of the youngest men to dominate the clay of Paris. But with Rafael Nadal nursing a knee injury some at the Hall of Fame press conference wondered whether he'd be able to make a comeback. When speaking of his countryman, Gimeno said, "The problem of Nadal is not his game. The problem of Nadal is his physicality." First it was his ankles and now his knees. Gimeno obviously conceded that Nadal is still a great, smart player, but Andres worried that he might not be able to keep playing into his thirties.

"The way these players are, aggressive, I think my record will stand."

It's true, of course -- better training, more advanced equipment, different court conditions all allows today's tennis stars to hit harder and run faster -- and ultimately do more damage to their bodies -- than their forefathers. But if the nickname for Gimeno is any indication, the old stalwarts certainly had just as much heart.

Game...Set...Match...Miss Monica Seles

We all know the story of Monica Seles. The former #1 held that spot in the rankings for an amazing 178 total weeks and was the youngest woman to win a title at Roland Garros. She took home a total of nine Grand Slam trophies, eight of which she won by the age of nineteen. And after her two-and-a-half year absense from the sport due to a tragic stabbing, she came right back to make the finals at the U.S. Open in 1995 and win the Australian in '96.

Talk about a fighter.

But the one thing I took away from her speech was just how much the delight she got from playing tennis meant to her comeback. She was always such an intense player, and more than one time today was jokingly chided for her menacing grunts. But she said today that the joy she felt on the court was the main reason she came out of recovery and got herself back on Tour.

And she's right. Even though Dell went through so much to establish this sport as a profession, at the heart of it all, this is just a game, and all the the men and women merely players. How could "work" be any better?

Incidentally after the ceremony I had a chance to speak with former #1 and 2005 Hall of Famer Jim Courier. He expressed his excitement to be in Newport and the importance of keeping the history and tradition of grass court tennis alive in the U.S.

By the crowds that have gathered here this weekend, it seems clear that his mission is so far a success -- and we're all here to enjoy it!

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