Where Past Meets Present

newport-clubhouse

The International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, RI.

 

 

 

 

I’ve been playing tennis for over 35 years, always enthusiastically but with an almost complete lack of distinction.  There have, however, been a few blessed exceptions, some more deserved than others, and one of them came in July of 2005.  On a warm weekday afternoon, my longtime friend Jeff Siegel and I walked out onto the grass of the center court at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, RI, in between matches of its annual men’s professional tournament, to be announced to the crowd and receive medals proclaiming us number one in New England.

It didn’t matter that we were lined up in the midst of perhaps 200 other people, all of whom were being recognized by USTA-New England for attaining the top ranking in one of its many competitive divisions.  It didn’t matter that Jeff and I had achieved this distinction in Men’s 4.0 doubles, a classification which to those in the know practically screams “mediocrity”.  And it certainly didn’t matter that of all those present, only our friend Andrew Haynes was truly cheering for us, and I’m pretty sure even he was mainly there to watch the professional matches.  I still got goose bumps walking onto the Hall of Fame’s hallowed turf, and years later it remains one of my biggest tennis thrills.

If that brief moment on the Newport grass proved unforgettable for me, how must it feel to be honored there as one of the game’s all-time greatest players?  Not many people alive today can answer that question, but after this year’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Saturday, July 16, you can add two more names to the list: Marat Safin and Justin Henin (Amelie Mauresmo, who was inducted last year but missed that ceremony because she was eight months pregnant, also spoke, while two greats from the past, Yvon Petra and Peggy Scriven, were recognized posthumously).

Russia’s Marat Safin burst onto the scene at the 2000 US Open.  His straight-sets demolition of heavily- favored Pete Sampras in the men’s final was one of the most surprising results in recent tennis history.  Safin just couldn’t miss that day, and in the aftermath of his big win many around the game felt he had the potential to be a dominant force for years to come.  It didn’t happen.  Although he went on to hold the number-one ranking for a time and his two-handed backhand (delivered with a signature leg kick on high balls) remained a thing of beauty, the Russian would win only one more Grand Slam title, at the 2005 Australian Open.  More often he drew attention for his epic racquet-smashing tirades on the court and his epic partying off the court.  Safin certainly squandered a fair amount of his considerable talent, but any number of people might have fallen prey to some of those same temptations if they looked like a bigger, stronger version of Leonardo DiCaprio and had millions of dollars to play with.  Myself among them…

One player who can never be accused of squandering even an ounce of her God-given talent was Justine Henin.  Despite being physically smaller than most of her contemporaries and having to overcome a number of setbacks in her personal life (her mother died of cancer when she was twelve, and she went through a divorce while competing on the WTA Tour), the gritty Belgian rode her beautiful one-handed backhand to seven Grand Slam titles, four of them at the French Open.  She also finished as the year-end number-one player three times, most recently in 2007.  Henin’s steely demeanor and laser-sharp focus made her one of the few women capable of matching the competitive toughness of the Williams sisters, against whom she had a number of dramatic and sometimes controversial matches.  My good friend Chet Porowski loved Henin so much that he even named his daughter Justine.  She’s in grade school now and already taking tennis lessons.  I’m pretty sure she’s going to have a good backhand.

A number of years had passed since I’d last been in Newport, but I attended the Friday, Saturday and Sunday sessions of this year’s event with a tennis friend and found much unchanged, along with a few new wrinkles.  Stepping inside the Hall of Fame grounds at the Newport Casino on Bellevue Avenue still seems like taking a trip back in time to a more gracious and refined era.  The ornate old clubhouse, the grass courts manicured to near-perfection, and the museum which winds its way through more than a century of tennis history combine to give the Hall of Fame a sense of timeless elegance.   The museum is a gem well worth a separate visit, filled as it is with memorabilia, video highlights of great matches and small plaques which succinctly detail the careers of the enshrined legends.   During Hall of Fame week, admission is free to tournament ticket-holders, but museum hours roughly parallel those in which matches are being played.  Had I been visiting at another time of year, I would have pleasurably spent far more than 45 minutes there.

newport-grass-court

One of the Hall of Fame’s beautiful grass courts (this one isn’t used for tournament play)

 

Preserving the traditions that make the Hall of Fame special while bringing the player and fan experience into the 21st century is no easy task, but Todd Martin, who was named its CEO in 2014, appears to be as well-suited to that challenge as anyone could be.   A former US Open finalist and longtime Davis Cup stalwart, Todd was known during his playing days for unimpeachable personal integrity, a high level of patriotism and a keen appreciation for tennis history.  As an active player until 2004 and later as coach of, among others, a young Novak Djokovic, he also knows what it takes to run a player-friendly event.  In just two years at the helm of the Hall of Fame, Martin has clearly put his own stamp on the organization.  The museum was reopened last year after a full renovation and now includes many new video and interactive exhibits, allowing it to be more accessible and interesting to the casual fan.  While that change had admittedly been set in motion before Todd came on board, his imprimatur on the tournament itself has been more direct.  The main seating area, the South baseline stands, had previously consisted of row after row of uninviting and uncomfortable bleachers, but individual seats with cup holders have now been installed in their place.  The old hand-operated scoreboards at both ends of the court are still used to give set scores, but two modern digital scoreboards with replay and Hawk-Eye capability also now grace the center court.   Seats aren’t cheap, but there isn’t a bad one in the house, and with same-day ticket availability even for the finals (we got our tickets for Sunday at the end of the Saturday session), you can decide to go catch a match on the spur of the moment.  The tournament’s arrival into the modern era hasn’t come without a few drawbacks.  On past visits to Newport, I had found that the seat location listed on my ticket seemed to be little more than a suggestion: it wasn’t hard to move to an unoccupied location far superior to the one I had paid for, especially early in the week.  Unfortunately the volunteers on duty are quite a bit more vigilant now.  On the changeovers there is now piped-in music and an announcer reading “fun facts”, things that I find unnecessary but which I understand basically come with the territory at professional sports events today.  Parking in Newport, both finding a spot and then paying through the nose for it, also remains a nightmare, so the tourist bureau now encourages fans to park in a downtown garage and take a city bus or trolley to the tennis.   A round-trip bus ride plus parking for the day runs just $6 per person.  I found that to be a far better deal than paying the $75 daily rates in the lot directly across from the Casino or trying to find one of the few available parking spaces on Newport’s side streets.  If the trolley is full or you’d just rather hoof it, you can walk to the Hall of Fame from the Visitor Center in about 20 minutes without exerting yourself unduly.

It does need to be said that the Hall of Fame tournament doesn’t come at the most propitious moment in the ATP Tour calendar.  It’s now held the week after Wimbledon, when many of the top players are in recovery mode, and this year it also conflicted with Davis Cup play.  As a result, you will rarely see the very best players in action.  The top seed at Newport this year was Steve Johnson, ranked twenty-ninth in the world.  Even Donald Young, forty places below Johnson in the rankings, was able to snag the eighth and final seed in the 28-player draw.  You’re still watching great tennis, though, and for me, at least, the chance to be up close (directly behind the baseline on Friday!) more than compensated for the lack of marquee names.   The weather was terrific all week, with just one three-hour rain delay on Thursday.   Friday was the hottest of our three days, upwards of 90 degrees, but all of them were sunny and warm.  So if you don’t quite get to watch Wimbledon-caliber tennis, neither do you have to deal with Wimbledon-caliber weather!

The matches themselves were of uneven quality and not always especially competitive, but with some spectacular exceptions.  Three of the four quarterfinals were played on Friday (Marcos Baghdatis had booked his semifinal ticket on Thursday).  First up was 6’11” Ivo Karlovic, still an ace machine at age 37, against Swiss journeyman Marco Chiudinelli.  It didn’t take long to get the measure of Chiudinelli: his pre-match introduction listed as one of his major highlights that he was a friend and practice partner of Roger Federer.  I myself was a friend and high school teammate of some of the greatest tennis players in New Hampshire history.  So I know all too well that to be introduced as such (as I have occasionally been over the years, believe it or not) means that you haven’t accomplished much in your own playing career.  Unfortunately for Chiudinelli, he didn’t do anything on the court to give the lie to that modest introduction.  Karlovic served 16 aces, won over 80 percent of his first-serve points, and never faced a break point or even a deuce on his serve in an easy straight-set win.  The next match featured the tournament’s two seeded Americans, the aforementioned Steve Johnson and Donald Young.  Young didn’t have much of a serve, but he was quick around the court, with precise returns and shot patterns that troubled Johnson, particularly low, wide balls to Johnson’s forehand (Johnson preferred to hit his forehands inside-out, from the backhand corner, and was often forced to chip the wide balls back ineffectually when he reached them at all).  Although he had just made a run to the fourth round at Wimbledon, Johnson seemed uncomfortable on the grass and frustrated by the inaccuracy of his shots.  He wasn’t loud or demonstrative about it, but you can see a lot, and sense even more, from the first row.  Johnson never did get it together, and Young very quickly booked his passage to the final four.  The day’s last singles contest was also, on paper, the most evenly-matched: third-seeded Gilles Muller of Luxembourg against sixth-seeded Adrian Mannarino of France.  At 6’4” Muller was the bigger man, but both were hard-serving lefties.  Mannarino began the match with shot-making reminiscent of another streaky French lefty, Henri Leconte, and took the first set easily with two breaks of serve.  Muller wasn’t having a great day: he punctuated one lost service game by slamming a ball out of the stadium, which isn’t quite like hitting a ball out of Arthur Ashe stadium in New York but was still enough to earn him a warning from the umpire, and later absorbed a line-drive throw from a ballgirl in a particularly sensitive area.  Yes, that one.  To his credit, though, Muller persevered.  His big forehand began to find the mark more often as the match wore on, while Mannarino’s error rate increased.  Earlier in the week the Frenchman had complained about crowd movement on a secondary court (on Newport’s outer courts, which are used for early-round play, there is no spectator seating of any kind; some fans watch from behind the court at both ends, while others mill around in the background, whether or not the ball is in play).  On center court Mannarino no longer had that excuse, but he found others easily enough.  The ballgirl- not the one who had hit Muller in the nuts, in case you’re wondering- wasn’t throwing the ball to him fast enough.  The official’s call was “merde”, with a few other choice words mixed in.  The bounces were “merde”.  His forehand was “merde”.   Maybe in France this guy gets the star treatment, at least at secondary events, because of his native status.  Here he’ll be lucky to get invited back.   He lost the second and third sets as decisively as he had won the first, and Muller joined Baghdatis, Karlovic and Young in the semifinals.

chiudinelli

Friendship with Federer wasn’t enough to get Marco Chiudinelli into the semifinals.

 

Saturday’s semifinals, which followed the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, were both won by the bigger server, a pattern followed by all of the singles matches I saw except for the Young vs. Johnson quarterfinal.  Muller played a much cleaner match against Young than he had against Mannarino, winning 97 percent of his first-serve points, recording 18 aces (Young once again had none), and breaking serve once in each set en route to a decisive win.  The Karlovic-Baghdatis match was much closer, due in large part to the Croat’s generosity in failing to convert any of his nine break point opportunities.  Baghdatis never held a single break point, though unlike Chiudinelli he at least reached a few deuces on Karlovic’s serve.  With his serving advantage, Karlovic seemed well-positioned for success in the tiebreakers, and that was how it played out.  The tall Croat took the first-set ‘breaker easily but encountered more resistance in the second.  The key moment there came with Baghdatis serving at 6-6.  The Cypriot put a short volley to Karlovic’s backhand side and then volleyed Ivo’s reply short and crosscourt.  Conscious of the importance of the point, Karlovic ran at full speed to chase the ball down, though he did not at first seem likely to reach it.  But his long strides and long reach paid dividends, as he got to the ball just before the second bounce and shoveled it crosscourt on a short angle past Baghdatis, who appeared to be as stunned as the rest of us.   One big serve later, Karlovic was in the final.  Saturday’s schedule concluded with the doubles final featuring Australians Sam Groth and Chris Guccione, who also appeared in my “Super Saturday” post about US Open 2014.  The two Aussies had split up for much of the intervening time but recently reunited, and this week they were playing extremely well, meaning their huge serves were razor-sharp and they occasionally put a return in play.  One of their opponents, Jonathan Marray, had serious double-faulting issues, and so the occasional return in play was enough to secure a straight-set win for Groth and Guccione.   The on-court announcer, perhaps trying to be clever, asked Guccione in the post-match interview what the combo’s “secret sauce” was.  The giant Aussie replied:  “There’s no secret, really.  We have big serves, and when they’re going in, we’re pretty tough to beat.”  Chris Sporcic, an old teammate whose serve did most of his talking, too, couldn’t have put it any better.

groth-guccione-full-size

Secret Sauce: Sam Groth (foreground) and Chris Guccione (in blue shirt) served their way to  the doubles title.

 

 

Sunday’s singles final was preceded by a mini-tournament featuring four recently retired greats.  Although various incarnations of one have appeared over the years, a senior tour has never really caught on in tennis the way it has in golf, perhaps because the game is more physically taxing and the last thing most retired players want is to subject themselves to further punishment.  The possibility for embarrassment also exists: I remember watching a listless Bjorn Borg get routed by an Englishman with a mediocre career resume at a senior event on Cape Cod about twenty years ago.  I was too young to have seen Borg in person at his peak, and now my sole memory of that great champion, sadly, is as the guy who completely whiffed on an easy forehand.  The four retired players competing in Newport in what is now called the PowerShares Series were, thankfully, quite a bit sharper than Borg had been, and the one-day format made things more palatable to them physically, too.  Two one-set semifinals were played, with the winners then facing off in a one-set final.  The players called their own lines (challenges using Hawk-Eye were available but rarely invoked) and chatted amicably back and forth between points, which produced a much more casual vibe than at a typical tour event.  As Andy Roddick had told the Providence Journal a few days beforehand, “The difference is, now when I lose it doesn’t ruin my day.” Roddick, then, may still have found his Sunday enjoyable despite his semifinal loss to Mark Philippoussis, although early in the match he jokingly asked for the radar gun to be turned off after it timed one of his serves in the pedestrian 100 mph range.  At least I think he was joking.  In the other semifinal, Safin beat James Blake in a tiebreaker.  Given his reputation for celebrating, I wouldn’t have expected the Hall’s newest male inductee to have been particularly sharp on the day after the ceremony, but the truth is Blake was far rustier, mishitting a number of easy balls and double-faulting several times despite second-serve speeds which dropped to around 70 mph.   He did have some consolation, though.  When Safin was interviewed after the match, he said “James is good-looking man.  If he was woman, he would have been mine long time ago.”  I guess some things never change.  In the final, Philippoussis edged Safin 6-4 for his third consecutive senior tournament win.  The Aussie still regularly hit his first serve in the 130s, and of the four players his overall game seemed to have dropped off the least since his retirement, perhaps because he was never noted for his consistency to begin with.   Despite the sometimes uneven level of play in the Powershares matches, there were no cringe-worthy Borg moments, and watching four legends enjoying the game that made them famous was a nice bonus for us fans.

I had trouble deciding who to root for in the men’s singles final between Ivo Karlovic and Gilles Muller, two hungry older guys on the downsides of their careers for whom any title, even one earned at such a small tournament, would be precious.  Muller had never won a singles tournament at the ATP Tour level, and while Karlovic had collected a handful of titles, he had fallen short in the Newport final the past two years, including an agonizing third-set tiebreaker loss to doubles specialist Rajeev Ram in 2015. I ended up simply rooting for a good match, and I certainly got my wish.  This year’s final lasted close to three hours and while it may not have been one of the best-played matches I’ve ever seen, it was without a doubt one of the most dramatic.   All three sets ended in tiebreakers, with Karlovic taking the last two of those by the narrowest of margins: first 7-5, then 14-12.  It was the kind of old-school serve-and-volley tennis that you rarely see these days, even on grass.  There were only two service breaks in the match, and both came in the first few games.  We ought to thank Hall of Fame founder Jimmy Van Alen for inventing the tiebreaker- without that scoring device Karlovic and Muller might still be playing.  Heck, they might still be in the first set.  Runner-up Muller came agonizingly close to winning all three sets.  A rare lob winner, which some might claim was slightly mishit, by Karlovic at 5-5 in the second set tiebreak denied him a match-point opportunity.  Muller DID have three match points in the third-set ‘breaker, although none of those were on his own serve.  At 12-12 he missed a reasonably challenging first volley to lose what proved to be the decisive minibreak, and though he returned Karlovic’s subsequent second serve and then smacked a ferocious forehand pass attempt, the big Croat was able to knock off a reflex backhand crosscourt volley which set off a well-earned victory celebration.  At match’s end, I was genuinely happy for Karlovic but also profoundly sad for Muller.  I thought of matches where I had been achingly close to victory yet came up short.   Accessing some of those memories is still painful even though nothing life-changing was at stake.  How much emptier must that feeling be when tennis is your livelihood?  Gilles Muller has had a very respectable career, and he’ll probably never have to buy a beer in Luxembourg for the rest of his life: he has won more Davis Cup matches than anyone in the history of that country.  I’m afraid, though, that after last Sunday his best chance to win a professional singles tournament has come and gone  (I’m pleased to report that I was wrong: Muller won a hard-court event in Sydney in January 2017 and added the championship of the grass-court tournament at Rosmalen, Netherlands a few months later, en route to attaining the number 21 world ranking, his personal best, at the age of 34).

No sense ending a Newport story on a melancholy note, though.  There’s just too much fun to be had there.  The Hall of Fame marries tennis’s past and present like no other place, and during tournament week passionate fans can get an up-close view of both.  I know I won’t wait another decade-plus before making a return trip!

 

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