When Wimbledon concludes each year on the first weekend in July, anyone who has been there for the duration needs some time to decompress. Those two weeks at the most prestigious Grand Slam event in the game are both exhilarating and exhausting. After flying home from London to New York, I find myself in a constant state of reflection about the highlights of the tournament for days and even weeks on end. But it takes me a while to get back to the top of my game after breathing that rarified British air. Those of us in the media are in some respects like the players as we try to get back into our routines and come back down from the top of the mountain.
Nevertheless, I always eagerly anticipate the journey to Newport, Rhode Island on the weekend after Wimbledon to be there for the International Tennis Hall of Fame Induction ceremony. That is one of my favorite days of the year in tennis. The honorees are celebrated by the public in the best possible manner during the Campbells Hall of Fame Championships. Before the semifinals of that event are played, the ceremony for the inductees takes place. It is beautifully staged, and somehow— year in and year out— the inductees are fittingly given their high honors on idyllic days featuring what Frank Sinatra would have described as blue venetian skies.
And so it was again last Saturday when I made the less than three hour drive from my home along with my son Jonathan, who got us there faster than I ever could have imagined if I had been behind the wheel. We arrived in time to see inductees Monica Seles, Donald Dell, and Andres Gimeno addressing the press at a morning conference. Also at that gathering was the grandson of Dr. Robert Whirlwind Johnson, the renowned coach of Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe who was inducted posthumously. The press conference was hosted by International Tennis Hall of Fame President Tony Trabert, the all time great player and outstanding commentator who lends a remarkable sense of dignity and honor to any of his endeavors.
This was a nice warm up for the main event. Seles was relaxed and eloquent. She was most moving when speaking about her coach and father, the late Karolj Seles, who passed away in 1998. As Monica said that morning, I know hes here in spirit because without him I wouldnt be sitting here today. Gimeno arrived late but spoke passionately about the sport he played across his lifetime. He was clearly appreciative of his induction. The modest Gimeno never bothered to explain just how good he was during his excellent professional career across the 1960s, when he was often regarded as the third best player in the world behind the esteemed Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall.
But Gimeno— who captured the French Open in 1972 at 34 years and ten months of age– did go out of his way to laud the man he believed gave him a tactical and strategic sense on the court that he had never possessed before. He was speaking about Hall of Famer Pancho Segura, probably the most astute and penetrating thinker the game has ever known. As Gimeno said, Pancho taught me so much about how to play this game. I never would have been as good without his advice and encouragement.
Meanwhile, Dell spoke with clarity and intelligence about the multitude of roles he played in tennis that led to his induction this year. He was ranked among the top five in the United States, represented the U.S. Davis Cup team from 1961-63, established himself as an unbeaten captain of the American Davis Cup squad in 1968 and 1969, co-founded the Association of Tennis Professionals in 1972 along with his friend and mentor Jack Kramer, and set himself apart in the field of player representation in tennis at the outset of the 1970s when he signed up Ashe and Stan Smith as his first two clients. Dell wisely and justifiably referred to Ashe and Smith as the Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus of tennis. In later years, Dell represented Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Pete Sampras, Gabriela Sabatini and in more recent years his company has handled the business affairs of Andy Roddick.
Across the board, in so many ways, few have done more to advance the game. And so Dell had much to say as the media queried him about his multi-faceted roles. He even weighed in about how much more Seles might have accomplished had she not been tragically stabbed in the back in the spring of 1993 during a tournament in Germany. Monica won nine Grand Slam titles, he asserted. But if she had not been stabbed, I believe she would have won nine more and her place in history would have been different. She would be talked about in the same breath with Navratilova and others.
At the ceremony, all of the inductees were given appropriate salutations by those who spoke about them. Trabert— speaking as only he can with a voice of moderation and absolute credibility— was the man who introduced Gimeno, calling the elegant Spaniard El Matador. Gimeno then gave a poignant speech, referring to his daughter up in heaven, thanking Segura publicly for his indispensable advise, and talking in charmingly broken English about how the Gods seemed to be wanting to allow him as the old guy to win at Roland Garros in 1972. Gimeno spoke only briefly, but his remarks were totally genuine. For someone like me who used to watch him play in pro events at places like Madison Square Garden and saw him rule at the French Open, it was a joy to witness him standing there in the sunshine as he gained the ultimate acknowledgement from the authorities in his sport.
Who better to talk about Dr. Johnson than the widow of Arthur Ashe? Jeanne Moutoussamy Ashe— a woman of great inner strength, understated grace, and impeccable taste– drew many parallels between her late husband and Dr. Johnson: as educated men, as leaders, as individuals who did so much for tennis as African Americans. Her speech was delivered with quiet dignity, an ease and comfort indicative of who she is and how well she carries herself, and a keen sense of historical perspective. After she spoke, Robert Johnson spoke with reverence and conviction about his grandfather, who was so instrumental in shaping the lives of Ashe and Gibson.
Johnson recollected how his grandfather instructed Ashe that when he competed against white players, he should call any ball his opponent hit within a few inches of a line in. Ashe never forgot that message and knew that Dr. Johnson had helped him enormously to move past the color of his skin toward his highest objectives and pursuits on the tennis court. Dr. Johnsons record as a coach was beyond reproach. Gibson won the French Championships in 1956 and captured Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships back to back in 1957 and 1958. Ashe secured the first U.S. Open title in 1968, took the Australian Open in 1970, and crowned his career with a four set triumph over Jimmy Connors in the Wimbledon final of 1975.
One of the people who was invaluable in helping Ashe to devise the right strategy against Connors that historic day was none other than Dell, who had been his Davis Cup captain in 1968 and 1969. Ashe— who often referred to Dell as not only his agent but his most valued friend— would have loved to have been in Newport for the Dell induction this past weekend. But, like Karolj Seles, he was surely looking down on the proceedings with a smile on his face. Stan Smith had the honor of introducing Dell, and the earnest former Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion did a terrific job on his speech.
He paid tribute to Dell for the many ways he had contributed to the sport, and even sprinkled in a little humor. Recalling that Dell would often tell him at changeovers during Davis Cup contests to get his first serve in, Smith remembered responding once to his captain, Donald, do you think I am trying not to get my first serve in! That line drew a robust collective laugh from the audience in Newport.
Seles gave a mature, impressive, heartfelt speech about her career. It was devoid of self pity or remorse, filled with appreciation for those who had done the most to make her time in tennis successful, and perhaps the high point of the speech was when she decided to treat the fans to one last trademark grunt. She was, after all, known for the grunt as much as anything else. She launched into this one by saying, For good old times sake. It was a pale imitation of the old Seles grunt that was so evident and unmistakable during the heart of her career. But the Newport fans still loved revisiting that essential part of Monica Seles.
For me, it was an especially enjoyable day at the Hall of Fame. As my son drove us home in record breaking time the next morning, I was reminded yet again why I make certain to be in Newport every year to watch worthy recipients step forth and claim the greatest honor the sport can bring them.
Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to tennischannel.com
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