This was a landmark time for two headliners who carried the day persuasively by virtue of who they are, how they represent themselves, and what they accomplished. The ever fascinating and confounding Marat Safin was the first Russian ever to land in the Hall of Fame, while the implacable and heavily decorated Justine Henin—victorious seven times at the majors—took her rightful place as the first player from Belgium to be recognized for this high distinction. Joining them under a blazing sun and an azure blue sky was 2015 Hall of Fame honoree Amelie Mauresmo. Two more worthy people were also inducted in this memorable year, both posthumously. They were Great Britain’s left-handed Peggy Scriven—victorious at the 1933 and 1934 French Championships—and the Frenchman Yvon Petra, who won Wimbledon in 1946. He had been a Prisoner of War during the second world war.
Fittingly, Mauresmo was the first to be brought forth on this occasion. She could not be in Newport a year ago in July because she was about to give birth to her first child the following month. The stylish Frenchwoman captured both the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2006. She was strikingly similar to Henin in so many ways; both women had outstanding and versatile one-handed backhands, among the best in the modern era. Both were aggressive ball strikers who seized the initiative whenever possible; and each of these women were complete players with magnificent, conventional punch volleys that they released with superb technique.
Mauresmo was introduced by Micky Lawler, her former agent who now is widely admired as the President of the Women’s Tennis Association. Lawler extolled the virtues of her friend affably and insightfully. Her presentation was impressive in its breadth and scope. She ably got to the essence of Mauresmo as both a person and a player.
Speaking of the player, Lawler said, “Amelie’s superior game at the net and her elegance and ease of movement are greatly missed. Among her unique qualities are her intelligence, her continuous striving for excellence, and her passion for a happy life. She is an extraordinary Mom, armed with great compassion and an unmatched sense of humor. Amelie is the queen of hearts.”
Lawler made another compelling point about Mauresmo, who was subject to constructive criticism in the years preceding 2006 for being unable to navigate her way through rough waters in high pressure matches. But Lawler tackled that issue forthrightly, proclaiming of the gifted Frenchwoman, “Many who think they know her mistake her so-called nerves for uncertain trepidation when, in reality, she is, first, incredibly respectful of her opponent and second, as courageous as a lion.”
Up to the microphone stepped Mauresmo, who collected 25 career WTA Tour singles crowns and made it to No. 1 in the world. She thanked the International Tennis Hall of Fame for allowing her to return a year later than planned. “I’m a bit late,” she said, “but it was worth it… The best journey in life is starting.”
Now she displayed her humility and sense of perspective, saying,”When I hear [about] all of those champions and what they’ve achieved, the greatest in our sport, I mean, to be part of that list, even as a small champion compared to those who put a big history in our sport, is such an honor. It’s a privilege. It’s a responsibility obviously that I hope I’m carrying, still carrying, in a good way. That is making you proud even after the career that I had.”
Mauresmo recalled how the spark that ignited her tennis career occurred when when she watched Yannick Noah win the French Open in 1983. At the age of four, she had fallen in love with the sport. As Mauresmo elaborated, “I guess as a four-year-old little girl I could see the emotions, the athleticism, the weird forehands. There’s a link there between him [Noah] and me as well. But what I also saw was the emotions, what he was going through on the tennis court, the emotions that he was giving to the crowd, that he was also receiving…. Looking back now, I think that is what I saw at the time and that’s basically my whole career, working with the people that I respect, that I love, that gave me a lot of their time. They sacrificed family moments. I would like to thank them all.”
This sensitive woman concluded her speech by commenting from deep in her heart on the terrorist attacks in Nice that had occurred a few days earlier. “It’s obviously a tragedy,” she remarked. “It’s Nice on our National Day, a couple of days ago. It was Paris in November. It was Brussels, Tel Aviv. This has to stop. The only thing we can do is to continue to be free, continue to be happy, continue to live. That’s what we’ll do. Thank you.”
Mauresmo was understandably choked up as she delivered her closing comments, and the crowd was totally on her side and very empathetic. She was showered with an effusive round of applause, and deservedly so.
Hall of Fame CEO Todd Martin then introduced the next speaker, 1998 inductee Jimmy Connors. Martin lauded Connors “as a model for those of us who grew up in the seventies who taught us all how to compete better than anyone.” Connors was there to talk about Safin, for whom he seemed to feel a certain kinship.
Connors was well prepared, delivering a thoughtful salute to Safin. He commenced his speech by stating, “It’s been way too many years that I was standing here accepting my induction into the Hall of Fame here in Newport. It is what as an athlete you spend your career striving for. Now I stand here as a presenter. It is my honor and pleasure to be back to induct your 2016 nominee.”
Tracing Safin’s evolution as a player, Connors addressed Safin’s startling 2000 U.S. Open triumph, when the Russian upended Pete Sampras in the final. He spoke of Safin’s impressive Australian Open victory in 2005, which included “an epic semifinal” win over Roger Federer. He mentioned admiringly that Safin had led Russia to Davis Cup wins in 2002 and 2006, and had reached No. 1 in the world for nine weeks.
Connors had dealt with the facts surrounding the induction of Safin; now the American icon explained what moved him about Safin the individual. “He was emotional, played with passion. That is what drew me to him. Colorful, yes. Charismatic, yes. Great tennis player, no doubt. All reasons why when Marat took to the court you wanted to have the best seat in the house, never knowing what you were going to get. The tennis you expected. Everything else was a bonus. I, for one, loved the show.”
It was time for Safin to speak to the crowd, and he was characteristically irreverent, charming, befuddling, candid, spontaneous and dynamic. He bemoaned the fact that he had never visited the International Tennis Hall of Fame before. “I was stupid,”he said. “Throughout my career I made so many mistakes.”
Later, he reminded the audience that while the world celebrated the excellence of the Williams sisters over the years as both Serena and Venus rose to No. 1 in the world, the fact remained that he and his sister Dinara also were ranked No. 1 in the sport—a feat never achieved by a brother-sister duo in tennis history. He thanked the nation of Spain, where he trained in his formative years and developed his game as a teenager.
But perhaps the central part of Safin’s sometimes rambling speech was when he reflected on the camaraderie he felt with his fellow players. Safin said, “We lived like a family. We travelled like musicians. It was more rock’n roll with all the good things to remember….. It’s a huge honor for me to be part of it. I didn’t expect [understand] until I arrived here what I was doing in tennis, who I am and what I achieved. But these two days, these three days, I finally realized how close-minded I was. I didn’t appreciate this sport as much as I could. Now I’m doing it much more.”
And so the stage was set for the last inductee to step forward, and this was a closing act that could have been no better. Presenting for Henin was none other than Monica Seles, the redoubtable left-hander who may well have been the most ferocious competitor the women’s game has yet witnessed. Seles amassed nine majors in her sterling career, and would undoubtedly have secured a good many more had her career not been permanently altered and deeply scarred by tragedy in the spring of 1993 when she was stabbed in the back by a deranged Steffi Graf fan at a changeover during a quarterfinal match in Hamburg.
Seles was the ideal person to speak about Henin. Here was one great champion talking about another. Seles did an excellent job of describing Henin’s wide range of attributes. As Seles said, “What an honor it is for me to introduce Justine Henin, someone who personifies everything tennis stands for: passion, effort, persistence and fair play. One thing as a fellow competitor of Justine I always respected about her: in watching her rise from a junior player to a professional player, she has never changed as a person. She always stayed very humble. [I have] much respect for that.”
Seles praised Henin for dreaming large and aiming just as big. She said that Henin “saw the game through her own personal lens, a girl who at a young age picked up a racket and said, ‘This is how I am going to hit a backhand.’ And what a backhand it became. Beautiful, powerful, versatile. Without question, one of the signature shots in tennis history. As an opponent, I hated it.”
It struck me as commendable that when Seles mentioned the well known story of how Henin went to the 1992 French Open final with her mother and told her that one day she would win that Grand Slam event, she deliberately left out the part about who played in that splendid contest. It was Seles herself who prevailed that day over Graf, winning 6-2,3-6,10-8 in the best match the two superstars ever had against each other, as well as one of the finest battles ever fought out by two women on a tennis court. Referencing Henin’s four championship runs at Roland Garros, Seles said, “The clay court was her canvas, and the racket her paint brush. They were just a few of her accomplishments. Two U.S. Opens, an Australian Open, Olympic gold medal, 43 WTA singles titles, and ranked No. 1 in the world for 117 weeks.”
This was such a worthy and accurate tribute of a champion who deserved much wider public recognition than she ever received, a quiet, understated woman who never sought headlines, a champion through and through. Henin let her achievements speak for themselves, but never boasted about what she had done. As Seles summed it up so well, “As with every champion, numbers hardly tell the story. Let’s ask ourselves, has anyone in tennis history ever played like Justine? She was an ‘artiste’. Her game was like a rainbow, the full spectrum of color. Justine was also like a warrior, dedicated, driven, action focussed, one tough customer as you’ll ever see. Having played Justine seven times, I got to see this firsthand. Justine has the elegance of a ballet dancer and precision of a surgeon on the tennis court. Justine, that is one powerful combination.”
After that potent speech, Henin closed out the ceremony with typical dignity, class, style and restraint. She opened self-deprecatingly, “Looks like I am the only one who didn’t write the speech. I’m the bad student today. But the good thing is that maybe I’m not going to be that long.”
Henin thanked Seles, and then told the crowd about how Monica had neglected to mention her own role in the epic 1992 French Open final. As Henin put it, “What she missed, Monica, to say, in 1992, when I went to see that French Open final, it was her playing Steffi Graf. You beat Steffi 8-6 [it was actually 10-8] in the third. It was wonderful inspiration I could get that day.”
Then Henin recollected the first practice session she ever had at Roland Garros, when she was 17. Her practice partner was Seles. Henin remembers ” my legs were shaking.” Following through with that story, Henin said, “After that practice, I was in the locker room with Steffi, Arantxa [Sanchez Vicario], Monica. I felt the atmosphere of the locker room at the French Open. I said to myself, now I know why I love this game, why I love these girls, why they inspire me, because they are serious, they are professional, they are passionate, they are respectful.From that time the inspiration was on and my career could go on.”
The 34-year-old Belgian was speaking with striking clarity, all of it emerging from the eye of her mind. She continued, “What I’ve learned is how you can do everything to reach your dream and reach your goal. I learned how to keep my head up even when it was really difficult, because there are tough times during the career. I learn how to keep fighting. I wasn’t the tallest. I wasn’t the strongest. But I did that campaign for a sponsor that was called: Impossible is nothing. People thought I was crazy but I was just chasing my goals.”
Soon, the ceremony was over. Mauresmo, Safin and, most of all, Henin had elevated the occasion. All of the inductees had done themselves proud, in different ways, on various levels. A short while later, Safin was heading across the grounds to be interviewed on television. Mauresmo was smiling as she stood in the sunshine, clearly relieved to have spoken after waiting so long for her opportunity. Henin was posing for selfies with grateful fans as she walked past the museum. And as I headed back home, it was clear to me that this was so much more than just another day in the lives of these extraordinary champions.