Making my annual three hour drive from Westchester County, New York to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island for the induction ceremonies last Saturday, I was worried. The sky was dark and menacing, covered with dark clouds, suggesting that rain might fall at any moment. The weather remained a cause for consternation all the way up until the festivities commenced at 12:30, and even beyond. And yet, somewhere in the middle of the proceedings, as if by design, the sun broke through the layers of clouds and the celebratory nature of the occasion came fittingly into full view.
The Class of 2015 featured former world No. 1 and two-time major singles champion Amelie Mauresmo, Wheelchair Tennis standout David Hall of Australia, and the enterprising promoter Nancy Jeffett of the United States. But only two of the three members of that distinguished trio were present in Newport. Hall and Jeffett were there to accept the highest honor of them all in tennis, but Mauresmo was not. She is in the latter stages of pregnancy, so travelling was out of the question for her. The stylish Frenchwoman will be in Newport next summer, and, under the circumstances, that is just the way it should be.
Mauresmo would have been the headliner among the Class of 2015, and a substantial void had to be filled in her absence. So the Hall of Fame masterminds put on their thinking caps, weighed the options and found a solution. They turned straight in the direction of 1987 inductee Billie Jean King, an icon who secured an astounding 39 majors combined in singles, doubles and mixed doubles. King, of course, was much more than that, and is universally revered for her multitude of accomplishments that transcend tennis. She was and remains an unshakable leader and in many ways an immovable force. Through her drive, intelligence and vision, women all over the world are much better off.
King was given her Hall of Fame ring at the ceremony, and two of her former partners spoke about her with heartfelt passion and immense respect. Both speakers are proud Hall of Famers who effusively return to Newport every year, relishing the chance to observe new inductees sharing their space. Rosie Casals won Wimbledon five times with King. Davidson won the mixed doubles Grand Slam in 1967, claiming three of those four crowns with the redoubtable King.
Casals recollected coining the term “Old Lady” for King way back when, and then added wittily, “And now we are.” That drew a hearty laugh from King and the entire audience. But then Casals became more serious about her longtime friend, saying, “We shared times together on and off the court, fighting for equal prize money and recognition for women’s tennis, establishing the Virginia Slims tour[in 1970] and the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973….You have made a difference in the lives you touched and the things you have done. I am one of those recipients… They say friends are like stars. You may not see them all the time but they’re always there. To a very special friend and star, congratulations on receiving your beautiful Hall of Fame ring.”
Davidson followed and said sincerely, “ I don’t think anybody did as much for the game, and outside the game, as Billie Jean, who can be considered the mother of all tennis, not just women’s tennis, but men’s tennis. None of us would be here today without the contribution that Billie Jean made.”
International Tennis Hall of Fame Chairman Chris Clouser did his usual masterful job running the ceremony, and he introduced King, who was showered with a prolonged ovation from the Newport crowd. King thanked Davidson and Casals for their generous remarks, and then turned her attention to 1973 and the formation of the Women’s Tennis Association. She was the first WTA President, and she recalled that time with depth and clarity. King said, “All I can say as one of the leaders, it was a very lonely and difficult time, but I knew it was worth it. I could envision the future for the WTA, that any girl that was born in this world, if she were good enough, she would have a place to compete, she would be recognized and appreciated, and we’d be able to make a living. When you come from the amateur days of making $14 a day, I think you all can appreciate making a living was very important to us, to be able to do what we passionately loved, and still make a living. So that was our dream for the WTA. I think that goal has been accomplished so far. Women’s tennis is the number one women’s sport in the world.”
After Clouser conducted a wide ranging question and answer session with King, it was time for Hall of Fame President Stan Smith to acknowledge Mauresmo in absentia. He said, “Amelie will be here next year but we want to celebrate her this year as she’s in the class of 2015. Descriptions of Amelie include powerful, elegant, efficient, aggressive, filled with finesse, a complete player. She was known for her powerful one-handed backhand. She could hit top, slice, she could drop shot. She had remarkable net play, tactically strong, very smart.” After reviewing many of Mauresmo’s primary achievements, Smith concluded, “When Amelie was told of her inclusion in the 2015 class, she said ‘it is an extraordinary honor to have my career celebrated alongside the greatest champions in our sport, people who I have admired so greatly all my life.’ Well, Amelie, we are happy to celebrate with you today.”
Next up at the podium was Hall of Famer Pam Shriver. She was there to salute Jeffett. Shriver did so with eloquence and style. “Nancy is a lifetime contributor,” she said, “earning today’s induction because of her early risk-taking as a WTA promoter, even before there was a WTA! [Through] her co-founding of the Maureen Connolly Brinker Tennis Foundation, now memorializing her great friend, Maureen Connolly Brinker, Nancy’s legacy today continues through the foundation that helps develop and support junior tennis players worldwide. The event that touched my career the most was the Virginia Slims of Dallas. Nancy’s willingness to risk being a WTA Tour tournament owner starting in the early years of women’s professional tennis, to the WTA Tour today where players from 92 nations are competing for over $130 million in prize money and play for quality in all four major events, to Serena Williams leading all tennis players this year in prize money, is in no small part due to her groundbreaking work. It was laid by a group of pioneering promoters over forty years ago. That group was led by Nancy Jeffett.”
Shriver lauded the multi-faceted skills of Jeffett colorfully and accurately, mentioning the Texan’s work as a chair for the Fed Cup and a USTA volunteer. Near the end of her thoughtful tribute, Shriver said, “Nancy made an everlasting contribution to the community of women’s professional tennis by being a risk-taking innovator. Nancy is one of the most respected citizens in the global tennis community… She deserves this not for a couple of outstanding contributions over a few years but for an extraordinary commitment and a body of work to make women’s tennis, pro tennis, junior tennis and global tennis bigger, better and stronger.”
Humbled and touched by the tribute, Jeffett kept her speech remarkably short, knowing that Shriver had said it all for her. “Thank you,” said Jeffett from her wheelchair. “There’s not much more I can say. An awful lot has already been said. I appreciate you all being here today. I’ve had an extraordinary life with tennis. I continue to, even though I can’t walk these days. I’m planning on having a lot more influence on tennis. It’s been a real love of the game that has brought me to this situation. Thank you all for being here and I love you. Take care.”
Asked earlier in the day at a press conference what has made her most proud, Jeffett did not have to ponder for long. Having been associated with the sport since her days as a top junior competitor (she was ranked in the top ten among Americans in the 18-and-under category in 1946), Jeffett replied, “I guess my proudest moment is seeing some of our girls and young men who have developed into exceptional citizens through their interest in tennis, like the current President [Katrina Adams] of the United States Tennis Association. I remember selecting her as an outstanding junior. She is a girl who came to our program. That’s been the thrilling part to see what some of the young people have done that have been involved with us [at the Maureen Connolly Brinker Foundation].”
Last but clearly not least among the honorees this year was Hall, who achieved prodigiously in Wheelchair Tennis after having both legs amputated following a car accident when he was 16 in 1986. Hall was ranked No. 1 in the world in both singles and doubles. He captured all of the majors, including nine Australian Opens and eight U.S. Opens. He was six-time Paralympic medalist. The affable Australian was introduced by close friend, coach and mentor Rich Berman. Berman remembered vividly an experience he shared with Hall a few weeks before the 1996 Paralympics when Hall hurt his arm badly in the gym.
An orthopedic surgeon examined Hall and was adamant that he should withdraw from the ’96 Games. As Berman recalled, “That night, after dinner, I sheepishly looked at David and sadly said, ‘Well, mate, it looks like we’re going to have to sit this one out.’ David stared at me intently and said, ‘I’m playing. My mates are counting on me and so is Tennis Australia.”
Berman said, “David had to change his style of play to be more aggressive so he could end points quickly. And, yes, as you imagined, he won bronze in singles and silver in doubles…. Many champions have been here and many more will come, but none with a bigger heart, none who played the game harder, none more fair or more noble. I have to say that in addition to the three times I was told I was a father, this moment is my proudest.”
Berman broke down after that poignant line, understandably so. The audience fully understood the depth of his emotions. But soon Hall spoke from his wheelchair, and he was magnificent. He remembered how much he loved tennis as a kid, and how he discovered after his accident that he could continue to play the sport in a different forum and way.
“I thought the hitchhiking accident which cost me my legs and almost my life had robbed me of tennis, but I was wrong. After reading in a local newspaper about Terry Mason, a local wheelchair tennis player, I was intrigued and hopeful. If this guy can play tennis from a wheelchair, maybe I can, too. My first time on a court seemed more challenging than fun. I was slow and hit the back fence more times than I can count.
“But it stoked something inside me which would drive me for years to come. Through those early days, after my accident, tennis was like a long-lost friend who had come back to me. Through all the turmoil my life had become, tennis was giving me comfort, something to look forward to, was opening doors for me I never knew existed. It was sending my places I’d never been, and giving me chances to meet people I would never have met. It was creating structure in a world that had none. As the wheelchair tennis tour took off, I knew deep down I had to ride this wave. I had to at least give myself a chance to see where it could take me. I had to be all in.”
Hall spoke of the critical role played by Berman in shaping his life, and said of his friend, “You changed the course of my career and changed my life, and for that I’ll be forever grateful.”
From beginning to end, with no lulls whatsoever, speaking in a dignified manner, delivering his words smoothly and believably, Hall ended the ceremony on the best possible note. Here was a great tennis player speaking from a wheelchair, raising the spirits of everyone who listened to his ineffably gracious remarks. The sun was shining. Hall sent us away with smiles on our faces.
Not long after, I spent some time in the Hall of Fame Museum, admiring the revitalization of the exhibits and the refurbishment of the entire interior. The highlight there was spending six-and-a-half minutes watching the Roger Federer Hologram. That was exceedingly well done. The fans must feel as if Federer is right there behind a glass window, talking to them in a personal way. That’s how good it is.
It was time to leave. As usual, the visit to Newport was a day well spent. On the drive home, I listened to a New York Yankee baseball game on the radio. But in the eye of my mind, I was still watching David Hall connecting with the crowd so thoroughly. His induction was the highlight of a memorable afternoon in Rhode Island, one that will linger with me for a long time to come.