Newport – Home of Tennis’ Hall of Fame

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Following on the completion of the greatest grass court tournament of them all, I travelled to another grass court tournament that perhaps does not get as much attention on this side of the Atlantic as it deserves. This was the ATP tournament held annually at the Newport Casino in Newport, Rhode Island, an event that has been able to attract many of the top tour players and whose winners’ roll includes some of the best in the game.

Many mistakenly think that the grass court season on tour folds up with the completion of Wimbledon. Equally mistaken is the belief that grass tennis is really only played seriously in Britain and Europe. As well as at Newport, the grass game is cherished and promoted at many locations in the United States. This includes the great West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills in New York, for many years the home of the US National Championships and of the US Open before its move in the late 1970s to the hard surfaces at Flushing Meadow. Mainly an east Coast phenomenon, grass play is also to the fore at Boston’s Longwood Club and at the Philadelphia Cricket Club– a surprise to many who tend to associate it with England’s Home Counties.

Newport is the showcase of the grass game in the US. From 1881 to 1914, it was the home of the US National Championships. Set in the old Newport Casino (nothing to do with gambling high-rollers!) surrounded by its 19th century dark green structures, it bears testament to the tradition and longevity of the game in the United States.

It is also the site to the International Tennis Hall of Fame (ITHF) , a ‘must-see’ for all tennis fans and an experience with an impressively comprehensive and precise attention to detail: a true American centre of excellence. Interspersed with old tennis racquets, tennis balls and magazine and press cuttings alongside the latest of video and audio technology, it provides a marvellous panoramic view of the history of tennis going way back.

I arrived at the Newport Club on the Saturday to attend the events and celebrations for this year’s Enshrinement Ceremony and to watch the concluding rounds of the ATP tout event. This year’s inductees were: Martina Hingis, Charlie Passarel, Cliff Drysdale, Ion Tiriac and Thelma Coyne Long (the latter an elderly Australian player of the 1950s who, unable to travel, was represented at the ceremonies by the legendary fellow Australian, Rod Laver).

Arriving at around 9 am, I came across Charlie Passarel near the club entrance looking a little lost until we all assembled for the pre-ceremony press conference upstairs. This was opened by ITHF President, Stan Smith and Chairman, Charles Clouser and gave the assembled media an opportunity to pose questions to the 2013 inductees. All expressed their delight at having been honoured by the ITHF, thus granting them access to that exclusive club of ITHF Inductees. All had choice anecdotes from their illustrious careers, notably Drysdale and Tiriac who raised several chuckles for their accounts of some of their more colourful career exploits. A number of junior tennis awards were also given to aspiring players at the college level in recognition of the ITHF’s commitment to the future advancement of the game.

Also of interest was the announcement by the ITHF of a capital-raising campaign of over $15 million which includes a $1 million investment to upgrade the museum and plans for a staff building and a new indoor tennis facility.

The formal awards ceremonies took place on the main grandstand court and for people-watchers, included (as well as those already mentioned above) such luminaries as: Rosie Casals, Pam Shriver, commentator Bud Collins, Senator George Mitchell, ex-US Davis Cup Captain, Donald Dell, Owen Davidson, Vic Seixas and Butch Bucholz.

This was immediately followed by the semi-finals of the men’s singles between Nicolas Mahut and Russell and Leyton Hewitt and John Isner. Rain delayed completion of these matches until the following day which in turn, delayed completion of the final between Mahut and Hewitt.

Many who had witnessed the record marathon match between Isner and Mahut at Wimbledon in 2011 were secretly hoping for a reprise at Newport, but were pleased enough instead to see Newport favourite and former winner, Leyton Hewitt take on the Frenchman Mahut in the final. In a tight three-set encounter, Mahut came out the eventual winner, 5-7, 7-5, 6-3. In the doubles, Mahut and Eduoard Roger-Vasselin beat TimSmyczek and Rhynne Williams 6-7(4), 6-2, 10-5 in one hour and 33 minutes for the doubles crown. While an impressive tour win by Mahut, the Newport event had to compete in terms of timing with the Bastad and Stuttgart ATP events, meaning a three-way dilution of the top talent as well as the understandable ‘rest’ period for some after the gruelling Wimbledon fortnight. That said, the Newport event, well supported by many top corporate sponsors, helps keep the ATP Tour and the grass game alive in the north-east United States – a very congenial event, smoothly and courteously run and a joy to cover as a sports journalist.

The highlight of the final evening (Sunday) was the first public showing of a documentary made of the famous 1973 ‘Battle of the Sexes’ match between Billie-Jean King and Bobby Riggs. Pulling together footage of the match in the Houston Astrodome with interviews and other background material, it was a true walk down memory lane and an incisive account of the struggles encountered in the promotion and development of the women’s game in those early years of open tennis. Following the screening, Billie-Jean King helped set the context for the documentary, delivering further personal memories of that famous match and those momentous years. She was joined on stage by her former doubles partner, Rosie Casals and later by Martina Hingis, the latter a more recent beneficiary of the efforts put in by King to gain the necessary recognition for the women’s game.

The combination of the annual Enshrinement Ceremonies with the ATP Tour event gives the Newport event an extra level of attention. For a grass aficionado like myself, it is heartening to see the traditions of grass being kept alive so faithfully as at Newport and through the ITHF Museum, that the history and traditions of the game generally are being commemorated. Finally, special thanks must go to ITHF Communications Director, Anne Marie McLaughlin and to staff member, Flavio Rossin for helping make the ‘Newport experience’ such a memorable one.

Paul McElhinney

28 July 2013

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