Tennis Can’t Be About Black Or White - UBITENNIS
Connect with us

Comments

Tennis Can’t Be About Black Or White

Throughout its history the “Game of a Lifetime”, hasn’t always been the game for everyone’s life. The fact is, it often hasn’t been “that” game at all. George Floyd’s death has provided a wake-up call that has heightened the need for introspection by everyone, everywhere.

Avatar

Published

on

The spring of 2020 will ooze into the history books as one of the most dire and confusing periods in the history of tennis, in general, and the world as a whole for that matter. The COVID-19 pandemic brought pretty much everything everywhere to its knees. Death was chronicled every evening on the news. The economic collapse that was mindlessly driven by dysfunctional government decision-making gave birth to generalized desperation. The resulting “could this be the Apocalypse” trepidations gathered fears that have wound themselves around anything and everything that was pertinent to life and a lot that wasn’t.

 

Finally, in May, there appeared to be a glimmer of hope for reconstructing the world as we had come to know it. Coronavirus’ social-distancing restrictions were being loosened. It looked as if, after months of quarantine – virtually worldwide – there would be an opportunity to breathe freely, albeit with a mask, to limit exposure to the virus which could possibly mutate and become even more dangerous than the first version.

Sadly, the hopes were just that – “hopes”. On May 25th in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a cellphone video captured a confrontation. Millions watched in horror as a police officer named Derek Chauvin knelt on the neck of George Floyd for eight minutes and 43 seconds. The ghastly result – The 46-year-old African-American was dead before he was lifted into an ambulance that was finally brought to the scene.

I continually replay that event in my mind. I cannot make it go away… What is worse, as a long-time journalist, I am unable to find words that come anywhere close to describing what I and the rest of the world witnessed.

The reaction to the execution was swift in the US and internationally, too. Hundreds of thousands of people began to march, many carrying signs with Floyd’s last words – “I Can’t Breathe”. They did it, for the most part, peacefully day after day after day. Emotions were raw.  As is often the case in troubled times, some decided to take advantage of the complex situation. They literally and figuratively tossed matches on a world full of freshly split kindling and watched as property, along with spirit, was destroyed. In the US, it was reminiscent of bygone protests that ended up destroying cities in the sixties and again in the riots after police were acquitted of the Rodney King beating nearly thirty years ago in Los Angeles.  Humanity was running scared then, and now it was running again.

This time the dynamic has been different. “Black Lives Matter” has become the chant. It has filled the streets and has been shouted from the rooftops from virtually everywhere by everyone.

The outpouring of grief left national and local officials aghast and shaken. In some cases, leaders were visibly overcome in an effort to respond reasonably. Members of the athletic community at large, weighed in supporting the necessity of bringing about change. The reaction from tennis players was clear. They made their voices heard. Frances Tiafoe, James Blake, Katrina Adams, along with Taylor Townsend, Sloane Stephens, and both Serena and Venus Williams spoke candidly about how they had been dealing with racism because of their skin color their entire lives. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, whose father is Congolese and whose mother is French, addressed what it was like to be “different”, as a youngster, in Le Mans, France. Naomi Osaka has a Haitian father and a Japanese mother. Given the cultural type-casting that can dictate public perception in many Asian societies, she elaborated on being a “hafu” (only half-Japanese), which, to some, made her almost a non-person.

Of all of those in the tennis world who reacted to George Floyd’s death, Coco Gauff was the valedictorian of the class. She spoke to a crowd during a “Peaceful Protest” in Delray Beach, Florida telling those on hand about her grandmother’s struggles generations ago. Her call to action was as eye opening as it was chilling. As she has shown on the court, “She is wise beyond her years…”

Tennis is constantly touted as the “Game of a Lifetime” without the appropriate asterisks noting – “If you meet certain standards”. While the sport has improved its inclusion policies in recent decades, its past is tainted with the slights that were pervasive if you happened to be Black, Brown or any color but White.

Historically, “diversification” has lumbered along at a laggardly pace. That is why the American Tennis Association was founded on November 30, 1916. Over the years, the ATA has become one of the major organizations representing African-American tennis in the US. Simply put, prejudice brought about its inception. The Association Tennis Club of Washington, D.C., and the Monumental Tennis Club of Baltimore, Maryland, joined forces in response to the United States Lawn Tennis Association’s policy of excluding players of color from participating in tournaments.

In those days, “East was East, and West was West”, and the difference between the two regions was more than geographic. But, make no mistake, both areas had to confront the same attitudes toward racial acceptance, which was the reason that players from in and around Los Angeles established The Western Federation of Tennis Clubs in 1916. The TWFTC was the West Coast counterpart of the ATA.

The first meeting of the TWFTC took place at the YMCA in downtown Los Angeles. Today, the organization is known as Pacific Coast Championship, Inc. and includes clubs from San Diego to Sacramento. The ATA has received kudos for opening tennis doors for African-American players. The TWFTC should not be overlooked for the essential role it played in the progress that slowly made its way across the country.

Looking back, it is ironic that in tennis history, little if any mention is ever made of Howard and Tuskegee Universities offering students an opportunity to play tennis beginning in the 1890s. Another significant, but ignored, reality is that at the end of the decade – 1898 to be specific – African-American players from the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast were taking part in tournaments that were staged at the Chautauqua Tennis Club in Philadelphia.

In the 104 years since the ATA and TWFTC came into being, change has taken tenuous strides. Generally, advances have been patterned by irregular steps, almost as if the attempts were searching for concrete reasons to take detours. Looking at the real picture, beyond the public relations applause, the “progress” took place in cul de sacs with rarely an exit.

Fortunately, there were situations when every street was not a dead end. Sadly,   memories of the successful excursions have been fleeting, leaving many of those who remained still disenfranchised and still searching for pathways that would lead to different and truly meaningful results.

On July 29, 1940, Jimmie McDaniel, the ATA singles champion, played an exhibition match against Don Budge, the 1938 Grand Slam tournament winner, at the Cosmopolitan Club in Harlem, New York. Though McDaniel lost in straight sets, the contest was historic because it was the first ever between a top African-American and a White player of note.

Don Budge and Jimmy McDaniel (Photo from Whirlwind The Godfather Of Black Tennis by Doug Smith)

Budge complimented his opponent’s playing ability and opined that if McDaniel had an opportunity to compete against the best players in the country, “he’d rank in the first 10.”

The first National Junior Public Parks Championships was staged in 1948 at Griffith Park, a recreational facility near the present day Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California. Oscar Johnson, a Los Angeles native, won the Boys’ singles, becoming the first African-American to earn a USLTA championship.

Nonetheless, tennis’ racial barriers remained rigid until 1950 when Althea Gibson was allowed to play the US National Championships at Forest Hills, New York. Today, fans of the game are aware that Gibson and later, Arthur Ashe made a “difference”. They have been lauded for doing so. But, why were they the only ones? What happened to the others who tried to follow in their footsteps?

Henry Talbert, who passed away on January 12, 2014 in Los Angeles, was the first African-American USLTA administrator.  In 1974, the UCLA graduate became the Tennis Programming Director at the organization’s New York City office. The appointment was a step in the right direction, but not a full-stride. Some community activists felt that Talbert was being forced to “tippy-toe” in order not to set-off the blink of a caution light because an African-American had been “placed in charge”. An exemplary individual, he survived the close scrutiny that ensued so that another silent milestone was passed.

At the beginning of 2015, Katrina Adams scored a resounding and deserved “triple.” She became the first African-America to hold the office of President, Chairman and CEO of the United States Tennis Association. She was also the first former professional tennis player and the youngest individual to have assumed that position.

Katrina Adams posing between Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens following the final of the 2017 US Open.

Those mentioned above are each a credit to the game. But, for every Adams there have been thousands of other deserving individuals who have been overlooked because of something that they had no choice in – The color of their skin. Former President Barack Obama summed up the issues very well, saying, “Every step of progress in this country, every expansion of freedom, every expression of our deepest ideals have been won through efforts that made the status quo uncomfortable.”

There are still countless individuals of color, who have dedicated their lives to the game, yet their talents are under-utilized. They include administrators, university coaches, teaching professionals, local leaders and more. Many have been forced to “bite their tongues”. They know the “Silent Code” not to speak about such things as program inadequacies, compensation inequalities and being forced to contend with short term or annually renewable contracts which don’t foster job security confidence. They have become almost mute because of an ingrained fear that has escalated over the years due to the whim of an economy that undervalues their skill. Simply said, it is because they are Black and very likely viewed as expendable.

When I am not travelling the world writing about tennis, I have a home in a town that is part of Los Angeles County. That we, as a culture and more to the point a society, have barely moved beyond the Watts Riots of 1965, or Rodney King’s verdict on April 29, 1992 is baffling to me. It definitely reflects on everyone in America and for that matter, the world.

The killing of George Floyd may have tipped the US and other countries toward making credible reform. But, one thing is certain, reality must walk hand in hand with change. Reform can no longer be like a never-ending rondo. (A rondo is a musical form that keeps returning to the composition.) Music from the past must be remembered, but now a new tune needs to be composed. It must feature meaningful choruses that remind us how far we have come, along with how far we still have to go.

As society grapples with the ramifications of Minneapolis, the game must set itself apart and show that actions do speak louder than words – really. “Black and White” should only bring to mind an antique photograph. Times have changed. The status quo no longer works anywhere. There is no place for prejudice. It will no longer be tolerated.

Tennis, if it actually is “The Game of a Lifetime” should involve a ball, a net, a couple of racquets and at least two individuals – With no mention of ethnicity.

Comments

US Open: Shelby Rogers Delivers; Serena Still A Threat To Win 24th Major

Avatar

Published

on

Serena Williams - US Open (photo Twitter @usopen)

After all of these years of playing in the U.S. Open, Shelby Rogers is finally a seeded player.

 

The Charleston, S.C., native has been playing America’s premier tennis event almost continuously since her debut in New York in 2010. She’ll turn 30 years old in a few weeks and has worked her way up the rankings to 31st in the world.

That’s a big achievement from the little girl who hung on the fences more than two decades ago to watch her older sister Sabra play high school matches that eventually led to an Al-American career for Sabra at Emory University. Sabra became a psychologist and, of course, is one of  Shelby’s biggest fans.

LOOK OUT FOR ROGERS?

Rogers took the direct route. She didn’t play high school tennis, but left the classroom before high school to train in tennis, study online and play the junior circuit. She turned pro in 2009 at age 16.

Monday evening at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center, It took Rogers awhile to start living up to her ranking. But once she turned the corner after dropping the first set in nine games, Shelby started looking like a seasoned top 30 player.

Rogers sort of blew The Netherlands’ slim Arantxa Rus away, taking a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory in the opening round of the U.S. Open. Rogers especially played the deciding 28th game of the match like the veteran pro she is. She hit one long forehand and netted one ball in that game, but otherwise she rode her big serve to victory in the clinching game. At 40-30, she delivered a huge first serve down the middle that Rus couldn’t put into play.

WOMEN’S RACE TO TOP PRIZE WIDE OPEN

The way things are on the women’s tour these days, with no true leader while once-amazing top-ranked Iga Swiatek tries to regain her dominance, anything is possible.

Yes, even finally a 24th Grand Slam title for Serena Williams.

But this is about Shelby Rogers. She is playing the best tennis of her career nearly a decade and a half after her life as a professional tennis player started.

With any kind of luck, Rogers could leave New York ranked among the top 25 players in the world, or maybe higher if she continues to serve and play the kind of big-ball tennis she played  in the last 19 games Monday night.

WHO’S NEXT IN LINE

So, what’s after Swiatek, who started the year on fire with a long unbeaten streak that went through the French Open and rewarded her with as many points as the confined totals of the Nos. 2 and 3 players. Of course, Ashleigh Barty’s retirement after winning the Australian Open opened the door for Swiatek’s rise to the top.

And then Wimbledon’s grass took care of Swiatek.

Nos. 2-5 Anett Kontaveit, Maria Sakkari, Paula Badosa and Ons Jabeur are all outstanding players, but none currently fit in the great column. They appear to be waiting in line for Swiatek or another Barty-like player to step forward to rule the women’s tour.

WHAT ABOUT UKRAINE’S DARIA!

Then there are almost totally unknown players such as Ukraine’s Daria Snigur. I hadn’t given Snigur much chance at all on the pro tour until her shocking U.S. Open first-round victory over multi-Grand Slam tournament winner and seventh-ranked Simona Halep. 

The last time I had thought about Snigur was when she upended Charleston’s Emma Navarro in the Junior Wimbledon semifinals and then won the Junior Grand Slam tournament.

At Junior Wimbledon in 2019, I thought Navarro, who also is now on the WTA Tour and is currently ranked 145th in the world, would roll past Snigur the way she had in the 2019 Junior French Open quarterfinals. But Snigur is so deceptive with her ground strokes that strike like lightning, she dominated Navarro at that Junior Wimbledon.

So, maybe the currently 124th-ranked Snigur may be ready to make a mark on the tour after scoring her first tour victory by defeating Halep.

NO NOVAK, BUT RAFA IS THERE

Without Novak Djokovic, the men are about as unpredictable as the women, with the exception of one player. Rafa Nadal, of course, entered this U.S. Open, with a perfect 19-0 record this year in Grand Slams.

Daniil Medvedev is the defending champion at the U.S. Open, but even though he is ranked No. 1 in the world, it’s a long road to the final for the Russian. Medvedev hasn’t always been predictable.

And already, No. 4 Stefanos Tsitsipas has been eliminated by a complete unknown, Daniel Elahi Galan.

Wow! The Greek star probably was about as much of a favorite as Medvedev.

And poor Dominic Thiem was cast on an outside court. And he lost. Just a couple of years ago, Thiem was winning the U.S. Open.

My top five picks in order would be: Nadal, Jannik Sinner, Nick Kyrgios, Medvedev and Andy Murray. Yes, Andy looks pretty fit.

————————-

James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award  for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. 

Continue Reading

Comments

Does WTA Need A Top Rivalry To Drive The Sport?

Iga Swiatek is the WTA’s dominant world number one but does she need a rival in order to drive the sport to new heights.

Avatar

Published

on

Iga Swiatek (@TennisHandshake - Twitter)

The WTA has a dominant world number one and a variety of talented players on the tour but the one thing it’s lacking at the moment is a top rivalry.

 

First of all it was supposed to be Bianca Andreescu and Naomi Osaka, then Ash Barty and Osaka and also Barty and Iga Swiatek.

However none of these match-ups created a top rivalry over a long period to generate an overwhelming amount of interest.

After Barty’s shock retirement, many people were left disappointed at the fact that her and current dominant world number one Iga Swiatek could not compete for the sport’s biggest titles in a fierce rivalry.

Now Swiatek sits at the top of the WTA rankings with almost a 4,000 point lead at the top. The rest of the field are very talented and that in itself is an intriguing aspect of the WTA’s appeal.

But the one thing the women’s game lacks is a top rivalry to generate a hype that the ATP clearly has right now.

As Mark Petchey said it’s an issue that needs solving soon as every sport has one, “Rivalries drive the sport. What they do is make sure that it manifests itself in a big polarisation of a large fan base, against another one,” Petchey was quoted as saying by Tennis365.

“You look across the board, over F1, look at the tribal nature of AFL, of Premier League football here. It’s a huge part of what you need to have a successful sport. That is the one thing that is missing from the women’s tour at the moment, is a superb rivalry, with a little bit of edge.

“That’s why I say I’m sad that Ash pulled up stumps, because I think that rivalry could’ve developed with Iga in that way. Would it have been quite as intense as the Rafa-Novak and Roger-Novak rivalries? Probably not. But it would have been there. Going into every major saying that you’re not looking forward to a specific clash potentially when the draw comes out, does hurt the tour a little bit. 

“You can’t keep saying ‘oh, anyone can win it’. Because you’re just not tagging anybody… you’re not setting the scene for something amazing that’s going to happen, a nice little volcanic eruption right at the back-end of a major. They need some people to be a bit more consistent and getting through, because that’s what will be a massive driver for the WTA.”

It’s hard to argue with those points of view from Petchey as rivalries are what are talked about for decades after players have retired.

It will be interesting to see whether Swiatek will continue to dominate the rest of the field or whether someone can build a rivalry with the Pole heading into the remainder of the season.

The next big WTA event of the year will take place at the Rogers Cup in Toronto on the week of the eighth of August.

Continue Reading

Comments

Steve Flink On Lleyton Hewitt’s Induction Into The International Tennis Hall Of Fame

Five years after being inducted himself for his services to tennis, the veteran commentator reflects on Hewitt’s achievements as a player.

Avatar

Published

on

Having attended every International Tennis Hall of Fame induction ceremony since 1995 in Newport, Rhode Island, I have grown familiar with and fond of the surroundings in that idyllic setting.  It is less a three hour drive from my home in Westchester, New York. It is a place made for summertime activities, and it is where the first U.S. National Championships were held in 1881. In 2017, I was fortunate to be inducted as a contributor at the Hall of Fame.

 

Every single Hall of Fame ceremony is staged with a deep and enduring reverence for the sport and the greatest players who have ever stepped on a court. This year was no exception to that rule. Lleyton Hewitt became the 34th player from Australia to be inducted at Newport. This indefatigable competitor was elected to the class of 2021, but with travel in and out of his country complicated by Covid, Hewitt was unable to make the trip a year ago to join his classmates (the late) Dennis Van Der Meer and the “Original Nine” of women’s tennis which included Billie Jean King.

It was sad that Hewiitt could not make it to Newport a year ago. But no one who appeared on the ballot for 2022 was elected. That was unprecedented. And so the fans and the tennis community were grateful that Hewitt could make the journey from the land “Down Under” this year to accept the ultimate honor of his career at the age of 41. Being there for all of the festivities— including a dinner the evening before and a brunch on induction day— it was strikingly apparent to me that Hewitt fully recognized the magnitude of the accolade and took nothing for granted. He relished the chance to take his place among the elite performers in the history of his profession, and conducted himself with unmistakable grace and dignity. 

https://twitter.com/TennisHalloFame/status/1548013640313278466

Hewitt celebrated a multitude of soaring achievements in his time as a top flight player, winning the US. Open in 2001, taking the Wimbledon title in 2002, leading Australia to victory in the Davis Cup twice. He concluded 2001 and 2002 as the No, 1 ranked player in the world and competed in at least one major tournament for twenty consecutive years (1997-2016). He secured 30 career titles in singles, but was also a first rate doubles player, capturing the U.S. Open alongside Max Mirnyi in 2000. Hewitt must be regarded as one of the most resilient competitors of his or any era. His courage and unflagging commitment to the game were commendable.

Presenting Hewitt to the fans in Newport—and those sitting in their living rooms watching on television at home— were, fittingly, John Newcombe and Tony Roche. These two Hall of Famers formed one of the greatest doubles partnerships of all time, winning Wimbledon five times. Roche won one major (Roland Garros in 1966) in singles while Newcombe garnered seven Grand Slam singles titles, securing three crowns at Wimbledon in 1967, 1970 and 1971.

But I digress. Newcombe and Roche were seen on video saluting Hewitt because they played critical roles in the evolution of this inimitable individual as a player. Newcombe was Hewitt’s Davis Cup captain, while Roche was his coach in the 1990’s and beyond. They contributed mightily to Hewitt’s technical and tactical understanding of the game. Moreover, both men were loyal and unwavering friends of Hewitt’s. Roche even made an unannounced trip to Newport to be there in person for Hewitt, a magnanimous gesture that was very well received.

Roche recalled his introduction to a 12 or 13 year old Hewitt at a charity event in Adelaide. Newcombe recollected Hewitt coming to his tennis academy in Texas. Hewitt was 14 and asked Newcombe if he could interview him. Newcombe agreed to do it immediately, and the precocious kid had 25 questions prepared for one of his heroes. As Newcombe reflected, “That [gave me] a good idea of how organized he was.”

Both Newcombe and Roche vividly remembered Hewitt’s spectacular Davis Cup debut at the Longwood Cricket Club outside Boston. Hewitt was replacing an injured Mark Philippoussis in the Australian lineup. Hewitt upended Todd Martin on the opening day and led the way for the Australians to topple the U.S. in the quarterfinals during the celebratory centenary year for Davis Cup in 1999. Later that season, he took apart Marat Safin and Yevgeny Kafelnikov as Australia defeated Russia in the semifinals, and then the Aussies took the Cup by ousting France in the final.

https://twitter.com/TennisHalloFame/status/1548352647530287105

Four years later, Hewitt was instrumental again as the Australians were Davis Cup victors once more, defeating Spain in the final at home in Melbourne. His Davis Cup record was astounding. Altogether, Hewitt won 59 of 80 matches playing for his country, prevailing in 42 of 56 singles matches and 17 of 24 doubles contests.

Roche summed up Hewitt’s competitive days succinctly, saying, “What a remarkable career Lleyton has had. He was one of the youngest players to ever win an ATP Tour event in his hometown of Adelaide[  early in 1998 when he was still 16] He’s still the youngest ever No. 1 ATP ranked player at the end of the year [2001, when he was 20]. He won two year-end Masters tournaments, two Grand Slams, and his Davis Cup record is the greatest in Australian history. He’s played more ties and won more matches than any other Australian, and we’ve had some great Davis Cup players.”

That, of course, was a deliberate understatement. Among the many standouts Roche was referring to are Frank Sedgman, Roy Emerson, Neale Fraser, Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and, of course, himself and Newcombe. In any case, Newcombe and Roche covered the spectrum of Hewitt’s career and got to the essence of Hewitt as a human being impeccably in their tribute. Newcombe concluded with these poignant words: “Yeah, we’re proud, Lleyton, to have known you and to be able to spend some time with you. It was an honor for us.”

Now it was time for Hewitt to step up to the microphone, and he was not at a loss for words. In nearly all International Tennis Hall of Fame ceremonies, honorees largely try to keep their remarks relatively short because there are generally multiple Hall of Famers in any given year. But Hewitt had the luxury when he took his turn up at the rostrum to speak expansively without worrying about going on too long. He could relax and convey his thoughts deliberately in front of an attentive and appreciative audience early on the evening of July 16.

Hewitt delivered his impressive speech passionately, authentically and self-deprecatingly. He was much more interested in saluting those who had played leading roles in allowing him to realize his largest dreams than he was in patting himself on the back. He thanked the Hall of Fame for the honor, paid tribute to his 2021 classmates Dennis Van Der Meer and the Original Nine, and then became philosophical as he reflected on his exalted status.

He said, “The Hall of Fame seemed like something that was so far away from me ever being a part of. It was never something I thought about as a player, and it was always, I thought, for the people who were my idols growing up and the absolute legends of the sport…. To think that it all began for me on junior courts in the middle of nowhere in Adelaide in Australia, with no one watching, no TV cameras, and then to make the full tennis journey and now be coming into the Hall of Fame [is very special].”

Following up on that theme and displaying his gratitude for competing for so long against formidable rivals from different eras, Hewitt pointed out, “I feel fortunate that I was able to play across different generations, that I was able to be on the same court as my heroes Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, and then go on and compete against three of the greatest tennis players our sport has ever seen in Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.”

What Hewitt left out was that he celebrated some immensely rewarding moments against all five of the aforementioned players. He finished with a 5-4 career winning record against the redoubtable Sampras, including a 7-6 (7-4), 6-1, 6-1 triumph in his first major final at the 2001 U.S Open. Hewitt was 4-4 against Agassi. He was 9-18 against Federer after taking seven of their first nine duels, but it must be mentioned that Hewitt stunned the Swiss Maestro in their last appointment ever at Brisbane in 2014. Although he lost seven of eleven duels versus Nadal, Hewitt toppled the Spaniard at the 2004 and 2005 Australian Opens. Even then, Nadal was awfully tough to beat. Finally, Hewitt was 1-6 against Djokovic, but achieved his lone victory over the Serbian at the 2006 U.S. Open.

Be that as it may, Hewitt next spoke of his affection for Newport, a place he performed many times. As he recounted, “You feel the history and tradition of tennis as soon as you walk in here. I first came here as a 17-year-old playing the Newport event back in ‘98…. Later on in my career I came here quite a few times and thoroughly enjoyed it. I came close a couple of times, losing in the final in 2012 an 2013. That just made me more desperate as the kind of person I was. I wanted to get my name on the trophy here and actually win where the Hall of Fame [tournament] was played. I was able to do that in 2014. It was so perfect. It ended up being the last title of my career, which I look back on and I’m so proud of. Believe it or not, in my 20-odd-year career I had never won the singles and doubles at the same tournament ever, but that particular week in 2014 in Newport I did it.”

Hewitt was flowing freely now, relieving his entire life in many ways, thoroughly enjoying the chance to reminisce. He retraced his youth playing AFL (Australian Football League), the highest level of Australian Rules football. As he mentioned, “It’s a tough, true Australian team sport. My Dad, my grandfather and my uncle all played it professionally. That was my dream to one day follow in their footsteps.” He spoke of his transition to tennis as a kid and the sound advise he received from his earliest coach, Peter Smith, who started working with Hewitt when the youngster was six.

Naturally, Hewitt soon sent some praise in the direction of Darren Cahill, the coach who boosted him immeasurably during the heart of his career. As Hewitt explained, “I had a few coaches during my career and I want to thank all those tour coaches, but especially Darren Cahill…. It wouldn’t be until the end of 98’ that I started traveling with Darren as my tour coach.  We had plenty of things in common, but the biggest thing was our family’s connection with AFL football, even though we absolutely hated each other’s AFL teams. But it was really special that I could win my first Grand Slam in singles and doubles and get to world No. 1 with my coach from my hometown of Adelaide, Darren Cahill.”

Hewitt was leaving no stone unturned as he reflected on years gone by, milestones met and people who inspired him along the way. One of them was Sweden’s dynamic Mats Wilander. As Hewitt said, “ I became known for my ‘c’mons’ on the court and my celebration sign. Not many people knew, but Mats was the one that started it. It was called the ‘vicht’. He did it from Sweden.”

https://twitter.com/TennisHalloFame/status/1548482648405790726

After lauding Davis Cup captains John Fitzgerald and Pat Rafter, he then offered some well deserved praise for Newcombe, who was so inspirational in a multitude of ways. “Thanks, Newk, for all of your support over the years, mate. I loved nothing more than going into battle with you.”

And it would not be long before Hewitt would let it be known just how critical a role Roche had played in his life. 

“I wouldn’t be receiving this honor if it wasn’t for this bloke,“ he said of Roche. “Rochey, mate, you mean so much to me that you made the effort to make the long trek over from Australia to be here with me today. I’ve been so fortunate to have you as a coach, mentor  and more importantly to call you a mate. What you’ve done for Australian tennis is second to none. In my opinion you are the greatest coach, but it’s the culture you’ve created through the Australian Davis Cup team that sets the tone for future Australian tennis. You’ve done it for decades now. We’ve been through a lot together, mate, on and off the court. We’ve helped each other through some really tough times and celebrated the great moments.”

Hewitt paid homage to many others, including his parents, wife and three kids, before concluding with this: “I want to thank all the past Hall of Famers for being here this weekend. It wouldn’t be the same if you guys weren’t here and I didn’t have people to look up to that had done it before me. It’s been an unbelievable experience for me, the whole buildup the last couple of years, but especially this weekend. I think it’s fitting for me to be inducted here in Newport at such a special place.”

Afterwards, a number of Hall of Famers from other classes assembled not far away from where the ceremony took place to pose for photographs together. Afterwards, a group of Hall of Famers including 1992 inductee Tracy Austin and 2017 honoree Andy Roddick circled around Hewitt and shared some congenial banter. I was delighted to be a part of that because I had never seen anything like it. As the sole Hall of Famer on the stage this year, Hewitt was deservedly showered with considerable affection and respect from those who had been there before him. They wanted to share their thoughts with him, and Hewitt was happy and humbled to hear what they had to say.

The next day, I made the three hour drive home with my wife, and found myself reflecting on what made Hewitt the champion he was. It started with his unshakable psyche and his towering qualities as a competitor. Another significant factor was his magnificent return of serve. Across the last fifty years— at least in my view— Djokovic’s return of serve has been the very best, with Jimmy Connors right behind him. But in my view Hewitt’s return must be regarded as the third best of the last half century. Some experts believe Rafael Nadal’s return of serve belongs up there with Djokovic and Connors, but I in my view Hewitt’s was better than the Spaniard’s.

Hewitt might have achieved even more if his career had not been plagued by so many injuries over his last ten years on the circuit. But the fact remains that Hewitt made the most of his opportunities and fought with astonishing ferocity to accomplish everything he did. He need not look back with any regrets. In the final analysis, Lleyton Hewitt was an exemplary professional, a fellow who never made excuses, a player who was as professional as anyone in his trade, and a man who landed fittingly in Newport to put a capstone on his sterling career. 

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Trending