The cognoscenti of tennis have been waiting for a couple of years for Daniil Medvedev to place his name among the game’s elite performers as a champion at a Grand Slam event. Medvedev has been on the verge of this accomplishment for quite some time. Through the summer of 2019 and on into the fall, he made immense strides as a player of the front rank. In that span, he made it to the final of all six tournaments he played. Most importantly, he moved agonizingly close to establishing himself as the U.S. Open champion. Confronting none other than Rafael Nadal, Medvedev was down two sets to love and trailing by a service break in the third set but, stupendously, he nearly won that match and claimed that title.
Medvedev pushed Nadal into a harrowing five setter that stretched from late afternoon well into the evening. He even battled back from two breaks down in the fifth set and saved two match points before Nadal held on from 30-40 in the last game of a compelling contest to win 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4. Medvedev had concluded 2018 stationed at No. 16 in the world but his stirring surge in 2019 enabled this estimable individual to reach No. 5.
The 6’6” Russian continued along his ascendant path in a stellar 2020 campaign. He made another spirited run at the U.S. Open crown, sweeping into the semifinals without the loss of a set before losing to an inspired Dominic Thiem. Undismayed by that setback, Medvedev was invincible at the end of 2020, capturing back-to-back titles as the Masters 1000 event in Paris and the year-end ATP Finals at London, where he went undefeated in the round robin event. Moreover, he ousted the top three seeds in that tournament—Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem—and that was an unprecedented feat.
In that spectacular span of two tournaments and ten match victories in a row, Medvedev accounted for no fewer than seven wins over top ten players. By the time Medvedev reached his second Grand Slam tournament final at the start of this season, he had raised his total to 20 matches in a row. Many authorities believed Medvedev would make his breakthrough on that Melbourne stage and take his place as a major champion, thus underlining his authenticity.
But Djokovic denied Medvedev that prestigious prize, playing a masterful strategic match and executing it to the hilt, winning a ninth Australian Open with a comprehensive 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 triumph.
That setback took more than a little wind out of Medvedev’s sails. He did make some amends that could be construed as positive steps. Arriving at Roland Garros with a career match record of 0-4, Medvedev found some confidence on the red clay and went to the quarterfinals but, much to his chagrin, he was soundly beaten by Stefanos Tsitsipas in the quarterfinals of the French Open. Medvedev had toppled Tsitsipas in six of the seven head-to-head battles they had fought up until Roland Garros, so that setback had to be stinging.
On to Wimbledon went Medvedev, and once more he reached the fourth round of a Major. But he let a two-sets-to-one lead against Hubert Hurkacz still from his grasp in a two day meeting, falling in five sets. And yet, Medvedev did recover his form over the summer when he won the Masters 1000 title in Canada.
And so he came into the U.S. Open as the No. 2 seed, quietly confident and cautiously optimistic, a man on a mission. Medvedev took advantage of a favorable draw. He did not drop a set prior to the quarterfinals, but did struggle slightly against the Dutch qualifier Botic Van de Zandschulp before winning 7-5 in the fourth set. But then he took apart No. 12 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime in straight sets.
That win over the athletic Canadian took Medvedev into his third major final and his second in New York. To most avid tennis observers, it was a fitting way to settle the outcome of the last major in 2021 when it all came down to Medvedev against a man on an ineffable historical quest named Novak Djokovic.
The world No. 1 was coping with the kind of pressure that only a fellow of his extraordinary stature could possibly understand. Once he had captured his second French Open in June to put himself half-way to a Grand Slam, Djokovic had his mind fixated on that lofty goal. He went to Wimbledon not simply to win the world’s premier tennis tournament but to garner a third major in a row and go to New York in search of the last piece in the puzzle. No one in men’s tennis since Rod Laver secured his second Grand Slam in 1969 had taken the first three majors of the season to land in such lofty territory—one tournament away from a Grand Slam.
Surely Djokovic was informed by media figures and fellow players that only five players had ever taken all four major tournaments in a single year to win the Grand Slam. The first time it was done was in 1938, when the Californian Don Budge—owner of perhaps the best backhand tennis has ever witnessed—pulled off the remarkable feat. Maureen Connolly was next on the list in 1953, succeeding largely because her ground strokes were the best in the women’s game and her footwork was exemplary. The left-handed Laver—an incomparable Australian shotmaker— took his first Grand Slam in 1962 as an amateur and his second as a professional seven years later.
Next up was another Australian stalwart. Margaret Smith Court—a magnificent attacking player— realized her dream of the Grand Slam in 1970. Eighteen years later, it was Steffi Graf’s turn. The German with fast feet and explosive forehand was unbeatable at the Grand Slam tournaments in 1988.
So there you have it. No one since Graf has won the Grand Slam, proof of what a difficult task it is for both the men and the women. Keep in mind as well that some of the sport’s most luminous figures have never come close. To be sure, Roger Federer celebrated three seasons (2004, 2006 and 2007) when he was victorious at three of the four majors, but he never made it even half-way to a Grand Slam because he was unable to come through at Roland Garros in those years. The one year he won the French Open (2009) he had already lost to Nadal in the Australian Open final.
Nadal won the last three majors of 2010 in Paris, London and New York but he had been beaten at the Australian Open in the first one. The only time Nadal won the Australian Open in 2009, he suffered his first loss at Roland Garros against Robin Soderling and the Grand Slam chance was gone. Djokovic himself managed to sweep four majors in a row from Wimbledon of 2015 through Roland Garros of 2016. That meant he was actually half-way to a Grand Slam in 2016 but he lost in the third round of Wimbledon to Sam Querrey so that opportunity evaporated.
Meanwhile, a small cast of players has won the first three majors of the year to stand within striking distance of a Grand Slam. The first one was Jack Crawford of Australia in 1933. He took the first three and then was in the final of Forest Hills at the U.S. Championships. He was only one set away from the Grand Slam but lost to the gifted Englishman Fred Perry. Similarly, the Australian dynamo Lew Hoad was also one match away from a Grand Slam in 1956 but his countryman Ken Rosewall knocked off Hoad in the Forest Hills final. And then in 1984, Martina Navratilova was the champion at the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. At that time the Australian Open was the last major fo the season, and Navratilova was beaten in Melbourne by Helena Sukova in the semifinals.
And so Djokovic was surrounded by all of these historical facts as he came to the U.S. Open this year. The 34-year-old was seeking to establish himself as the oldest player ever to win a Grand Slam, and he navigated his draw well across an arduous fortnight in New York. At the U.S. Open, his anxiety was evident all the way through the tournament but time and again Djokovic overcome his difficulties and raised his game when he needed to.
In the first round he went into a tailspin in the second set against Danish qualifier Holger Vitus Nodskov Rune but romped in the end 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-1 as the teenager suffered with cramps. The Dutchman Tallon Griekspoor faced Djokovic in the second round and the top seed granted his adversary only seven games across three sets. 2014 U.S Open finalist Kei Nishikori took the first set from Djokovic before the Serbian beat him for the 17th time in a row 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-3, 6-2. In the round of 16, the young American wildcard Jack Brooksby came out with deep intensity and Djokovic was unsettled, but the 34-year-old found his range in the second set and never lost it, winning 1-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2.
Now in the quarterfinals Djokovic was pitted against the No. 7 seed Matteo Berrettini. The flamboyant Italian had lost to Djokovic in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros and again in the final at Wimbledon. Now Djokovic prevailed for the third time in a row against the big server 5-7, 6-2, 6-2, 6-3.
So the stage was set for Djokovic to play No. 4 seed Sascha Zverev, who was on a rampage. Zverev had won 16 matches in a row heading into his appointment with Djokovic, taking the gold medal at the Olympic Games in Tokyo and then winning the Masters 1000 tournament in Cincinnati. In Tokyo, Zverev rallied from a set and a break down at 6-1, 3-2 but swept eight games in a row and ten of the last eleven to win 1-6, 6-3, 6-1.
But in New York, Djokovic played his best match of the tournament, turning the tables on the German. Djokovic rallied ferociously again to gain a pulsating five set triumph over Zverev 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 in three hours and 34 minutes. In the fifth set of that scintillating encounter under the lights, Djokovic collected 24 of 30 points to open up a 5-0 lead. Although Zverev pridefully won the next two games, Djokovic finished it off with a third service break of the set in the eighth game.
Many of us expected Djokovic to repeat his Australian Open final round win over Medvedev in New York. No one was taking Medvedev lightly or assuming he would not put up the toughest possible fight. But Djokovic’s big match prowess and his vast experience on the premier stages was paramount in the minds of many experts. This was, after all, his 31st Major final, a record number he shares with Federer. Moreover, Djokovic has grown immeasurably across the years as a player who knows how to bring out his best on the biggest occasions.
He had won 12 of his previous 14 finals at the Grand Slam events heading into this U.S. Open. Djokovic’s record was once 6-7 in the middle of 2014, but he then won 14 of 17 to put him at 20-10 in his career leading up to Flushing Meadows. That success rate made him the favorite at the Open to win a record 21st Major crown as well as realizing the most demanding goal of his career—a Grand Slam sweep of all four majors.
But it was apparent from the outset of his duel with the 25-year-old Russian that Djokovic was nowhere near the level he needed to be physically, mentally or emotionally. The first ominous sign was in the opening game of the match. Djokovic led 40-15 but he was coaxed into four consecutive errors and thus lost his serve immediately. Medvedev was clearly buoyed by that beginning, holding his serve at 15 for 2-0 with two aces. Djokovic then fell into a 15-40 hole by making his eighth unforced error of the young match. Although he won four points in a row and finished off that third game with two aces, Djokovic had not commenced this contest with the standard he needed to meet the moment.
Medvedev required only 47 seconds to hold for 3-1 by virtue of two aces, a service winner and a forehand winner. In his next three service games, Medvedev conceded only two points. Djokovic was not reading that serve at all and was slow to react whenever he did. Medvedev captured that set confidently, 6-4.
It was early in the second set that Djokovic found some openings that might have altered the course of the match had he exploited them. He reached 0-40 on the Medvedev serve but steered a forehand retrieve of a drop shot and was passed down the line off the forehand by the Russian. Medvedev released an ace for 30-40 and then Djokovic botched a backhand slice, sending that shot into the net. He was infuriated. Medvedev held on crucially for 1-1 with an ace followed by a service winner.
Djokovic saved a break point on his way to a 2-1 lead and then had two more break points in the fourth game, but Medvedev produced a low forehand drop volley that drew an errant forehand pass from the Serbian, and then saved the second break point with a backhand down the line deep into the corner that Djokovic could not answer. Medvedev made it to 2-2, broke Djokovic in the fifth game as the top seed put only one of six first serves in play, and then the Russian conceded only two points in his last three service games to wrap up the set 6-4.
Djokovic was clearly despondent. He was not simply below par as he would say later; he was way off his game in every respect. Medvedev rolled to 4-0 in the third and soon moved to 5-1. The capacity crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium was filled with Djokovic fans cheering him on vociferously, but they had little to shout about for most of the proceedings. Djokovic held on in the seventh game. Medvedev had a match point at 5-2 but served a double fault at 120 MPH into the net as the crowd callously applauded his mistake. He then served another double fault and Djokovic went on to break. When Djokovic held easily in the ninth game, the crowd’s applause for a man they had seldom supported was astonishing and much appreciated by the world’s best tennis player.
Djokovic shed tears into his towel at the changeover. Medvedev then served for the match a second time and released another double fault at 40-15. No one knew it then, but the Russian was fighting cramps, a fact he hid awfully well from his opponent and the audience. At 40-30 his first serve was good enough to force Djokovic to miss the return, and so Medvedev averted a potential crisis to defeat his rival for the fourth time in nine career clashes 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.
Medvedev had handled the occasion remarkably well and had tuned out the crowd with great discipline. For Djokovic the situation must have been both maddening and saddening. To have an audience so fervently behind him at one of the Majors is something he has rarely if ever experienced. But he struggled inordinately to find anything even resembling his best tennis. He approached the net 47 times in the three sets and won 31 of those points. He played serve-and-volley surprisingly well, taking advantage of Medvedev’s court positioning so far behind the baseline for his returns.
But Djokovic had neither the patience, the physicality or the inclination to stay back and grind with Medvedev the way he always has done. His legs were too weary, and his mind was cluttered. In the end he played into Medvedev’s hands. The Russian is among the most astute players in the sport to read the map of a match and adjust his strategy. Medvedevs’ shot selection, variation of speed and pace, and capacity to make Djokovic uncomfortable were first rate. Medvedev knew full well he was not playing the essential Djokovic, but he was performing in front of an antagonistic crowd and trying to pull off a first Major title. Those were not easy circumstances but Medvedev was able to deal with it ably. Medvedev did everything that was asked of him and more. He was thoroughly professional.
When it was over, Djokovic was very gracious and unwilling to drown himself in a sea of self pity. He lauded Medvedev and refused to make any excuses for his sixth defeat in nine U.S. Open finals against five different opponents.
There will never be another opportunity like this for Djokovic. He admirably put himself three sets away from the first men’s Grand Slam in 52 years. That can hardly be portrayed as a failure. Losing in New York will only make Djokovic more motivated for 2021 and the pursuit of a 21st Major title in Melbourne that would enable him to stand alone at the top of the list for most men’s majors and separate him from his co-leaders Federer and Nadal. He will turn 35 in May but Djokovic remains very young for his age. To be sure, he looked much older against Medvedev, but that was circumstantial. He has a lot of winning left to do.
As for Medvedev, this triumph at the U.S. Open should lead to many more landmark victories. Over the next seven years, he should be good for at least five or six more majors, and perhaps a larger number than that. The key to where he ends up will depend to a large extent on his adaptability. Medvedev has proven irrefutably that he is a prodigious hardcourt player and that will put him in good stead at both Melbourne and New York year after year. But can he demonstrate a larger self-belief on grass and clay courts?
To be sure, he did well this year with his quarterfinal appearances at Roland Garros. But he will need to prove that he can do more damage than that on the red clay of Paris and the lawns at the All England Club. Had he finished off Hurkacz this year in London, Medvedev would have almost surely made the final and played Djokovic there. Had he managed to overcome Tsitsipas in Paris, he might have gone to the final there.
The view here is that Medvedev will make inroads on the other surfaces and be a threat everywhere in the years ahead. The 2021 U.S. Open was a launching pad for a competitor with a wide range of goals and deep determination. He will often be going to other lofty destinations in 2021 and beyond.
US Open, Steve Flink: “Djokovic will defeat Tsitsipas in the final”
A preview of the last Major of 2021. Will Zverev and Osaka be able to withstand the pressure? Barty appears to be the favourite in the women’s draw.
The 2021 US Open is less than two hours away, with Novak Djokovic on the brink of making history – the Serbian could surpass the number of Slam titles of Federer and Nadal, while at the same time clinching the first Calendar Year Grand Slam in the men’s singles since 1969 and the first in the singles since 1988.
These two lofty objectives were the first subjects tackled by Ubitennis CEO Ubaldo Scanagatta and Hall-of-Famer tennis writer Steve Flink in their usual tournament preview, although they touched on many other themes such as the chances of Berrettini and Medvedev, the women’s draw, and the debate on whether COVID vaccines should be mandatory for the players. Here’s their chat:
00:00 – Djokovic is close to a Calendar Year Grand Slam – will he be able to hold up physically after picking up an injury in Tokyo?
07:40 – Matteo Berrettini couldn’t go to the Olympics at all because of muscle injury, and has only played a couple matches before the US Open – could he give Djokovic a run for his money in the quarter finals?
13:20 – On Zverev: “He won in Tokyo and in Cincinnati, so he has a lot of pressure on his shoulders. In the past he tended to cave when people put him among the favourites for a Major win…”
15:50 – Zverev could play Jannik Sinner in the fourth round – could the Next Gen pull off an upset?
20:30 – “Denis Shapovalov could also beat Zverev in the quarter finals, but he’s had a disappointing summer so far after doing great at Wimbledon.”
23:45 – On the weather and Djokovic’s activism: “Sometimes we should accept that he is someone who will always give an honest opinion and take a stance, even when we disagree with him.” Should the vaccine be mandatory for the players, and will the top brass in the tennis world make a decision about it?
32:25 – Stefanos Tsitsipas will face Andy Murray in the first round – can the Brit still beat a top player in a best-of-five encounter?
33:35 – Could we be in for an all-Russian semifinal between Medvedev and Rublev? “I think Medvedev wouldn’t be happy to play Diego Schwartzman in the quarter finals, he doesn’t like to have to go on the offensive.”
39:45 – A final prediction on the men’s tournament’s outcome.
43:20 – The women’s draw: “Barty has just played one of her best tournaments ever in Cincinnati, she is by far the most reliable player in the WTA Tour!”
49:00 – “Svitolina has just won a title and did well in Tokyo, she could take on Osaka in the quarter finals, although Gauff, Kerber, Halep and Giorgi are also in that section of the draw.”
52:00 – Will Osaka’s mental health be a factor throughout the New York fortnight? “If she’s fine, then she’s still the best hardcourt player in the world.”
1:00:40 – Camila Giorgi won in Canada – can she be a dark horse in New York? “She appears to have developed a Plan B now…”
Transcript by Giuseppe Di Paola; translated and edited by Tommaso Villa
2020 Tokyo Olympics, Djokovic on the heat and the new scheduling: “I’m glad they listened to us”
Speaking to Ubitennis, the world number one describes the work that he, Medvedev and Zverev (among others) have done to obtain better playing conditions
So far, the tennis tournament at the 2020 Olympics has made headlines less for the match-play than for the difficult conditions in which it has been taking place due to the heat and the humidity. In the women’s draw, for instance, four players have been forced to retire during their matches: the last one has been particularly shocking, as Paula Badosa was taken off-court on a wheelchair after collapsing late in the first set of her quarter-final match against Marketa Vondrousova. Luckily, these issues appear to have finally caught the attention of the International Tennis Federation: starting tomorrow, no match will be played before 3pm (7am in the UK).
Part of the credit for this (still belated) decision goes to the lobbying and the complaints of the players, as world N.1 Novak Djokovic explained while speaking to Ubitennis CEO Ubaldo Scanagatta in Tokyo: “I’m glad the decision was made to reschedule tomorrow’s opening matches at 3pm. Today we went to speak to the supervisor – when I say ‘we’ I mean myself, Medvedev, and Zverev, along with the team captains. I have spoken to Khachanov and Carreno Busta as well, so the majority of the players who will feature in the quarter finals was of the same opinion.
“Of course I would have wished for this decision to be made a few days ago, but it’s still a good thing,” he added. “Nobody wants to witness incidents like the one that occurred to Badosa.
“The conditions are really brutal. Some people might think that we are just complaining, but all resistance sports (and tennis should be included among them) are taking place later in the day because the combination between the heat and the humidity is really terrible.”
He then concluded: “I’ve been a professional tennis player for almost 20 years and I’ve never experienced such hard conditions for so many consecutive days. It may have have happened once or twice in Miami or New York, but just for one day, whereas in Tokyo the situation is like this every day. I think that this decision will benefit the fans as well, because playing later allows us to play our best – these conditions were just draining for us.”
Article by Lorenzo Colle; translated by Tommaso Villa
Tales from the International Tennis Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony
The Original Nine highlighted a poignant ceremony during which Conchita Martinez and Goran Ivanisevic were celebrated as well
Since 1995, I have attended every International Tennis Hall of Fame induction ceremony. This span has covered more than a quarter of a century, and for me it has always been one of the highlights of the season to be in Newport, Rhode Island, for the festivities. I witnessed Chris Evert’s induction in 1995, saw Jimmy Connors accept his honor three years later, observed John McEnroe giving his singularly lengthy speech in 1999, and was there when Martina Navratilova entered the shrine in 2000.
A cavalcade of superstars followed in the ensuing years including Ivan Lendl in 2001, Mats Wilander the following year, Boris Becker in 2003 and then Stefan Edberg and Steffi Graf in 2004 as the Hall of Fame celebrated their golden jubilee year. Summer after memorable summer on the weekend after Wimbledon, players with big names and prodigious achievements stepped forth to claim the highest honor in the game. Yannick Noah and Jim Courier were recipients in 2005, Gabriela Sabatini and Pat Rafter followed in 2006, and Pete Sampras broke down in tears as he joined the Hall of Fame in 2007. Four years later, Andre Agassi took his place among the immortals. Leading women players Lindsay Davenport, Amelie Mauresmo and Justine Henin were recognized for their accomplishments from 2014 to 2016. Kim Clijsters and Andy Roddick were the headliners in 2017, when I had the good fortune to be inducted as a contributor for my lifelong dedication to tennis journalism. And then across the next couple of years Michael Stich, Helena Sukova, Li Na and Mary Pierce moved into their home away from home, landing in Newport.
Last year, the pandemic prevented the ceremony from being held, and so this time around there was a combined ceremony for the classes of 2020 and 2021. In my view, for many reasons, this year’s celebration was among the most poignant and powerful that I have ever seen.
After a scorching afternoon, the skies turned gray and the fog rolled in, but that only heightened the drama and vast appeal of the proceedings. Fittingly, it all commenced with the arrival of the “Original Nine”. For the first time in Hall of Fame history, a group was honored for their contributions as if they were an individual, and no one among the cognoscenti of tennis would dispute that these magnificent and audacious women were fully worthy of the honor they were receiving.
On September 23, 1970 in Houston, Texas, the nine female competitors—Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals, Nancy Richey, Kerry Melville Reid, Judy Tegart Dalton, Kristy Pigeon, Valerie Ziegenfuss, Peaches Bartkowicz, and, last but surely not least, Julie Heldman—signed one dollar pro contracts with the estimable promoter and World Tennis Magazine founder Gladys M. Heldman.
They played their first tournament at the Houston Racquet Club which was sponsored by Virginia Slims and offered $7,500 in prize money. They were in defiance of the governing bodies of their countries, knowing they were risking suspensions and potentially having their careers severely disrupted, realizing that they might find themselves erroneously labels as outlaws by the male establishment of tennis. Yet they refused to be swayed from their convictions that women deserved equal treatment in tennis rather than prize money that went eight to one against them and sometimes was even worse than that when compared to the men.
By 1971, a full fledged circuit was in place for the women. King established herself as the first female athlete ever to earn $100,000 in a year. In 1973, the women were paid equal prize money at the U.S. Open with Margaret Court and John Newcombe both taking home $25,000 as the champions. Women’s tennis flourished thereafter, largely because the “Original Nine” had paved the way for them.
In any event, seven of the nine players were assembled in Newport the weekend before last, with Dalton appearing on Zoom and warmly addressing her fellow players and the audience. Richey was not present but even her decision not to show up in Newport could not diminish the deep enthusiasm all of the others shared in knowing how much they had contributed to not only women’s tennis but women across the board in society as a result of what they did 51 years ago.
King spoke first at the ceremony and put into context what the “Original Nine” had done to shape the future of their sport. As she said, “The nine of us along with our fearless leader Gladys Heldman had one vision for the future of women’s tennis. We wanted any girl if she was good enough to have a place to compete, to be recognized for her accomplishments and not only for her looks, and most importantly to be able to make a living playing professional tennis. Today’s women professional players are living a dream. Women’s tennis is the leader in women’s sports.”
Next up at the podium was the taciturn Kerry Melville Reid, eternally shy and ever modest. Reid was a perennial world top ten player who won the Australian Open in 1977. This Australian star spoke fondly about winning the Virginia Slims tournament in Newport fifty years ago, taking the title over Francoise Durr after upending King in the semifinals. The final went to 4-4 in the third set tiebreaker so it was simultaneous match point for both players, but Reid held her nerve to secure the victory. She reflected, “Looking how far women’s tennis has come since then, I am really proud to have been a part of that… I thought if it is good enough for Judy and if Billie Jean is doing this, they are putting their careers on the line. So I decided to join the Original Nine and I am really happy that I did.”
Kristy Pigeon followed Reid in the speaking lineup. This left-handed American dynamo came out of California, possessed a big serve and adventuresome game, and was the No. 8 ranked player from the U.S. that landmark season of 1970.
Pigeon recollected, “In 1968 I broke into the international tennis scene. At that time women played on the back courts ad women’s sports were trivialized. That same year at age 17, I became the top junior in the world by winning the Wimbledon and U.S. titles. I set a new goal and that was to go to college, play on a team and receive a scholarship. No such thing. The phone didn’t ring. Then in 1970 Jack Kramer [tournament director of the Pacific Southwest tournament in Los Angeles] got aced by nine women. We were misfits, trouble makers, rebels. So we were just crazy enough to change the world of tennis. I am proud of our efforts that led not only to a broader range of opportunities for women players, but also for other sportswomen and collegiate athletes as well.”
One by one, these distinguished members of the “Original Nine” were conveying their thoughts with originality, humor and verve. Ziegenfuss was no exception to that rule. Ranked seventh among Americans in 1970, she was first rate in singles but even better in doubles.
Always known for her salt of the earth persona and a fundamental decency, Ziegenfuss spoke from the heart and did an excellent job of defining who the “Original Nine” are and what they have meant to the sport.
She said, ‘This award means our story is officially part of tennis history for ever and ever, and it means for generations to come my relatives will be able to trace their bloodline back to me and discover our group’s contribution to the world—that is fun. Just think: we grew up with white tennis balls, wood rackets, one tennis magazine (World Tennis) and no Stan Smith tennis shoes.”
That line drew considerable laughter among those seated at the ceremony, including from Smith himself. He is the President of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, and was the world’s best player in 1972 when he won Wimbledon, but is perhaps best known now for his Adidas tennis shoe that bears his name. He was more than willing to smile freely at Ziegenfuss’s gentle humor.
Ziegenfuss continued, “What is even more amazing is we’re older than the internet, color television, personal computers and cell phones- not to mention our friend Alexa. And, by the way, Alexa knows who we are and even pronounced Bartkowicz ad Ziegenfuss correctly. Talk abut we’ve come a long way baby!”
Becoming even more philosophical, Ziegenfuss said, “The game of tennis has always given to me more than I could ever give back to it. The game prepared me for adulthood, it gave me skills to earn a living and gave me friendships to last a lifetime. Tennis has always been there for me. It is part of my past, my present and hopefully my future. It has given me so much joy playing it, coaching it, following it and parenting it. I am very proud that my daughter Allison Bradshaw played the women’s tour for three years. Maybe one day her children, Mathew and Ashley, will follow in our footsteps.”
After Ziegenfuss wrapped up her thoughtful speech, it was time for Julie Heldman to address the public. Julie was raised by the great Gladys Heldman and thus grew up with the game and with her mother’s overriding passion—World Tennis Magazine. Julie was ranked second in the United States in 1969. She reached the top five in the world as well. She was among the most cerebral players of her era and later became an outstanding television commentator.
Her speech was in my view the best of all. Her words resonated not only with me but anyone out there who wanted complete clarity on the significance and ultimate impact of the “Original Nine.” Heldman was remarkably eloquent and even lyrical.
She said, “I feel thrilled and profoundly honored that the Hall of Fame is inducting us as a group and acknowledging our contributions to women’s tennis and to women everywhere. By now most of you have seen the iconic photo of our group taken in Houston in 1970, just before the start of the groundbreaking tournament that we have come to celebrate. The photo shows eight top women tennis players grinning and raising one dollar bills alongside my mother, the architect and engineer of the early tour. She is no longer with us but we remain grateful for all the miracles she pulled off.”
Heldman explained why she was not in that famous photo. “I hadn’t planned to compete in Houston because at that time I was so deeply wounded physically and mentally that I couldn’t compete in a tournament for another five months. But I, like the other eight women, understood the importance of the moment. And when I heard that my pals and rivals were taking a risk for women’s tennis, I jumped in to join them. So I competed in Houston by playing just one point out of solidarity to stand up against the male denominated tennis associations that were threatening our right to earn a living. Billie Jean King and I went out on a side court and after a few moments of pity-pat tennis I intentionally hit the ball into the net— an act that that was totally foreign to my nature.”
As Heldman added, “Once we cemented the deal by shaking hands at the net, our group became the ‘Original Nine’. The nine of us were rebels but we were not alone. The Houston tournament could only accommodate eight players, but plenty more women would have taken the risk if they only had the opportunity. Sure, it is true that not every woman player chose to join us right away but lets not forget that soon after the tour got underway women players arrived in droves from around the world, ready to stand together. Without that kind of solidarity the tour might have fizzled out quickly. The Original Nine are being honored today for our courageous stand but also as the symbol of all the early competitors on the women’s pro tour who banded together for the present and future of women’s tennis.”
Nearing the end of her lucid, enlightening and far reaching speech, Heldman said, “This honor has been 51 years in the making, but it remains exquisitely timely. Since 1970, vastly increased numbers of girls and women have participated inn sports and many have excelled. And once again the sound of rebellion is in the air, spearheaded by the women’s National Soccer Team, but repeated throughout women’s sports, echoing our long ago demand to be respected and paid for doing what we did best. By honoring the “Original Nine” today the International Tennis Hall of Fame is sending a message to female athletes in all sports. The message is ‘keep fighting. Your time is coming.’”
Heldman’s address soared mightily from beginning to end, and so Casals was following a very tough act. But Rosie— who along with King and Richey had already been inducted in Newport previously for her individual accomplishments—made her presence known with her usual spunk and sincerity.
“I am frightened to death of all these speeches,” she said. “And I am supposed to be the closer. So I am going to close this wonderful evening.”
She congratulated some of the 2020 inductees and thanked Ilana Kloss for her role in helping the “Original Nine” get the recognition they deserve. Then Casals said, ‘Thanks to all of you for completing our journey and allowing the “Original Nine” once again to make our history in the game that we have loved and helped shape into the future. To my warriors who stood tall and invincible so long ago so women’s tennis could be what it has become— the showcase for women’s sports. One last time—I am proud to stand with them and before all of you as a humble believer that anything is possible if women stand together.”
The time had become to hear from Lucy Garvin, former President of the USTA and a longtime friend and admirer of the late Dennis Van Der Meer. Van Der Meer was elected as a contributor to the class of 2021, and deservedly so for his singular role as a teaching professional over the decades. Van Der Meer was regarded universally at the “teacher of teachers” and in his industry no one was more highly regarded.
Gavin closed her speech by saying, “The genius of Dennis Van Der Meer is very clear. He was a brilliant coach, a revolutionary in his thinking, a true visionary and a mentor to thousands including myself. He was the teacher of teachers. His greatest gift was his love of people and the game of tennis. He is what Hall of Famers are all about, truly an icon.”
After Van Der Meer’s widow and critical partner on and off the court Pat thanked Garvin and the Hall of Fame for the honor, Raquel Giscafre appeared on Zoom to present Conchita Martinez. Giscafre was the top ranked player from Argentina in the 1970’s and established herself as one of the premier tournament promoters on the WTA Tour starting in the mid-1980s.
She saluted Martinez for her multitude of successes. As Giscafre said of the Spanish stylist, “She was in the top ten in the world for nine years in a row. In 1995 she was ranked No. 2 in the world. She was the first Spanish woman to win Wimbledon in 1994, beating the great Martina Navratilova in the final. She reached the final at the French and Australian Opens and was at least a semifinalist in every Grand Slam. She also won four consecutive Italian Open titles.”
Giscafre lauded Martinez for leading Spain to five Fed Cup triumphs, for becoming the first Spanish woman to be captain of their Davis Cup team from 2015 to 2017, and for serving as Fed Cup captain from 2013 to 2017. And then Giscafre spoke of the great courage displayed by Martinez.
Martinez was true to her character— understated, dignified, appreciative, and honorable. She was terrific.
“It is a great honor for me to be here today and to be a part of world tennis history,” said Martinez. “It is my first time here [in Newport]. It is just an amazing feeling and something I will treasure all of my life.”
Eventually she spoke of the joy she found in winning Wimbledon 27 years ago. She said, “When asked by journalists and fans during which title is the most special to me, I have no doubt it is Wimbledon. I had mixed feelings about playing on grass at that time, probably because Spanish players did not have much experience of playing on this surface. But every year I improved my game on grass, working hard and accepting that I had to change things to get results. And, boy, did I get great results. I am so proud to have been the first Spanish woman to take the title home. The memory of playing against and defeating Martina Navratilova— who was going after her tenth championship at Wimbledon— will stay with me forever.”
She spoke of her pride in simultaneously being captain of both the Fed Cup and Davis Cup teams in her country and of playing for her country, which she clarified was never easy. “The responsibility is huge,” she said. “You feel you are carrying the hopes of your country on your shoulders.”
As she wrapped up her remarks, Martinez said, “This wonderful sport has given me unforgettable moments, moments that require dedication, sacrifice, effort, patience, positivity, optimism, and, above all, belief in yourself. If you want your dreams to come true, these words must become part of your daily life.”
And so it all would end the only way it could, with the 2001 Wimbledon champion accepting his honor with grace, humor and reverence. Ivanisevic—who also made it to three other finals in the 1990’s but lost twice to Pete Sampras (1994 and 1998) ands once to Andre Agassi (1992) was introduced by John McEnroe on film. McEnroe said, “Can I just say at the top—- I love Goran Ivanisevic and I am absolutely thrilled to induct someone at the International Tennis Hall of Fame who is arguably crazier on the court than I was. But here’s the truth— he has been great for the sport of tennis…The bottom line is this—both on and off the court Goran did things his way and we could certainly use more players like him.”
Ivanisevic— who reached a career high of No. 2 in the world —was deeply touched by McEnroe’s introduction of him. He then said, “42 years ago I started this journey from a little town of Split in Croatia and today 42 years after I am in Newport.”
He had to talk about his fans and how frustrating he made it for them. Ivanisevic said, “It was not easy to be my fan. Wow! It was frustrating and sad. Probably a lot of people got divorced because of me. But for sure one thing—it was entertaining to be my fans.”
He spoke briefly about an outstanding Croatian journalist named Neven Berticevic who had been kind to him in print across the years, proclaiming, “Thank you, Neven, for writing every beautiful word about me.”
And then Ivanisevic gave a heartfelt salute to his parents for all they did to shape and guide him through the years. “And now,” he said, “the most important thing—the two most important persons in my career, my Mom and Dad, two people who sacrificed their health and career and gave me unconditional love for me to succeed. Mom and Dad—there are not enough thank you’s, not enough words that I can say or do for everything what you have been doing for me. And if I have to go again on this trip I gonna choose you again to be my Mom and Dad and we go through it together again. I love you and thank you for everything.”
Ivanisevic mentioned his three kids and his wife, spoke movingly about his country and amusingly about Wimbledon for giving him a wild card in 2001 that led to a long awaited triumph on those lawns, and left the stage having made everyone who was there delighted they had witnessed his induction.
It was an outstanding ceremony and one of the most enjoyable I have ever seen. It brought out the best in a good many people and gave us all an even deeper appreciation for those who were elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame. I am already looking forward to 2022.
Steve Flink has been reporting full time on tennis since 1974, when he went to work for World Tennis Magazine. He stayed at that publication until 1991. He wrote for Tennis Week Magazine from 1992-2007, and has been a columnist for tennis.com and tennischannel.com for the past 14 years. Flink has written four books on tennis including “Dennis Ralston’s Tennis Workbook” in 1987; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century” in 1999; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” in 2012; and “Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited”. The Sampras book was released in September of 2020 and can be purchased on Amazon.com. Flink was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2017.
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