They define themselves not by words, which they distrust, but by actions, which they embody. They accomplish their greatest deeds by themselves, with extraordinary, singular focus. “I do it, I do it right, and I do it right now.” This was Jimmy Connors, explaining his philosophy than a month after he’d earned a redemptive win at Wimbledon in 1982.
If they do it well enough and long enough, they earn a spot in the International Tennis Hall of Fame (ITHF). When that moment happens, on a summer afternoon in Newport, each becomes no mere individual, but part of a greater community. Doing that, though, requires not a racquet, but a voice.
Nothing quite connects people more powerfully than a great speech. A grand occasion, a receptive crowd, hanging on the words of an inspired, sincere, passionate speaker.
Over the years, the speeches delivered at the ITHF annual induction ceremony have covered a spectrum of thoughts and feelings, accompanied by friends and family. In 1995, President George H.W. Bush presented Chris Evert, praising her as “a fighter, a gracious winner… a class act, a great champion.” The 40-year-old Evert in turn reflected on her first trip to the ITHF at the age of 17 and what it meant so many years later to take her own place in tennis history. “I felt like I was part of the family and it was quite a wonderful feeling,” said Evert.
There has been humor, as when Tennis Channel broadcaster Mary Carillo introduced Nick Bollettieri in 2014. “I’ve watched him go from master to disaster, to the very brink of bankruptcy,” said Carillo. “He sold his place, they kept his name. Smart, because Nick is why kids came.”
Roddick, class of 2017
There has been the awareness of the bond between players and the challenge of competing in such a solitary sport. In 2012, introducing her dear friend and great rival, Jennifer Capriati, Monica Seles said, “Jennifer and I grew up together. We were two teenagers on the tour thrown into this adult world where the spotlight was so bright, the expectations and the demands intense. While we competed fiercely against each other, we could also relate to one another. We shared a bond and great admiration and, most importantly, mutual respect.”
Capriati thanked Seles and reflected on her rollercoaster-like career. “I’d like to take this moment to express how hard I fought to come back,” she said. “It was a great struggle for me all these years dealing with the injuries and accepting the fact that I might not return to competition again. I worked extremely hard during my career on the court and equally as hard, if not harder, to come back. That is why this moment is so incredible for me on so many levels, because this is a return to the game I love.”
Love powerfully informed a remarkable tribute shared by two players who also happen to be husband and wife. In 2004, Stefanie Graf’s induction was preceded by an introduction delivered by the love of her life, Andre Agassi. Said Agassi, “Stefanie, I wonder what can I possibly say to do justice to the way you’ve lived your life and the lives that you’ve changed. I began several years ago on a small chalkboard sitting in our kitchen, a tradition that I’ve carried on every night, that at the end of each day I’ve picked up the chalk and I’ve tried to express the many things you mean to me.”
When it came her turn, Graf replied in kind, saying that “not that this occasion isn’t emotional enough, but to hear that you’re loved so much is amazing. Tennis has allowed me to get into this incredible journey. And the best part about this journey has been it led me to you.”
Is there any other sport where achievement and love can be so closely joined, right down to what happens inside the lines? At the 2018 ceremony, Helena Sukova was presented by her brother, Cyril, her partner for three Grand Slam mixed doubles titles. A year earlier, Andy Roddick praised his older brother John as “my first tennis super hero.”
Mary Pierce’s 2019 induction ceremony speech:
The induction ceremony has also been a chance for tennis titans to come in from the cold and reveal rarely seen dimensions. “I was quite a loner over the course of my career,” said Connors in 1998, “but for me, standing here alone is not right,” at which point he offered heartfelt praise to his family—deceased grandmother Bertha, mother Gloria, wife Patti, son Brett, daughter Aubree.
In the spirit of his Australian idols Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall, Pete Sampras had emphatically committed himself to letting his racquet do the talking. Though those who knew the game were well aware how much passion it took for Sampras to play such spectacular tennis on so many high-stakes occasions, his emotions were usually kept under wraps. At Newport in 2007, though, Sampras spilled as never before.
Tear after tear flowed as he acknowledged those who’d aided him. For his late coach, Tim Gullikson: “I was with him, and he with me, to the end.” A teary appreciation for his coach over the last eight years of his career, Paul Annacone. Deep thanks to his wife, Bridgette, who’d put her work as an actress on hold to support Sampras. “I guess I’ve bottled up emotions for 16 years and now you’re seeing.” At the end, “I’m a tennis player; nothing more and nothing less. It’s more than enough. It always has been. I thank you.”
Words can be so shallow, misleading, vague, potentially passive and downright meek when compared to grand actions taken with body and racquet. But on one single day in Newport, fueled by passion and sincerity, experience and reflection, it is words that command the stage and capture a life spent making history. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “We know that the ancestor of every action is a thought . . . To think is to act.”
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