In recent years, the steady stream of American male tennis players descending on London in mid-June to compete at Wimbledon have been coming back a week or more before the conclusion of the event, tails between their legs, freshly strung but unused racquets in their thermal tennis bags.
The string jobs aren’t wasted, however, because the Hall of Fame Tennis Championships tournament at Newport, R.I., begins immediately after the men's icons fight it out for the Wimbledon trophy. The beaten multitudes laboring under the Stars and Stripes get another chance to prove their mettle on the lawns of the Newport Casino.
It’s just like Wimbledon, right? Grass courts. Charming, ivy-bedecked buildings. Newport even has something that Wimbledon lacks: a famous gazebo. Who needs Henman Hill, anyway?
Here’s a fact that ought to warm the hearts of U.S. tennis fans: Since 2009, an American player has been in the final or won the event every year but one (2013), and Michael Russell did plant the American flag in the semis last year. And the year before, Ryan Harrison and Rajeev Ram joined John Isner and Lleyton Hewitt in the semifinals.
That’s three Americans and one almost-American. There wasn’t a “Vamos!” to be heard, nor a smug Swiss fan anywhere in sight waving an obnoxious placard saying, “Shhhh ... Genius at Work!”
It seems like old times for the Americans when you watch tennis at Newport, just as nostalgia for the good old days beckons when you take a stroll through the rambling old wood-sided building that houses the International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum. There, you can find under glass a pair of sneakers worn by a great American Grand Slam champions of the past, presented just as artistically as a natural history museum displays the fourth rib of a woolly mammoth.
This is also the ITHF induction week, the honorees led by Lindsay Davenport (in the “recent player” category), who was one of only four women who held the year-end No. 1 ranking four different times in her career. Davenport won three Grand Slam singles titles and an Olympic gold medal in the Atlanta games, and if she had possessed the same drive and single-minded focus as some of her peers, she might have won many more.
Nick Bollettieri is also being enshrined, one of the three individuals chosen for their contribution to the game. Anyone who follows tennis knows what Bollettieri brought to the table with his eponymous tennis academy (now the IMG Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy), yet the 82-year old dean of tennis coaches was overlooked by selectors for many years because of his reputation as a flamboyant self-promoter.
Whatever the case there, the reality is that Bollettieri developed or helped develop wave upon wave of the pros who helped shape the pro game, starting in the late 1970s. His proteges include Jimmy Arias, Andre Agassi, Monica Seles, Jim Courier and many, many others.
Bollettieri is already at Newport (giving clinics for the kids -- what else?), and he’s no doubt taking in some of the men’s tennis. John Isner, a two-time champion, is in the quarterfinals and hoping to complete a Newport hat trick.
You might scoff at that as a modest accomplishment in relative terms, but look at it this way: The guys Isner has lost to at Wimbledon, with the exception of Nicolas Almagro, all were ranked outside the top 25 at the time. Alejandro Falla, who stopped Isner in the first round in 2012, was No. 73 at the time. In other words, Isner loses at Wimbledon to the class of player he has handled well at Newport.
So let’s count our blessings and be happy that Newport has proved such a welcoming place to players from the U.S. But if I were Bollettieri, I might spend more time looking for a gifted, willing and eager youngster to take back to the academy than watching the Americans in attendance.