Matt Zemek

Todd Martin, as a tennis player, is chiefly remembered for his magical five-set wins at the U.S. Open. Late-startin’ Todd Martin made nighttime the right time, coming back from two-set deficits in front of rowdy New Yorkers after 1 a.m. to forge deep runs at multiple U.S. Opens. Martin made the 1999 U.S. Open final and pushed Andre Agassi to five sets before falling short. He also reached the 1994 Australian Open final before losing to Pete Sampras. He didn’t win a major, but he carved out a notable place in tennis history and reached a No. 4 ATP ranking.

Now, Martin has a different relationship to tennis history. He isn’t creating it as a player. Instead, he is honoring it as the CEO of the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island. Martin is also the tournament director for the Newport ATP Tour stop, the Dell Technologies Open. The convergence of the Hall of Fame’s induction ceremony and the conclusion of the Newport tournament on the same weekend make this the busiest time of Martin’s year. He sat down with Tennis With An Accent publisher Saqib Ali for an expansive conversation on the history of tennis.

Saqib began the discussion by asking about the difficulty of luring players to Newport for an ATP 250 grass tournament one week after Wimbledon.

“It is the home of the history of the sport,” Martin said of the Tennis Hall of Fame. “For any player who hasn’t been here, there’s a pretty compelling case to come here for the first time. Once they’ve come once, it’s pretty easy for them to come again. We are way more laid back in every way here than most every single tournament on tour. The players who do come here really enjoy the relaxation combined with the tennis and the setting: not having night matches, only having four day matches, gets the day through much more quickly. Because of our facilities, players can also practice on hardcourt after they lose or during the tournament, so that they can start to prepare for the summer.”

Then began the central focus of Saqib’s conversation with Martin: the history of tennis. It flowed through so many of Martin’s answers, including Saqib’s question about the identity of the Hall of Fame itself:

“Halls of Fame are very American in their formation,” Martin said. “What I think is the most constructive way to have the concept resonate outside of the U.S. is to have it be focused on the history of the sport. Most people come from more historic lands than the U.S. It just so happens that we are the ones who are stewarding the history of the sport… but the history is owned by everybody. When you get over to France, Spain, England and Italy, these countries have such an amazing history in our sport and in sport in general. The message is really more about the history of the sport than about this ambiguous term: Hall of Fame.”

Martin dealt with the process by which Tennis Hall of Fame inductees are determined. One obvious and topical question facing the Hall of Fame is why Michael Stich will get in this weekend with only one major title, while Yevgeny Kafelnikov — the owner of two major titles and a man who defeated Stich in the 1996 French Open final — has not yet been voted in.

“There really is no specific criterion,” Martin said. “The standard has been set very high. Yevgeny is an interesting example — it’s an example of our policies and procedures working, even if I don’t agree with what the result is. We have a committee that creates a ballot — 23 people. Then we have a voting population that votes for who gets into the Hall of Fame. The committee just decides who is deserving of consideration. The voting group, which is 120 or so Hall of Famers, members of the media, influential people in our sport — 75 percent of them need to say you’re supposed to be in the Hall of Fame. To date, with Yevgeny, that has not happened. Not everybody agrees with that… every single Hall of Fame does it differently. I think ours is a suitable format for the world game.”

Interpretations and perceptions of history vary from person to person, embodied in the Hall’s voting patterns and results. Martin underscored the point that tennis history is not nearly as fixed or immovable as many people might think. His view of the use of a final-set tiebreaker at Wimbledon displayed an awareness of change as a constant reality in the evolution of tennis. Reforms are not as revolutionary or disruptive as some might claim.

“My personal opinion is that it has gotten to the point where some sort of an adjusted conclusion would be appropriate,” Martin said about using final-set tiebreakers at the majors. “I think the matches in general are longer than they have ever been, in large part because guys stay on the baseline and hit topspin forehands back and forth to each other, which makes for longer points, longer games, longer sets, longer matches. I would prefer to see a tiebreaker at 9-all, which would be an extra half-set, or 12-all, which would be an extra set. Kevin and John had to play the equivalent of five decent sets on top of the four sets — that’s nine total sets they played, which is really ¬†ridiculous. You saw that — not so much in the loser, but in the winner not being able to put his best foot forward in the final.

Martin continued, shifting to the distant past at Wimbledon:

“I think there’s probably some progress within Wimbledon’s mindset in this direction — because they’ve seen it happen now, not on Court 18 in the third round, but on Centre Court in the semifinals, which adversely affected the final. Every single party, organization, tournament on our tour, if they’ve been around for 50 years, they’ve seen themselves through change. At one point in time, Wimbledon had just a challenge round — one tournament, and whoever wins that tournament plays the defending champion for one match to hold the trophy. At some point in time they went to a full knockout draw. I think now is an appropriate time (for tiebreaker reform), and I don’t think it would be truly over-reactive. I don’t think it should be perceived to be reactive. It’s just a matter of making sure that it is safe for the players and enjoyable and consumable for the fan. It also preserves the integrity of the competition throughout the event.”

Martin added this postscript about a form of technology which did not exist when Wimbledon used its challenge round:

“Just like every other sport in the world, television has a tremendous effect on events. I’m sure the BBC, ESPN, and whoever else broadcasts around the world would have an opinion on what was seen last Friday (at Wimbledon).”

History belongs to the world, not just an American worldview.

History is always changing in tennis and shouldn’t be seen as an obstacle to reform.

Todd Martin might be the steward of an organization devoted to the past, but his words reflect an awareness of the need to use his place — as CEO of the International Tennis Hall of Fame — to be a bridge to the sport’s future.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: