By Nick McCarvel
It was 10 years ago this summer that I was an intern at Tennis Magazine and was meant to make the trip up to Newport, Rhode Island, for the International Tennis Hall of Fame Induction weekend.
The trip didn’t end up happening, and it took me exactly a decade to finally make the short three-hour trek from where I live in New York City to see tennis history happening first-hand.
Instead of Pete Sampras and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, I was here to witness Andy Roddick and Kim Clijsters take their spots among the greats in this sport, both players having stepped away from the game in 2012.
I remember sitting in my parents’ kitchen at home in Montana watching both of them contesting their first Grand Slam finals, Kim at the 2001 French Open and Andy the US Open in 2003.
I spent hours in the alleyway behind our backyard playing tennis against a wall, commentating and walking through my own imaginary major championships. I was a teenager and there was no chance that I was going to become a pro, but I wanted to meet these legends one day.
Fast forward to seven years into my own “professional” career (as a writer and host, not player, of course… ) and I’ve seen a lot of great moments in person already: Roger Federer winning his eighth Wimbledon last weekend; Serena Williams coming oh-so-close to the calendar Slam in 2015; and every major fortnight sans one over the last few years.
But Newport is different.
When I walked onto the grounds Friday morning to do a series of video interviews with Roddick and Clijsters and the other inductees, the Hall of Fame’s gravity was palpable on the grounds. It was clear that Andy and Kim were nervous and excited about the weekend to come: “I still don’t believe this is real,” Andy kept saying.
It was, however. Unreal to me was the chance to meet and get to know Monique Kalkman-van den Bosch, a world champion and Paralympic gold-medal winning wheelchair tennis player whose story is as inspiring as they come, Kalkman having survived cancer at 14 and then taking up wheelchair tennis after winning a Paralymic medal in table tennis.
“Luck is not in your legs,” she said at one point in the weekend. “It’s in your heart.”
I felt lucky to get the chance to interview one of my journalistic heroes, Steve Flink. He was the guy a few years ago that I asked myself when I spotted him in the pressroom, ‘Why is he wearing a suit and tie every day?’
Because Steve does things differently, and for that he’s now a Hall of Famer historian and writer.
“He knows everything,” Chris Evert said during her introduction of him at the induction ceremony. That’s (mostly) true, from what I can gather – at least when it comes to the most minute of tennis details.
It’s easy to watch the weekend through the lens of the TV and not quite get the weight of the occasion.
On Saturday on court, however, there was Roddick, revealing for the first time that his dad had passed away suddenly in 2014 as his entire family wiped tears from behind sunglasses and nodded slowly, Andy saying, “It would have meant the world to me to know he approved of the way my life turned out.”
Turns out Roddick’s moment in the spotlight was one of deep emotion, but also of laughter and sincerity and accolades for those who helped him reach the top. The goose bumps on Saturday were a constant, particularly when he was on stage.
“I’m not the best of all time and I’m not going to win Wimbledon,” he said in his closing remarks. “I’m not the most well-behaved and I’m not the most polished, (but) I’m also never going to take this honor for granted. I’m never going to forget those who paved the way before us. I’m never going to forget the innocent parts of this game we all love.”
That was the reminder for me this weekend, too: We all love this game. Ninety-nine percent of the tennis calendar is about what’s happening on court and who’s going to win the next big title, but this 72 hours was a true chance to reflect – both for me and for the greater tennis family in general.
Clijsters’ sense of family – and familiarity – was on display throughout, most apparently with her three kids in tow and husband Brian by her side. She was the most affable player on tour for nearly a decade even before she came back as a mother and won three of her four major titles with little Jada in the picture.
To say that Kim herself is the sport’s favorite daughter is an understatement.
“What this weekend really means doesn’t hit you until you’re here,” Clijsters said at a dinner Saturday evening honoring the inductees.
I agree whole-heartedly. Tennis history lives many places around the world, but not in the way it does here in Newport. Not like it does with the museum, or with this weekend every year. It’s one I’ll never forget. And for good reason.
That one-decade wait was worth it in the end. Actually, I think it made it better.
Nick McCarvel is a freelance tennis journalist.