It was late last year—November 21 to be precise—that I found out I was going to be inducted at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island this summer. I heard the extraordinary news over the telephone from ITHF President Stan Smith, who was inducted back in 1987. The magnitude of this honor was clarified to me in various ways by different events that took place across the many months leading up to enshrinement. On January 24, during the Australian Open, a cavalcade of Hall of Famers walked onto Rod Laver for a magnificent ceremony. Out they marched on this memorable evening in Melbourne, and what a sterling cast it was. Laver and Rosewall, Evert and Navratilova, McEnroe and Becker, Court and Goolagong, Emerson and Stolle, Courier and Chang, Hingis and Davenport: all of them were there, and more.
Following that group into Rod Laver Arena was our class of 2017. Kim Clijsters greeted the crowd by video but Wheelchair Tennis standout Monique Kalkman-van den Bosch went out there. Vic Braden, inducted posthumously last weekend, was acknowledged. I took my turn in what for me was a surreal setting, and then Andy Roddick fittingly was the last to appear on court, receiving a sustained and heartfelt round of applause from an appreciative audience. It fully dawned on me then that I really was on my way to being a Hall of Famer. More than four months later, Guga Kuerten was awarded his Hall of Fame ring in a tasteful ceremony right before the French Open final on Philippe Chatrier Court. For the second major in a row, I was asked to walk on a major stage with Hall of Famers including Emerson, Vilas, Santana and Kodes. Clijsters was the last player to walk out into the sunshine in that arena, much to the pleasure of the fans.
And so, by the time our festivities began this past Saturday on a scorching afternoon in Newport, I had been aware that this was coming for eight months. That had been a luxury to spend so much time digesting the meaning of it all, thinking about what it would be like to stand on that stage, wondering how it would feel to get the kind of recognition few people ever find in any field. Remarkably from my point of view, after so much contemplating and envisioning, after attending every Hall of Fame induction ceremony since 1994, after having the privilege of presenting Great Britain's broadcasting standout John Barrett three years ago, it was my turn to be inducted.
I asked Chrissie Evert to be my presenter because our careers were launched almost simultaneously in the early seventies. I felt that she understood me with a depth no one else could match and would be singularly able to convey to the fans a sense of who I am and what I have tried to do as a full time tennis reporter for 43 years— and as a fan and journalist in training for much longer than that. She did so beautifully.
Evert told the audience watching on Tennis Channel and sitting there on site in Newport how we had met back in 1973 at the French Open when I interviewed her for World Tennis Magazine, after she reached her first major final. That was my first published piece. Evert said, "In a sense we started our careers together. He has earned the respect of both the players and his fellow writers for not only the high quality of his writing but also his great passion for the game.... He knows tennis the way very, very few people know."
She spoke about my magazine work for World Tennis from 1974 to 1991 and Tennis Week from 1992-2007 and my ten years of writing for this web site. I was very appreciative when she said, "Steve Flink is a tennis historian, following in the footsteps of Bud Collins. He has made his own legacy."
Evert then brought up the press conferences that she would hold over the years at tournaments and the frequency of my interruptions when she would unintentionally misstate the details of her record. I was her Boswell and was happy to put the facts in order. It was a nice feeling to reside in that role, helping me to establish credibility in the journalistic community, enabling me to carve out a reputation for myself as a source of accuracy.
Evert said during her speech, "I remember a press conference at Wimbledon when I was asked one question after another about my career. Steve must have jumped in at least a dozen times to stop me and set the record straight. It got to the point where I was almost afraid to open my mouth."
All through her speech, she was very kind. Chrissie said, "Steve Flink is being inducted today for a lifetime of making tennis the center of his world. I, like many in the tennis world, have valued my friendship with Steve over the years. We've been friends actually for 44 years. Tennis was different back then. These days with all the agents and formality between players and reporters, it would be almost impossible for this kind of journalist-player friendship to develop. When Steve and I started our careers, the same barriers between journalists and players did not exist."
Near the end of her talk, Evert had me fighting back tears when she said, "This guy, he may look like Clark Kent, but his journalism and passion for the game is Superman-like. I've never met a more humble man with such integrity. He has really earned this honor."
Having been given such a generous tribute to what I have done in my career by a woman I respect immensely, I was very comfortable as I approached my speech, feeling more relaxed than I had anticipated. I thanked Chrissie, kidded her about her "clouded" memory, and said, "I appreciate very much the mutual respect we've always had for each other."
I was happy to thank a wide range of people who contributed substantially to my career, including the esteemed writer Herbert Warren Wind, Ted Tinling, Jack Kramer and Tony Trabert. I spoke of my loyal friend Brad Falkner, who worked at Tennis Channel for over a decade, and lauded the incomparable Scott Price of Sports Illustrated, calling him "this country's most multi-faceted sports writer." I continued, "Just by hanging around Price for the last couple of decades at the majors, my stock rose in my trade significantly."
What gave me the most pleasure was paying tribute to my 93-year-old father, who "used his profound communicative skills to give me the best possible chance to succeed." I spoke of his wealth of experience as a journalist who wrote on everyone from Marilyn Monroe to John Kennedy, and interviewed Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall for the Today Show. Moreover, he played doubles alongside Bill Tilden less than a week before Tilden passed away in 1953, and in 1969 he took me to the press room at Wimbledon to meet Bud Collins. Collins became a crucial figure in my professional life on many fronts. My father created the platform that led to my journey into the field of tennis reporting. He was invaluable. And he was sitting down on the court for the ceremony, enjoying himself immensely.
At the end of my speech, I quoted my former colleague and close friend John Roberts, the man who covered tennis for The Independent in London for so long in the 1990's and beyond. Roberts told me, “Steve, you have loved tennis longer than you can remember. You’ve expressed the passion through writing and broadcasting about the great and not so great at the major tournaments. Now here you are among the illustrious of the sport on an occasion that is one of the highlights of your life, receiving an honor which for you, in all humility, is like winning a Grand Slam championship."
I concluded by saying, "I'm a journalist first and foremost, but a part of me remains fundamentally and unabashedly a tennis fan. I stand here today immensely humbled, exhilarated and gratified by this ineffable accolade."
Delighted to have had the chance to accept such a lofty reward, I sat down contentedly, trying to let it all sink in, wondering if I was somehow deep in a dream. It was time to listen to Marc Kalkman presenting his wife Monique Kalkman-van den Bosch. I met this elegant Dutchwoman in Australia and she is extraordinarily impressive. A four-time Paralympic medalist who achieved prodigiously in the world of wheelchair tennis, she established herself unequivocally as one of its best ever players.
Referring to his wife by her nickname "Mo Mo", Kalkman was very appealing. At the end of his address, he said, "Mo Mo, you trained many hours, played thousands of points, and won many matches and tournaments in your career. You entered many tournaments and qualified for Paralympic Games, all to do with the goal setting and planning. One event you never planned, because you probably never anticipated the possibility of becoming a Hall of Famer. Well, Mo Mo, today will be that day. [It is] a well deserved recognition of your part in the history of the sport we all love so much. Congratulations, I'm proud to be part of your team."
Monique stepped up to the podium. Perhaps the highlight of Kalkman's speech was her description of finding out at a young age that she had a severe challenge to confront that threatened to derail her life devastatingly, to destroy her goal and dream of becoming a champion tennis player.
"At the age of 14," she said, "when I was fighting cancer, it looked like that dream was shattered to pieces. I went back on the court in my hospital chair, and my friends raced me around so I could play a rally on the court. But there was no way I even thought about playing a match at that time. I thought I would never play again."
But Monique's coach Peter Seegers introduced her to her "heroes" Brad Parks and Randy Snow, a pair of wheelchair champions. She would play six years of table tennis before shifting to wheelchair tennis, "the love of my life."
Next up to the podium was Carl Maes, a former coach of Kim Clijsters who was there to laud the Belgian for her stellar career—which included capturing four Grand Slam tournament singles titles—and her staunch character.
He did not take long to get to the heart of the matter, to explain why Clijsters is such an outstanding sportswoman, to put her in full perspective. He alluded to the academy she runs in Belgium and how she treats everyone the same way at that facility. "If I don't introduce her to new people that walk in, it will be Kim herself who walks up and says, 'Hey, I'm Kim.' People without fail, children and parents, have gotten unbelievable admiration for this charismatic great champion. Another example that I would like to give is, taking you back to 2001, when Kim at the age of 18 was competing in the WTA Championships and was playing Sanchez-Vicario. Up until five minutes before that, she was rolling around on the ground playing with the little dog of Arantxa. Subsequently, she beat her in straight sets on the court and then continued to play with the dog of Arantxa. A new style of competitor was born, one with a human face. So Kim, please never stop being Kim."
Clijsters walked up to the microphone, applauded effusively by the crowd, clearly humbled by the incomprehensible size of the honor. She spoke about Maes and how he has been like a family member or a "big brother." She addressed all of her fellow inductees with an open heart and deep appreciation, praising all of us but saving her largest compliments for Andy Roddick. Their mutual admiration and affection was unmistakable.
And then she expressed her unbridled affection for tennis and what the sport has done to shape her life. "Tennis has been so great to me," she said. "It has given me so many opportunities and it's taught me so many lessons, lessons that are applicable both on and off the court, lessons I often talk about with the students at my academy. I would like to describe them in eight words: dedication, caring, optimism, patience, respect, sacrifice, tolerance, passion."
Clijsters then singled out three of those words—optimism, dedication and passion—as most important to her. She moved on to other topics, including the role her father played in her growth and development before he passed away in 2009. She spoke highly of her mother, saying, "She showed me even when life doesn't go as you would like it to go, you have to hang in there and good things will happen. She was a gymnast so maybe it's true that being able to perform the splits is genetically acquired."
Concluding her speech, she said, "Thank you to tennis for making my dreams come true and for giving me so much. It's now our chance to give back."
A video was then displayed on the late Vic Braden, a man who advanced the game incalculably with his scientific studies, taught Tracy Austin among other accomplished players, guided teaching pros and showed them how to enhance their skills, and never failed to take the game seriously while simultaneously flash a smile or crack a joke. He was one of a kind and he was being inducted posthumously.
Speaking about Braden was Ray Benton, CEO of Junior Tennis Champions Center and a lifelong devotee to the game in many capacities. He said of Braden, "Vic was the greatest student our sport has ever known. As a boy growing up in Michigan to his days traveling the world with the pros, his creation of the Jack Kramer Club, the Vic Braden Tennis College, Vic truly loved the game, and squeezed every bit of knowledge he could. As a student, Vic figured if he could explain the game's mysteries, everyone would benefit. If you made a commitment now to tennis, you'd be famous by Friday."
And now it was time for the closing act. Doug Spreen was there to speak about Andy Roddick. Spreen was Roddick's trainer for many years after establishing an unassailable reputation for himself as a trainer on the ATP World Tour. Spreen has always been a straight-shooter, an exceedingly decent man and a top of the line professional. I enjoyed his entire speech. But perhaps the high point was when he said this about Roddick: "He always won with humility and was gracious in defeat. No matter the emotional high or low, Andy always showed respect to his opponents. And after some of his toughest defeats, Andy showed unbelievable character and true sportsmanship. There are many things that make a Hall of Famer. Andy's work ethic and preparation are a big reason he is here today. Andy never cheated himself, or took any shortcuts. Andy made tennis a 365 day job. He worked really, really hard. He did what you hope every gifted athlete would do: he did everything he could to maximize his abilities."
It was left to Roddick to be the last speaker, which was just the way it had to be. He had displayed commendable appreciation of his Hall of Fame status when we all assembled on the court in Melbourne back in January. He had made it abundantly clear that wearing this badge was something he would do with pride. Now, here in Newport, his sense of awe at the acknowledgement had not changed a bit. He remained somewhat astonished.
In his speech, Roddick wanted to express his gratitude to a good many people whom he felt had been instrumental in sending him to Newport. One of them was Brad Gilbert, the coach who helped Roddick get the best results of his distinguished career. They worked together from June of 2003 through 2004. Roddick had a spectacular run with Gilbert by his side in the former of those seasons. There was a stage at the outset when Roddick won five of seven tournaments from Queen's Club through a triumphant fortnight at the U.S. Open. He finished that year at No. 1 in the world, and concluded 2004 at No. 2, but parted ways with Gilbert at that point.
Looking out at the court-side crowd in Newport where he had so many longtime friends and former coaches, Roddick said of Gilbert, "What a tennis mind. The way you're able to simplify terms, make them within grasp very quickly. I wouldn't be here without you. If you ever get over that shyness problem, you'd be a great coach."
He spoke laudably about Larry Stefanki as well. It was Stefanki who was coaching Roddick when he was beaten in an epic 2009 Wimbledon final against Federer. Roddick said, "Larry, if I had to start playing again tomorrow, I'd beg you to coach me all over again. A lot of coaches will take what they did well and then try to put that on the player. That's their specialty. You worked with a lot of different people. You worked with a lot of different personalities. McEnroe, Rios, Henman, Gonzales, people that came in, people that stayed back, people that were cerebral, people that were nuts. You were always able to look at tennis through the player's eyes. It was a real honor being around you."
Roddick was terrific in extolling the virtues of his predecessors at the top of American tennis. As he put it, "The toughest thing about my career was following the giants of American tennis. It motivated me to work as hard as I possibly could in their very, very long shadows. I took the responsibility of taking the torch that they tried to pass, and take very seriously what they built every single day of my career. I was never going to live up to those guys. I'm thankful for their successes because it was directly responsible for any success that I had. It gave this childhood tennis fanatic a lifetime of memories."
He recalled sneaking into the player lounge at the U.S. Open in 1991 as an eight-year-old and playing video games with Pete Sampras, who had captured his first major the year before at the Open as a 19-year-old. Eleven years later they were Davis Cup teammates and Roddick was on a small plane with Sampras and they were delayed, which meant that "I had him trapped. I got to talk to him for about an hour about the way he viewed tennis, match-ups, what he thought about the guys he was playing against, what his special sauce was to throw down a 127 ace [on a big point], not really thinking about it. Those are the moments I just loved over the course of my career."
Roddick was covering a remarkable amount of ground in this far reaching speech, and most of it was entirely compelling. He mused, "I can't believe the level of tennis that I got to see in my career. The shots hit, the records that were broken, the records that continue to be broken. Thanks to Murray, Novak, Roger and Rafa for playing the game at a higher level than it's ever been played. It sucked being in your vacuum at times. I still consider myself lucky. I got to guard Jordan. I went the distance with Ali. I pitched to Babe Ruth. I feel like I know what it must have been like to watch Picasso. I saw it all."
He told us how his wife, Brooklyn, had changed his life for the better, reflected on his late father and how proud his Dad would have been. And then he wrapped up his remarks poignantly and fittingly. "I'm not the best of all time," he said. "I'm not going to win Wimbledon. I'm not the best of my generation. I'm not the most well-behaved. I'm not the most polished. 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."
Thanking his friends for their enduring support, Roddick ended his memorable speech by saying, "I may not be a lot of things, but from this day forward, I'm never going to be anything less than a Hall of Famer. I thank you from the deepest parts of my heart."
On that high and deeply moving note, the ceremony concluded as International Tennis Hall of Fame CEO Todd Martin made a few brief remarks. I had enjoyed the rest of the ceremony after I had spoken from up on the stage, sitting directly behind the speakers. It was the best seat in the house. How did it feel to become a Hall of Famer and a member of such a distinguished class? It is almost indescribable. I felt very similarly to the way Roddick did. It was often hard to believe as I sat there in my new Hall of Fame blue blazer and wearing a celebratory medallion around my neck that this was not just my imagination running wild.
But my friends and family kept reminding me that it was real. This much I can say with certitude: I have never felt more professionally and personally fulfilled or appreciative of the opportunity I have had to work at something I love for over four decades. I never could have envisioned joining this illustrious club. This is a level of recognition few people ever receive in any field. I will cherish it forever.