By Jane Voigt
Newport, RI, July 10, 2014 — Sixty years ago, The National Lawn Tennis Hall of Fame was founded and built at the Newport Casino, a social club designed for and patronized by wealthy people that visited this historic community in the summer.
These socialites are long gone, as are the white pants and dresses patrons wore to play on the grass tennis courts. But the ghosts of Newport’s yesteryear — monied ladies wearing silk gloves that covered their hands and up past their elbows, gentlemen tipping their straw boaters toward a favorite gal, and mansions lined up on Bellevue Avenue — endure in part if only as a mystique of this historic town.
The International Hall of Fame Museum transports visitors to that world of Newport circa 1920, before tennis expanded beyond the upper classes, before this town’s U. S. National Lawn Tennis Championships of 1881 transformed into the U. S. Tennis Championships at the Westside Tennis Club, and then into the behemoth Flushing Meadow extravaganza known today as The U. S. Open.
Galleries are stocked with original tennis racquets decorated with precious jewels, film footage of two-time Grand Slam Champion Don Budge and Rod Laver, plus Bjorn Borg’s iconic FILA shorts and polo.
Jimmy Van Alen, who in 1954 created ‘a shrine to the ideals of the game,’ is honored, too. This year his inspiration will celebrate 60 years as tennis greats are enshrined on Saturday.
The history inside the museum lives outside its walls today, not in the reality of wooden racquets and cat-gut strings but in the polyester strings woven into composite light-weight racquets and baseball hats worn backward by ATP stars.
Fans of every nation and color walk the brick pathways now, anticipating world-class tennis. They seem to carry on the flavor of the past. Women’s summer-print dresses are much shorter, their straw hats worn more as an accessory than as proper period attire. Men’s seersucker Bermuda shorts have replaced slacks. However the courts remain seeded with grass, which provides footing and links past to present extending Newport’s connection to tennis as one of its original owners, and rightfully so.
In one match today, American Donald Young and his doubles partner Divij Sharan lost to the Australian team of Chris Guccione and Lleyton Hewitt, 75 63. Three of the four were lefties. Four separate racquet manufacturers were represented: Yonex for Hewitt; Prince for Young, Babolat for Sharan; and Wilson for Guccione. They wore clothes from Lotto, adidas, and Yonex. Their shoes came from Nike, adidas, Lotto and Yonex.
Not one single clothing manufacturer specialized in tennis clothing, footwear and equipment in 1881 for the first pre-cursor major to the U. S. Open. Forty-one years ago, though, Marilyn Kosten, a tennis mom, started Little Miss Tennis after realizing the need for “fashionable and functional youth tennis apparel.” She made sure girls tennis clothes had a ball pocket, too, which later translated to women’s tennis clothing as well. Marilyn designed the dress worn by Tracy Austin in 1979 when she won the U. S. Open. This dress was later donated to The International Hall of Fame by the Austin family.
Center Court here in Newport is rimmed by flags that represent Israel, Canada, France, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Croatia, Switzerland and Australia. This international flavor was officially adopted by the Hall of Fame in 1975 when Englishman Fred Perry became the first non-American to be honored with enshrinement.
Today, Australian Samuel Groth advanced to his first-ever semifinal in an ATP tournament. He defeated defending champ Nicola Mahut of France, 63 64. Groth served and volleyed throughout the match, as good grass-court players should no matter the era. He also served and volleyed every point of the final game, holding at love.
Groth will play six-ten Ivo Karlovic on Saturday in one semifinal. The big Croatian defeated Dudi Sela of Israel, 76(3) 75.
The tournament’s number-one see John Isner was the last American in the third round of the men’s singles draw at Wimbledon last week. He seemed to be remembered more for his loss than for his performance. It was his best at The All England Club.
Here in Newport, Isner is a hero.
He’s a two-time champion (2011, 2012) and last year’s finalist. He grew up in North Carolina and still lists Greensboro as his home. He’s six-ten, a two-time NCAA doubles champion, and looks as if he was raised on grain-fed beef and fresh corn-on-the-cob.
Isner may never be enshrined into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, but he will become part of the game’s history. When he comes on court tomorrow to play his friend and American Jack Sock, fans may see a ghost or two lurking in the backcourt. They will smile knowingly and perhaps perspire a touch. After all, ghosts are not allowed to change their clothes as time marches on.