Should fans vote for Tennis Hall of Fame candidates?

All, or nearly all, members of the ITHF Voting Group have established criteria and take our mission very seriously. On the other hand, the essence of being a fan comprises hero worship and rooting passionately for one’s favourite players.

Li Na’s post-match interviews were hilarious, with her husband Jiang Shan often the butt of her good-natured jokes.   -  Getty Images

“Philadelphia fans would boo a funeral.” – Bo Belinsky, baseball pitcher.

“Coaches who start listening to fans wind up sitting next to them.” – Johnny Kerr, NBA coach.

“Every time he towels off, it’s like the Benny Hill show.” – Paul Annacone, on Andre Agassi’s fervent fans.

Inductees into sports halls of fame invariably say that joining the pantheon of greats is a tremendous honour and the pinnacle of their careers. These sports shrines have become so famous that they’re often referred to by their American locations: Cooperstown (baseball), Springfield (basketball), Canton (American football) and Newport (tennis).

As their careers wind down, many standout athletes wonder whether their feats and stats qualify for much-coveted inclusion in a hall of fame. The media, fellow players, coaches and fans debate their records and make pro and con cases for candidates. Family, friends, endorsers and agents hope their man or woman can attract enough votes in the annual elections.

Thanks to burgeoning TV coverage, the Internet and social media, fans have become more informed and more opinionated than ever. Sometimes their enthusiasm has morphed into fanaticism. Unfortunately, too often, reader comments following online articles bristle more with epithets and invective than insight and analysis.

Jonas Bjorkman was a legitimate doubles star – not a “doubles specialist,” as so many doubles stars today are pejoratively labelled. In addition to completing a career doubles Grand Slam, he attained a career high of world No.4 in singles and made the semifinals at both the US Open and Wimbledon.   -  Getty Images

 

Of the more than 100 organised sports in America, only NASCAR and the NFL (pro football), have utilised any kind of fan vote for their Halls of Fame, according to Dave Goren, executive director of the National Sports Media Association in the US. Until now.

For the first time, the International Tennis Hall of Fame will now allow tennis fans worldwide to vote. You can vote for as many of the eight candidates for the Class of 2019 as you like, but you can vote only once. You can cast your vote on vote.tennisfame.com. Voting opened on August 27 and will close on October 7.

“This [innovation] allows us to have the global audience of our fans engaged with the sport,” asserts Todd Martin, the former world No.4 and CEO of the ITHF. “Fans are a huge part of our sport, of any sport. They have more opportunity than ever to be well informed about the sport, and therefore we felt it was the right time to involve them in the Hall of Fame process.”

Sergi Bruguera won the 1993 and 1994 French Opens, but he fared poorly at every other major and generally did so on grass and hard courts, and he also achieved little in doubles.   -  Getty Images

 

Here’s how the new hybrid voting system works. The ITHF Voting Group, comprised 123 tennis journalists, historians, former players, broadcasters, Hall of Famers and other experts, will submit their vote. To be elected, a candidate must receive an affirmative vote of 75 per cent of ballots submitted.

The top three vote getters in the Fan Vote will receive bonus percentage points on their score.

• Winner of Fan Vote: 3 percentage points

• Second place in Fan Vote: 2 percentage points

• Third place in Fan Vote: 1 percentage point

So, if a candidate gets 80 per cent in the ITHF Voting Group vote and wins the Fan Vote, their total vote will be 83 per cent. Because this is higher than 75 per cent, they will be elected to the Hall of Fame. If a person received 74 per cent affirmative votes in the ITHF Voting Group and comes in second place in the Fan Vote, they’ll get a 2 per cent bonus, bringing their total vote to 76 per cent, and they will be elected to the Hall of Fame.

“Any influence that the fans may have on the outcome will still require broad support from the ITHF Voting Group,” says Martin, trying to downplay the new “fan effect” on the overall vote.

Yevgeny Kafelnikov made plenty of history as the first Russian to win a Grand Slam singles title and an Olympic gold medal. He was also the first Russian to rank No.1 in singles, and he helped Russia win its first Davis Cup title.   -  Getty Images

 

But the stark, inescapable fact is: For the first time since 1955 when the greatest players in the world started earning the ultimate honour in the sport of tennis, fans can actually determine who is elected.

But are fans qualified to evaluate career records and decide which candidates deserve to enter the ITHF? The answers to three basic questions should settle this debate.

First, do fans possess sufficient tennis knowledge?

Some fans undoubtedly do, but the percentage that do is likely much lower than that of the ITHF Voting Group who research and use that knowledge every day to earn a living in their profession.

Second, do fans have the requisite expertise?

Merriam-Webster defines “expertise” as “the skill of an expert” and “expert opinion or commentary.” Here the percentage of experts among fans is also likely to be significantly lower than among the ITHF Voting Group. This certainly does not mean that the latter group is always right or even almost always right – just that they are, on average, more expert and more often right than the fans.

Third, would fans be impartial and fair-minded toward all candidates?

“Induction is inherently subjective,” contends Martin. “[But] we try to make induction as merit-based as possible. We believe the Hall of Fame to be the hall of the greats.”

Mary Pierce captured the 1995 Australian Open without losing a set. In 2000, her career year, Pierce upset three-time champion Monica Seles and No.1 seed Martina Hingis to win the French Open, and teamed with Hingis to take the doubles title. The tall Frenchwoman also won the 2005 Wimbledon mixed doubles with Mahesh Bhupathi.   -  Getty Images

 

I beg to differ with Martin. As a member of the ITHF Voting Group for 23 years, I have established criteria – which I believe are objective, impartial and fair – that I use when I vote either for or against candidates. My guess is that all, or nearly all, of the other members of the ITHF Voting Group do the same. We take very seriously our mission: to ensure that only deserving candidates become members of the Hall of Fame.

On the other hand, the essence of being a fan, especially a younger fan, comprises hero worship and rooting passionately for one’s favourite players. Their love and almost unconditional support for their heroes are based on the player’s style of play, character, personality, physical appearance, attire, family history, nationality, race and other reasons. Some fans also have a particular dislike, even a disdain, for certain players. These strong feelings intensify for polarizing players, such as Serena Williams and John McEnroe. This incontrovertible subjectivity can make their voting biased.

Inevitably, endorsement companies, tennis associations and fan clubs will wage campaigns to encourage fans to vote for their favourites. That will further skew the voting, especially for popular players. Imagine an entire continent pouring in votes by the thousands (or millions?) for beloved Argentine star Juan Martin del Potro.

Goran Ivanisevic’s chief claim to fame was winning the 2001 Wimbledon late in his career when he was ranked No.125.   -  Getty Images

 

Here is how I voted for the eight players on the ballot.

I voted for Jonas Bjorkman. He was a legitimate doubles star – not a “doubles specialist,” as so many doubles stars today are pejoratively labelled. A superb athlete, the friendly Swede parlayed dynamic volleys and penetrating serve returns to win nine major titles and achieve a career Grand Slam.

Bjorkman also captured two ATP World Tour Year-End Championships and 54 doubles titles in all. Though not a determinative factor in my decision, his singles record was quite respectable. He attained a career high of world No. 4 in singles and made the semifinals at both the US Open and Wimbledon. A versatile team player, Bjorkman played a major role on three Swedish Davis Cup championship squads.

This century, doubles and mixed doubles have been discriminated against in terms of prize money, court allocation, time scheduling and media coverage. To its credit, the Hall of Fame is increasingly recognizing worthy doubles champions. Some questionable inductees, like Mal Anderson, have only one major singles title on their resumes, so nine majors surely qualify in doubles.

I voted for Sergi Bruguera. This was an extremely close call because a reasonable case could have been made for either decision. On the plus side, the skilful and tenacious baseliner won the 1993 and 1994 French Opens. His first title came against two-time defending champion Jim Courier, after Bruguera came back from being down 2-0 in the fifth set. It is difficult to vote against a player who has won two singles majors. The Spaniard also made the 1997 final at Roland Garros, earned a silver medal at the 1996 Olympics and won 14 titles in all.

On the debit side, this one-trick pony fared poorly at every other major and generally did so on grass and hard courts, and he also achieved little in doubles.

Thomas Muster won the 1995 French Open, his only major title. Unfortunately, he has the dubious distinction of never winning a match at Wimbledon.   -  Getty Images

 

I voted against Goran Ivanisevic. If being colourful were a factor, this quote machine would be a surefire pick. The eccentric but endearing Croat has said his success came from watching Teletubbies and from his three personalities – “Good Goran, Bad Goran, Crazy Goran.” Never-borin’ Goran’s chief claim to fame was winning the 2001 Wimbledon late in his career when he was ranked No. 125.

Ivanisevic also served and volleyed to three other Wimbledon finals and was a two-time 1992 Olympic medallist, winning bronze medals in singles and doubles.

But this one-hit wonder was wildly inconsistent. In 36 appearances at the other three majors, the bad and the crazy Goran suffered 11 first-round losses and nine second-round losses and reached only one semifinal.

I voted for Yevgeny Kafelnikov. A rock-solid baseliner, Kafelnikov made plenty of history as the first Russian to win a Grand Slam singles title and an Olympic gold medal. He was also the first Russian to rank No. 1 in singles, and he helped Russia win its first Davis Cup title. In 1996, Kafelnikov won the French Open singles title and also partnered with Daniel Vacek to win the doubles. No man since has captured the singles and doubles titles at the same major. Kafelnikov was also the singles champion at the 1999 Australian Open.

A versatile competitor, Kafelnikov grabbed four doubles majors (three at Roland Garros, one at the US Open). In all, he amassed 26 singles titles and 27 doubles titles. He also won the Olympic gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Games and was integral to Russia’s 2002 Davis Cup Championship.

Fan voting is not likely to help Kafelnikov’s cause. His personality lacked charisma and his game lacked flashiness.

I voted against Conchita Martinez. During her 15-year pro career, clever Conchita changed pace and spin to confound opponents, while winning 33 singles titles and 13 doubles titles. Although the steady Spaniard played her best on slow clay, she captured her only major at the 1994 Wimbledon on fast grass. There she outlasted nine-time champion, but ageing Martina Navratilova in the final. She was also a finalist at the 1998 Australian Open, losing to Martina Hingis, and at the 2000 French Open, losing to Mary Pierce. A patriotic team player, Martinez helped Spain win five Fed Cup titles and took part in four Olympic Games, where she won silver in the doubles events at Barcelona in 1992 and at Athens in 2004, and also a bronze at Atlanta in 1996.

Martinez didn’t quite make the cut because she won only one major title in singles and none in doubles. She continued to distinguish herself, however, after her playing career as one of very few women to captain both her country’s Fed Cup and Davis Cup teams.

Conchita Martinez played her best on slow clay, but she captured her only major at the 1994 Wimbledon on fast grass.   -  Getty Images

 

I voted against Thomas Muster. This decision wasn’t easy. No player of his era epitomized the “no guts, no glory” credo more than Thomas Muster. After upsetting Ivan Lendl in the 1989 Miami Open semifinal, the up-and-coming, 21-year-old Austrian was hit by a drunk driver, causing severe damage to his knee. During his post-surgery recovery and eight-hour daily rehabilitation, Muster trained by hitting balls from a specially designed chair. He steadily regained his form and fitness to win the 1995 French Open, his only major title.

A lefty baseliner known for his fiery competitiveness, Muster earned the “King of Clay” moniker by capturing 40 of his 44 career singles titles on clay. Besides Roland Garros, he claimed eight Masters 1000 titles, six coming on clay. He also racked up an impressive 33-7 Davis Cup singles record. Unfortunately, Muster has the dubious distinction of never winning a match at Wimbledon. His results at the hard-court majors were modest. He reached the US Open quarterfinals three times and the Australian Open semis twice. And he achieved nothing of note in doubles.

I voted for Li Na. A Chinese newspaper editorial called Li Na’s 2011 French Open triumph, the first major singles title won by a Chinese player, “The most glorious achievement of 30-plus years of Chinese sports.” Four months earlier, this late-blooming 29-year-old made headlines by reaching the Australian Open final. More than 116 million Chinese witnessed her tour de force in Paris on television, and a poll revealed 44 per cent of the people watching Li Na win the French Open were in tears. China’s first tennis star reached the Australian final again in 2013 and won her second Grand Slam title in Melbourne in 2014.

Her post-match interviews were hilarious, with her husband Jiang Shang often the butt of her good-natured jokes. Crediting him for her success, she quipped, “The best thing about having him as my coach? His credit card. If I play well, I can take it and buy whatever I want.”

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Li Na’s engaging personality as much as her on-court accomplishments created a tennis boom in China. She’ll undoubtedly top both the ITHF Voting Group and the Fan Vote in the balloting.

I voted for Mary Pierce. Unfortunately, Pierce’s troubled personal life sometimes overshadowed her achievements. Her father-coach Jim, obsessed with turning her into a champion, physically abused Mary when her performances displeased him. He choked one of her cousins, and even attacked her bodyguard with a knife. The cover of the August 23, 1993 Sports Illustrated magazine showed a beautiful young woman staring forlornly behind a stark headline that blared, “Special Report: Why Mary Pierce Fears for Her Life.” Nonetheless, she praised her father for giving her a strong work ethic and sound game. They later reconciled.

Pierce, a power player who overwhelmed opponents when she was “on,” earned a place in the Hall of Fame by winning four Grand Slam titles. She captured the 1995 Australian Open without losing a set. In 2000, her career year, Pierce upset three-time champion Monica Seles and No. 1 seed Martina Hingis to win the French Open, and teamed with Hingis to take the doubles title. The tall Frenchwoman also won the 2005 Wimbledon mixed doubles with Mahesh Bhupathi. She lost major singles finals at the 1994 and 2005 French Opens, the 1997 Australian Open, and the 2005 US Open. Pierce also helped France win the 1997 and 2004 Fed Cups.

To streamline the voting, the International Tennis Hall of Fame made two particularly important amendments to the rules. Players who have won five Grand Slam singles titles or three Grand Slam singles titles and were ranked No. 1 for 13 total weeks will be automatically inducted. Doubles players with 15 major titles or 12 majors and a No. 1 ranking for 52 total weeks will also be automatically inducted.

In theory, year-end (not weekly) rankings should be taken into account, of course. In practice, however, the ATP and WTA rankings have been significantly flawed for decades. As a result, the No. 1 ranked player too often doesn’t deserve it based on his or her results. That greatly diminishes the value of being ranked No. 1 by the ATP and WTA. (The International Tennis Federation, using better criteria, often picks a more deserving No. 1.) The well-intentioned but misguided ITHF also erred by devaluing the quadrennial Olympic Games. A player can win a singles or doubles medal every four years; during the same period, a player can win 16 Grand Slam titles. Many tennis cognoscenti and players, both active and retired, consider an Olympic gold medal to be equal to, or even more prestigious than, a Grand Slam title.

The voting for sports halls of fame – and the ITHF is no exception – is often controversial. Voters attach different weights to the various criteria, and occasionally their criteria differ. For example, I take into account the strength of the competition in a given era and at a given tournament. In the aforementioned case of Anderson, this amiable Australian won his sole singles major at the 1957 US Championships during the very weak “amateur” era. By the late 1950s, many of the top men, most notably Pancho Gonzales, Ken Rosewall and Lew Hoad, had turned pro and were ineligible to compete at Grand Slam events.

Furthermore, winning even two majors should not guarantee admission into Newport. For example, Johan Kriek, a fine grass-court player, captured the 1981 and 1982 Australian Opens. But both tournaments, sans nearly all the top 10 players, suffered from extremely weak fields.

To keep the induction bar high, but not unreasonably high, I’ve always believed it’s most sensible and fair to exclude players whose records, while very good, do not attain the excellence required to join the greatest players in history.

Nearly all of the 254 inductees from 23 countries in the ITHF today richly deserve their place in the pantheon of immortals. Lamentably, this commendable record is about to end because most fans are neither expert nor impartial. And now fan votes will wrongly tilt the balance in very close elections.

“All too often it seems that the votes represent little more than popularity contests,” concludes respected TV tennis analyst Mary Carillo. “My fear is that now that fans are being given a voice, there will not be enough scrutiny and rigour attached to their decision-making either.”

Tennis has made yet another deal with the devil. And in exchange for short-term fan involvement, the integrity and the credibility of the Hall of Fame will suffer long-term damage.