Voting for the International Tennis Hall of Fame, 2018

I texted some mates last month: “Fans get to vote for the Tennis Hall of Fame this year. How many of them will take this role as seriously as we all know I will???” Laughter ensued. And so did my endless thinking.

While I’m not sure exactly what I expected, the design of the role that fan votes will play this year feels a little bizarre. For a player to achieve entry into the Hall of Fame, they need to receive 75% of potential votes from the International Hall of Fame Voting Group. However, the fan vote does not work on percentages at all. Instead, the player with the most fan support will receive a 3% boost to their score, the next player a 2% boost, and the third player a 1% boost. While individuals within the Hall of Fame Voting Group can decide each year how many players deserve their support, voting for as many or as few players as they deem worthy, the collective fans are treated entirely differently – we will support three players, regardless of how many players we as a collective appear to deem worthy of induction. If the third ranked player only received the support of 40% of fans, they’ll still earn a boost. Alternatively, if the fourth ranked player receives support from 80% of fans, they’ll earn nothing.

This means that ultimately, the fans end up ranking the nominated players against each other, rather than purely against the historical parameters that we assume Hall of Fame voters use when considering their votes. And the number three appears to be an entirely arbitrary number of players who will earn a boost through fan support. On only four occasions this century have three players from the ‘Recent Player’ category been inducted into the Hall of Fame, including the 2010 class when four doubles specialists in the Woodies, Zvereva and Gigi Fernandez were voted in. Otherwise, 15 of the 19 Hall of Fame classes from 2000-2018 saw only one or two players inducted.

The strangeness of the number of players who will be boosted by the fan vote is only exacerbated by this year’s nominees. The Hall’s eligibility rules state that prior to appearing on a ballot, a player must not have been “a significant factor on the ATP, WTA, or Wheelchair Tennis tours within 5 years prior to induction.” This means that we as voters know that Li Na, who retired in 2014, is on the ballot for the first time this year as her first year of eligibility for the Hall is 2019. What we also know, though, is that all of the other nominated players have appeared on the ballot previously and not received enough votes for induction. Jonas Bjorkman retired in 2008, Conchita Martinez and Mary Pierce in 2006, Goran Ivanisevic in 2004, Yevgeny Kafelnikov in 2003, Sergei Bruguera in 2002, and Thomas Muster played 3 matches in 2010-2011 after ostensibly retiring in 1999.

It is common to all Halls of Fame that some players are deemed worthy of induction well after their first appearance on a ballot. However it’s worth questioning the idea that this year, the collective fan votes will provide a boost to the chances of at least two players who the Hall of Fame Voting Group have repeatedly determined are not worthy of induction.

Looking up the eligibility criteria for the Player Category of the Hall of Fame revealed a marvellously vague statement: “a distinguished record of competitive achievement at the highest international level, with consideration given to integrity, sportsmanship, and character.” Fans are not provided with any clear sense as to what “a distinguished record” actually entails, nor are they instructed as to how much consideration they should give to a player’s integrity, sportsmanship and character. As such, the only obvious way to receive some clarification on what the eligibility criteria actually means is the career achievements of recent inductees into the Hall.

In 2018, the two player inductees into the Hall of Fame are Michael Stich and Helena Sukova.

This just makes everything even murkier. For let’s compare Stich with one of this year’s nominees in Conchita Martinez. Stich won Wimbledon in 1991 and reached the final of two other slams. Martinez won Wimbledon in 1994 and reached the final of two other slams. Both players had a highest ranking of 2, with Martinez finishing a year in the top 10 on 9 occasions to Stich’s 3. Stich won the Tour Finals once, but only had 18 titles on tour in comparison to Martinez’s 33. They both had some success in doubles, with Stich winning a major title and Olympic Gold while Martinez won three Olympic Medals. Martinez also won the Fed Cup five times with the Spanish team. Both players were – to my knowledge – sound of integrity, sportsmanship and character.

With two such relatively similar careers, it is impossible to determine exactly what caused 75% of voters to vote for Stich, but a certain percentage of those 75% not to vote for Martinez. Indeed, these two players are perhaps the best example of how the parameters of a “distinguished career” are defined by every individual voter, rather than through a common understanding. In everyday terms, both Martinez and Stich have distinguished careers, however in Hall of Fame terms, this is clearly debatable. And so, here we first-time voters are, needing to determine for ourselves how much worth we will place on various achievements. How much weight should be placed on Olympic medals? Doubles success? Davis and Fed Cup? Playing style? Press conference affability? As a rule of thumb, the tennis world appears to see two Grand Slam wins as leading to guaranteed induction into the Hall, and yet Pierce, Bruguera and Kafelnikov all aren’t yet enshrined. And what of rarer accomplishments, such as that of Hall of Famer Michael Chang who has a relatively similar record of achievement to Martinez, but who holds the record as the youngest ever winner of a men’s major singles title?

In a recent podcast regarding the Basketball Hall of Fame, Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck suggested that one unofficial definition as to who deserves a place in the Hall should be whether or not a player needs to be mentioned if you are telling the story of their era in the sport. The Hall of Fame is a museum, of course, and the players who are enshrined should be those who are an integral part of the story of the sport’s history.

I like this idea. “Distinguished career” for me in this instance can be translated into “distinguished enough to be someone who belongs in the museum of the sport.” Indeed, it’s this definition that leaves me thinking that Michael Stich doesn’t really belong in the Hall of Fame. In any condensed retelling of tennis in the 80s or 90s, does Stich’s name make an appearance? I wouldn’t have thought so. Ditto Martinez.

And yet, another player might have a shorter career, but a story that is more prominent in the sport’s history. Take Li Na. She won 2 Slam titles, and in comparison to the remainder of the nominees and a number of players already in the Hall of Fame, she hardly won anything else. She only won 9 singles titles and 2 doubles titles on tour. But she was the first Asian player to reach a Slam final, let alone win one, and the first Chinese woman to win a title on tour, let alone reach the top ten. She is a pioneer, and certainly an integral part of the story of the sport over the past decade. One needs her to be a part of tennis’ great museum.

But what of the others?

Bjorkman certainly doesn’t fit my criteria. The others are less certain.

Muster won a slam and was number 1 for 6 weeks, winning 8 Masters titles as well.

Bruguera won two French Opens, reaching the final once more, and was clearly one of the best clay-courters of his generation – alongside “King of Clay” Muster.

Ivanisevic won Wimbledon once after reaching the finals on three previous occasions.

Kafelnikov won two Slams, reaching the final in a third, won Gold in singles at the Olympics, won four major doubles titles, and was number 1, like Muster, for 6 weeks.

And finally, Pierce won two Slams, reaching the final in a third.

Cases can be made for and against all of these players, all of whom can make up some of the story of tennis depending on how you want to tell it. But for me, I agree with the voters who have previously declined them entry. They were all spectacularly brilliant players, who aren’t quite spend-time-with-them-in-a-museum-if-you-want-to-understand-the-history-of-tennis worthy.

My vote may change over time. I’m especially torn on Kafelnikov. But this year, I’ll do my bit to push Li Na up the list of the collective fan vote, and the collective fans will also reward two other players, whether the majority of us believe it’s the right thing to do or not.

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