by Gordan Gabrovec
ZAGREB, Dec. 21 (Xinhua) -- One month from now, the International Tennis Hall of Fame (ITHOF) will announce the names of players that will be inducted to the tennis pantheon located in Newport, the United States, as Class of 2019 and double Grand Slam champion Li Na is on her way to put Asia on the ITHOF map.
Since 1954, there was at least one person each year that got on the list of inductees in one of the three categories (recent player, master player, and contributor) that had existed up until last year, when the "master player" category was left out for good.
During the first years of its existence, the Tennis Hall of Fame was reserved for Americans but since the 1970s the door has been open to other nations and International Tennis Federation recognized Tennis Hall of Fame in 1986.
With the latest inductees in Class of 2018, Czech star Helena Sukova and German star Michael Stich, ITHOF got to the number of 252 people representing 23 nations across five continents. There were no Asian-born players that had a tennis resume which was impressive enough to get a nomination.
However, there is a strong possibility that Asia will get its first representative as Li Na has already done something historically significant by winning the first ever Fan Voting contest in front of her fellow candidates Croatian Goran Ivanisevic, French Mary Pierce and other five potential members of the Class of 2019: Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Austrian Thomas Muster, Swede Jonas Bjorkman and Spanish duo of Conchita Martinez and Sergi Bruguera.
"Fan Voting was really fun this year. We have provided an opportunity for tennis fans around the world to reminiscence about people like Goran (Ivanisevic), or Yevgeny Kafelnikov, or Li Na, or Mary Pierce and whomever else much more than we ever have in the past. It gives fan a say and so often a fan say is exactly the same as official voters say," said Todd Martin, former world No. 4 player and CEO of ITHOF for the last four years.
During that period, the ITHOF made a big progress. Part of the 15.7 million US dollars investment has been used to improve the club facilities that members use during the year and that players use during the week after Wimbledon, when ATP Tour grass court season comes to an end with the Hall of Fame Tennis Championship played at the same grounds where the first U.S. National Men's Singles Championship has been contested since 1881.
"I am very pleased with the progress. I think that we have taken some pretty bold steps to make sure that the Hall of Fame becomes as global as its name says it to be. There is still a lot of work that needs to happen...But, we have gotten the ball running and we are keeping the ball moving," Todd Martin pointed out.
With the growth of tennis popularity among kids, that has a lot to do with champions like Li Na, ITHOF could become much more interesting and relevant in China and Asia in general.
"If Li Na were to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, it would certainly be impactful for the history of our sport globally and impactful for the Hall of Fame to be able to represent that continent in the Hall of Fame," Todd Martin agreed but pointed out that Li Na will have a big role to play.
"I think that the impact in that region might be dependent on what her response to it is. I think it needs to mean a world to her before it can have all the energy in China and Asia that it potentially could."
There is no doubt that Li Na would be the first but not the last Asian player to enter the halls for tennis immortals. Names of Indian Leander Paes and Japanese rising star and US Open champion Naomi Osaka comes to mind as obvious candidates for nomination when their time will come.
However, there is a bunch of players that could face a difficult task of getting the nomination even though they were elite tennis players but their results were diminished by the fact that they had to play during the dominance of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.
"Honestly, that is a one way to look at it. Another way to look at it is: Is this generation going to force those who think about the history of our sport? Might this overwhelming success of these players lead those who decide about Hall of Fame induction to consider more different criteria in looking at this. Once upon a time you could go through five to ten years where somebody wasn't winning more than a handful of major titles. You look at John McEnroe and he had seven and he had long and really quite successful career. Jimmy Connors had crazy long career and he might have won eight. The only statistics that I am referencing here are Grand Slam titles. David Ferrer was number four in the world behind Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, before Murray really got his bearings. Sustaining that level, behind those three guys, as likely puts David in a situation where he is not being inducted into the Hall of Fame or could force the powers that be to consider - maybe there is other criteria: how many semifinals did he make, what was his ranking, how many match wins did he have over the course of his career..."
Walking through the ITHOF Museum you will find a lot of artifacts that will surprise you, make you smile and laugh, make you wonder, even those that will make you sad. The one thing you can't do is stay indifferent. One thing that has been rocking the tennis world recently is Davis Cup reform confirmed by International Tennis Federation and driven by the Kosmos Group offer of 3 billion US dollars investment over a 25-year period.
"I don't think it's perfect but I think it's necessary," says Todd Martin.
To those who are against the new format the change seem radical.
"Maybe, but at some point of time we went from the Challenge round to the format that we have had up to today. Changes, absolutely, it has to be assumed and it has to be deemed as an opportunity as oppose to something we dread. Honestly, I think we dreaded it way too much over the years. This is something that is bold. It could be too radical. If it's too radical, there is going to be another change. Not change back, but change different."
Among those who are supportive of the change are the nations that got the chance that seemed so distant in the recent past and China is a good example. Chinese Davis Cup team who has never been in the World Group before, is one win away from qualifying as one of the 18 teams that will play at the Davis Cup Final Tournament in Madrid next November. They have to beat Japan during the two day tie that will be played at the beginning February in Guangdong.