Posted: Tuesday May 25, 2010 2:33PM ; Updated: Tuesday May 25, 2010 5:33PM
Bruce Jenkins
Bruce Jenkins>INSIDE TENNIS

Mauresmo deserves Hall honor

Story Highlights

Mauresmo played beautiful tennis, the essence of an all-court game

If tennis allowed only the legends, the Hall of Fame list would be short

Justine Henin, the Williams sisters, and Kim Clijsters are HOF locks

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With two Grand Slam championships and a pair of stints at No. 1, Amelie Mauresmo is worthy of a place in the tennis Hall of Fame.
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2010 French Open
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No one tells the French Open story of Amelie Mauresmo, for there is little to tell. It's a painful saga of unfulfillment, all about a wondrously talented woman who never found glory in the palace of her dreams. I'd imagine that Mauresmo nevertheless draws glances of admiration as she strolls the grounds of Roland Garros; such is the measure of her character, and the way she made people feel when she struck a tennis ball.

I wonder if anyone views her as a future Hall of Famer.

If you find the notion absurd, you probably aren't familiar with the International Tennis Hall of Fame. I've only begun to really examine it, but as someone who has cast a baseball Hall of Fame vote for the past 20 years, I can say with assurance they have nothing in common.

Baseball's Cooperstown standard is rigid and unforgiving. I've found myself not voting for pitchers who won 300 games, players who won batting and home-run titles, perennial mainstays who forged massive statistical resumes. Players of true genius who made only fleeting impressions -- Thurman Munson, Will Clark, Don Mattingly -- are barely acknowledged by the voting baseball writers.

The best way I can sum up the tennis Hall of Fame, by way of contrast, is that Gabriela Sabatini got in -- and that Mauresmo has a fighting chance to join her.

Not that either would ever be confused with the all-time greats, but that's where baseball and tennis part ways. There's only so much glory to go around in tennis, and when certain athletes are overwhelmingly dominant -- Martina Navratilova and Pete Sampras at Wimbledon, Chris Evert and Bjorn Borg at the French, Roger Federer by any measure -- the penthouse isn't all that crowded. If tennis allowed only the legends, the Hall of Fame list would stop cold around the three-dozen mark.

So concessions are made. Sweet memories are recalled. Lesser categories take on relevance. The tennis Hall of Fame doesn't stoop so low as to welcome "a good ol' gal" or "one heck of a trooper," but it places a premium on longevity, excellence and certain bursts of magnificence.

There's another element to take into account, as well: pure celebrity. "A good number of ballots come from other countries," one voter told me, "and in a lot of foreign lands, they take the 'Fame' part very seriously You've got a pretty good chance if you were famous."

We shouldn't forget that Sabatini was a fine player, winner of the 1990 U.S. Open, 26 other singles titles, and often on even terms in her head-to-head battles with Steffi Graf. More than that, though, she brought glamour to the game -- and if you don't think that's important, you haven't seen today's WTA executives luring top players into sultry, heavily-made-up photo shoots and ad campaigns. The women's tour desperately wants to be pretty, and it is, conveniently. But the alluring Sabatini was something of a groundbreaker in this regard, and she had the on-court aesthetics to match, complete with a sweeping one-handed backhand that had the look of "dismissing an unworthy suitor," as one British critic put it so well. As much as anything, she made the Hall of Fame for what she meant stylistically.

So where does that leave the more pedestrian types? Out of luck, most likely. The cold facts say that Sabatini won just one major and never was ranked higher than No. 3 in the world. As such, she really doesn't have much on solitary-Slam winners Conchita Martinez, Mima Jausovec, Iva Majoli or Anastasia Myskina, but none of those players has a prayer of getting in. They simply aren't remembered.

Would you believe that Jana Novotna got in? Not in a million years, right? She was known as the tour's most glaring top-level choker until she won the 1998 Wimbledon and memorably cried before the Duchess of Kent. But Novotna won a stunning 16 major titles in doubles, and was enshrined five years ago. For similar reasons, Pam Shriver (Martina's longtime doubles partner) and Francoise Durr made the cut.

Among contemporary players and the recently retired, you can be sure that Justine Henin, the Williams sisters, Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport, and Kim Clijsters will get in. But there's something to be said, surely, for one's reputation within the sport. Rosie Casals was a ".285 singles hitter," as one voter put it, but a longtime doubles partner of Billie Jean King and a perennial heavyweight on the political front, making her a hands-down inductee. There will be voters who denigrate Jennifer Capriati for her descent into drug-tortured hell and pitifully vacant press conferences, but she won three major singles titles and reached No. 1 in the world, and when her name comes up (players aren't eligible until five years after retirement), she'll have most voters' support.

The men's side has had its share of intriguing developments. Several players won a single Grand Slam event, then essentially vanished: Petr Korda, Richard Krajicek, Andres Gomez, Albert Costa, Gaston Gaudio. That goes for some more endearing names, as well: Goran Ivanisevic, Pat Cash and Roscoe Tanner. None of those guys got hint of recognition from the Hall. But Yannick Noah, whose only major title was the 1983 French Open, was elected in 2005. Granted, he also led France to a dramatic Davis Cup victory over the U.S. in '91, but this was a subjective vote, a nod to the man's panache. Michael Chang made it, too, and you wonder: If he hadn't fought cramps and served underhanded out of desperation on his way to the '89 French title, would he have been banished into the crowd of one-Slam wonders?

Sergi Bruguera, a clay-court master from Spain, won two French Opens back-to-back but has been summarily (and rightfully) ignored by the Hall's nominating committee, a 20-person group that meets annually at Wimbledon. Gustavo Kuerten won three French titles in five years, and he did it with such flair, he'll be an automatic choice when he becomes eligible.

Unfortunately, a somewhat dubious standard has been set on the men's side. Along with Noah and Chang, the Hall includes Sven Davidson, Mervyn Rose and Mal Anderson, each of whom won just one major; Dennis Ralston, who reached only one major final; and Andres Gimeno, whose only major title came against a shallow French Open field in 1972. "Those are all dubious choices," one voter told me. "Smacks of cronyism."

And what of Andy Roddick? Nice player, No. 1 American forever, won a U.S. Open, engaged Roger Federer in an unforgettable 2009 Wimbledon final. But a Hall of Famer? Absolutely, to hear most tell it. Examining a Roddick won-lost record that was 527-167 at the time, Justin Gimelstob surmised, "I think based on the track record of the people who are there, those are Hall of Fame numbers." And he is most likely correct.

All of which brings us back to Mauresmo, and perhaps some Hall of Fame perspective you didn't have before. Mauresmo won two majors, the 2006 Australian and Wimbledon later that year, beating the formidable Justine Henin (who retired in Melbourne) each time. She was ranked No. 1 in the world for a spell in 2004 and again in '06. She played absolutely beautiful tennis, the essence of an all-court game so sadly absent on today's tour, and her style spoke to fantasy and romanticism -- the first such female champion at Wimbledon since Evonne Goolagong in 1980. Mauresmo also championed her sexuality in a sport significantly populated by lesbians who, understandably, guard their privacy and fear the consequences of coming out. At the very beginning of her pro career, when Mauresmo became the target of vicious taunts and rumors over her tomboyish ways, she essentially said, "You know what? To hell with all you pinheads. I'm gay, and proud of it." She called a press conference at the '98 Australian Open to make sure the whole world knew, and she made it clear that, yes, that was her girlfriend watching from the stands.

I saw Mauresmo up close many times at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open over the years, and I always found her surprisingly trim, almost petite -- formidably broad-shouldered but resembling the prototypical Olympic swimmer. None of this stopped the twittering chipmunks. Whether it was a player, a tour official or a journalist, people began insinuating she was "on" something, such as steroids or muscle-building supplements. Thankfully, that campaign died a natural death. Her primary sponsors never bailed out, and the flight continued without turbulence. I'd like to think Mauresmo stands as tall as any retired player, man or woman, on that most envious of combinations: talent and integrity. A Hall of Famer in the world of tennis, and a long way from Cooperstown.

 
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