It should be simple. There is a special quality to greatness; you know it when you see it, hear it or feel it. It’s a level above the ordinary, or even the exemplary. It doesn’t always reveal itself the same way, but its characteristics are easy to spot.
So when someone asks you to judge it, well, no problem. That said, earlier this week, I received the following email:
“Dear Greg. As of today, your vote has not been recorded. If you have a few minutes, would you please review the attached information and cast your vote? Voting is as simple as emailing our accountant…”
The letter came from the International Tennis Hall of Fame. It is located in Newport, Rhode Island and is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. And, yes, I would be happy to vote, and not just because it only takes a few minutes and is as easy as sending an email; after all, I’ve been covering tennis for years now, and am somewhat obsessed with sports history in all its forms.
I went to Cooperstown as a kid and saw Babe Ruth’s stuff. Sure, he hit 714 home runs, but numbers alone don’t define his greatness. It’s the stories about Ruth that do it. I went to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City once, and wow, the stories, about guys stealing two bases at a time. They don’t even know, really, how many homers Josh Gibson even hit. That doesn’t make him any less great.
So if I can help to preserve the oral history of tennis for future generations, that’s a great honor. I scroll through the email and find the list of 2015 nominees: Sergi Bruguera, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Amelie Mauresmo, Mary Pierce and David Hall.
I watched all of them in their primes. I liked every one of them, particularly Pierce. But I don’t tell stories about them. I have never mentioned any of them to my own kids. I have a problem. Call it the Chang Line.
Let me put it this way: Michael Chang is in the International Tennis Hall of Fame. He was never ranked No. 1 in the world. He won one major title – the French Open – when he was 17 years old, and was, by all accounts, a very nice guy (the HOF makes sure to note that “no one is [sic] his era had a larger heart.”) Kafelnikov won two majors, was ranked No. 1 and won a Gold medal at the Sydney Olympics. He also used to beat Chang regularly. So if Chang is in the Hall of Fame, how am I supposed to leave Kafelnikov out?
With all respect to these five nominees, none of them was historically great. The problem is Chang. The bar was lowered to let him in, and now the Chang Line is the new mark to cross for the tennis Hall. Is someone almost as good as him? Fine, he’s in too. Eventually, it becomes the Hall of Very Good. Eventually, you water down the meaning of great.
This isn’t a tennis problem. It’s a Hall of Fame problem. Howie Long got into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, so Dan Hampton had to get in. Richard Dent, too. Baseball has always had issues with enshrinement; one of the latest involves two writers – ESPN’s Buster Olney and the Detroit News‘ Lynn Henning – who are abstaining from voting simply because the Hall of Fame said they can only list 10 players on their ballots.
Come on. Does baseball really need to let in 15 players a year? How special would the Hall be then? Olney complained that poor pitcher Mike Mussina might not get in. He cites numbers and stats. You shouldn’t rely too much on them. There is a record book for those things. To me, the Hall of Fame is for stories.
I watched Mike Mussina pitch in person. He was excellent. I have never mentioned him to my kids. He was not as good as Michael Chang…at least he won a championship.
So back to my ballot. My first thought was to vote for Kafelnikov and Mauresmo, not for Pierce or Bruguera. I call a tennis fanatic I know. She says Kafelnikov only. I tweet out my opinion, and tennis fans jump on me for picking Mauresmo over Pierce. OK then. Kafelnikov and Pierce, not Bruguera or Mauresmo. Twitter followers make the case for each player, but no one for reps for Bruguera. So he’s out.
Then I call another tennis fanatic who seems to know everything about everyone. He has played some low-level pro events. He says only one belongs in: Bruguera, whose loopy shots won him two French Opens and redefined the way the game was played on clay.
Everyone seems to think Kafelnikov belongs. But nobody liked him. And they were so afraid he was connected to gamblers – a charge he denied strongly and has never been proven – that tennis changed its rules on governing gambling. Plus, he was No. 1 mostly because he would play every tournament possible, then add up computer-rankings points.
Bruguera was great at the French, but nowhere else. Mauresmo won the Australian and Wimbledon and was No. 1 for 39 weeks. Pierce won the Australian and French, but battled injuries. In my opinion, every one of these players – save maybe Bruguera – is above the Chang Line. But the level to reach is greatness, not Michael Chang (who was one of my favorites).
“Your vote is significant!” the letter says. The pressure builds.
Eventually, I make my decision. I vote for one player: Mary Pierce. I go to my email and send in my ballot. We’ll know in March who received the 75 percent of votes required for enshrinement. Maybe no one will, though I doubt it. Either way, I’m relieved this is over. But then, I receive another email: “We have not received your ballot for the Jim Thorpe Award.” It begins again.