Trio Of Grand Slam Champions Inducted Into International Tennis Hall Of Fame

Mary Pierce, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Li Na (photo: Andrew Eichenholf/ATP Tour)

WASHINGTON, July 22, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)

Each of them were Grand Slam champions during their respective careers. Now, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Li Na and Mary Pierce have been recognized by induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island.

During Saturday evening’s induction ceremony at Newport Casino, each member of the the class of 2019 – with their names permanently displayed in the tennis history books for the rest of their lives – got emotional as they spoke about what tennis had meant to them.

Kafelnikov from Russia, a former World No. 1, who won two Grand Slam singles titles, a 2000 Olympic gold medal in singles and four Grand Slam doubles titles among his many accomplishments, thanked his longtime coach Anatoly Lepeshin during his induction speech. “He basically was like a second father to me, who told me how to compete, how to behave on the court, and how to be very professional,” said Kafelnikov.

“It was six in the morning. He woke up and basically was looking after me, making me ham and cheese omelettes. That’s the story. Then, obviously, my success at the young age really belongs to him, winning my first major in Paris in 1996. He was never giving me any freedom, so-called, if I can say that. We were practicing five, six hours a day. So, I’m thankful to him very much.”

Another of Kafelnikov’s mentors, Larry Stefanki, who worked with the Russian star from 1999-2001 and helped him win the 1999 Australian Open and to become the first man from his country to reach No. 1 in the ATP rankings, said: “We had a very similar thought process about competing at the very top level. Yevgeny learned the game of tennis old-school style. He was definitely a workhorse. Early on, he learned the importance of fundamentals, footwork, repetition, fitness and a work ethic that would bring him great success on the tour.

“He definitely had the mindset of a champion early on, and the self-belief that would propel him to the top of the game.”

Kafelnikov won a combined 967 tour-level matches in singles and doubles on the court. Off the court, he was recognized by Stefanki for his generosity, noting that the Russian donated winnings from the 2001 Moscow Open to victims of the Siberian air disaster on the Black Sea. Additionally, noted Stefanki, “He started a pediatric hospital in his hometown where the kids could not afford surgeries. He also started an academy in his hometown outside Sochi, which started his playing career.”

Now that he’s a permanent part of tennis history, Kafelnikov said, “I know what it’s like and how to be a Hall of Famer, and I will definitely carry that responsibility for the rest of my life.”

Winning French Open was Pierce’s ultimate dream

Meanwhile, the Montréal-born Pierce expressed the thought that “Tennis has taught me so much in life. It’s a great teacher.” The two-time Grand Slam singles winner (1995 Australian Open, 2000 French Open) from France, who was introduced by her coach Nick Bollettieri, said, “Anything you want to achieve doesn’t come easy.

“The great dreams that I had in tennis … to achieve them, I always felt I gave 100 percent of myself. Dreams are like fuel, and my dream was to one day win the French Open,” she said.

“It was my ultimate dream in tennis and it came true. Winning the (2000 French Open) doubles with Martina Hingis was like the cherry on top. … I would never be here if it wasn’t for everyone who helped me on this road, on and off the court.”

Bollettieri remembered Pierce from the first time he saw her play at age 13. “She had a naturally powerful and aggressive game from the baseline,” he said. “I knew she was very talented, and had a lot of potential.

“Mary understood my heart and goals for her. She proved she had the physical talent, mental determination and willingness to sacrifice whatever it took on court.”

Li Na recognized as tennis pioneer in China

Li was recognized for being a tennis pioneer in her native China. Among her contributions to Chinese tennis, she was first to win a WTA singles title, first to achieve a Top 20 ranking, and first to win a major singles title (winning both the 2011 French Open and 2014 Australian Open).

“We all know that to make it into the Hall of Fame, you have to be an accomplished tennis player,” said her longtime agent, Max Eisenbud of IMG during his introduction of Li. “Most impressive about Li Na is that she’s been a true pioneer, not just for tennis, not just for women, but all of China.

“There was no Chinese (Michael) Jordan, Elbert or Federer. She was part of a system that had never produced a female tennis player ranked in the Top 70. She overcame every hurdle in front of her, and nothing was going to stop this amazing woman from becoming a champion.”

Li, not one to be afraid to be outspoken or to stand up for her beliefs, brought about social change and transcended tennis in her home country.

“This means, for me, everything” said Li in addressing the audience. “Li Na is a common name in China. I did not choose this. I started playing tennis when I was eight. My mom chose it for me … and during this time, I hated tennis because during school … I had no time to play with my friends,” she recalled.

“When the time went by, I really enjoyed this amazing sport. Tennis has taken me around the world, exploring different countries because of this great sport.

“In the future, I will do all I can to inspire, to help more young and upcoming players in the hope that they can enjoy this amazing sport.”

Isner wins Hall of Fame Open title

Top seed wild card John Isner of the United States defeated seventh-seeded Alexander Bublik of Kazakhstan, 7-6 (2), 6-3, to win Sunday afternoon’s Hall of Fame Open final for his first ATP title win of the season and 15th of his career. Isner, ranked 15th, hit five service aces and won 79 percent (30 of 38) of his first-serve points. The 34-year-old American broke the No. 83 Bublik three times during their 75-minute match – including on match point – and outpointed his opponent 73-57.

The victory improved Isner’s lifetime record in the Hall of Fame Open tournament to 23-4 and it marked the fourth time Isner has lifted the trophy at Newport (2011-2012, 2017, 2019), making him the winningest champion in the grass-court tournament’s history.

”Someone’s got to win, someone’s got to lose. I’m glad I won,” said Isner during a post-match interview with Tennis Channel. The Hall of Fame Open was just his second tournament back since suffering a foot fracture while playing in the Miami Open in April. “The best way for me to get back in shape is to play a lot of matches and I accomplished that this week.”

En route to winning his fourth Hall of Fame Open title, Isner overcame the heat to beat fourth-seeded Ugo Humbert of France, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (5), on Saturday, while the 22-year-old Bublik reached his first ATP Tour final following his 7-6 (5), 3-6, 6-4 victory over Marcel Granollers of Spain.

Next, both Isner and Bublik are headed to play in the ATP 250 hard court BB&T Open in Atlanta, where Isner is the top seed. They could face each other in a second-round rematch if Bublik beats Reilly Opelka of the United States in the first round.