By Arthur Kapetanakis
The Hall of Fame Open was set to kick off the 2020 US Open Series this week in Newport, R.I., until COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the tournament. Held annually since 1976, the event joined the US Open Series for the first time this year. While there will be no tennis on the prestigious lawns this summer, USOpenSeries.com was able to catch up with International Tennis Hall of Fame CEO Todd Martin to discuss the tournament, the on-site museum and more.
Former world No. 4 and 1999 US Open men’s singles finalist Todd Martin has been the CEO of the International Tennis Hall of Fame since 2014. The Newport facility, home to the Hall of Fame Open each July, also features a museum and a tennis club year-round.
While this year’s tournament has been canceled, Martin and his staff have been busy adapting to the new normal while still working towards their mission to “preserve tennis history, celebrate its champions and inspire the next generation of tennis fans.”
As a non-profit organization, the Hall of Fame relies heavily on donations. To that end, the organization recently announced the “Your Name in the Hall of Fame” campaign, through which donors can become a part of a new, interactive exhibit. Tennis Channel will be airing a one-hour special on July 18 highlighting the campaign and the organization at large.
The on-site museum is now open from Thursday through Sunday, with additional work being done to digitize parts of the collection—including a timely exhibit called “When The Tennis Stopped,” highlighting the periods surrounding World War I and II.
Read on for a Q&A with Martin, covering the US Open Series, the US Open and his favorite item in the International Tennis Hall of Fame Museum.
Q: I’m sure it’s a strange dynamic right now, as this would have been the week of the tournament. What are you working on and busy with this week? Are you on site?
Todd Martin: I’ve been back at work for about seven weeks now, which is more than pretty much everybody else on our team, except for grounds crew and a couple of other members of our staff that work at our tennis club. But we’re still encouraging non-front-line staff to work from home, if they can.
So every year when we have our tournament and the induction ceremony here during July, we have a couple of days’ worth of committee and board meetings. So that’s going on right now. I’ve got three days of that, Thursday through Saturday, which is intensive.
On Thursday, Andy Roddick did an interview on Facebook Live—we call it "Hall of Fame Live." We’ve got the “Your Name in the Hall of Fame” campaign going on right now, and we’ve got another big-ticket item called “A Night with Legends,” where we're inviting a donor and their nine best buddies to join in in a discussion with a Hall of Famer and me, essentially a cocktail party via Zoom.
Q: Do you have a favorite exhibit or item of the Hall of Fame museum?
TM: My favorite item is a telegram from Jackie Robinson to Arthur Ashe, when Arthur won the first US Open in 1968. It’s just an amazing congratulatory message, and it’s sent to Arthur, stationed at West Point… from one barrier-breaker to another.
As an ex-athlete, we all seek impact, and we also all know that our impact is so limited when we’re out playing a game. Especially for those of us who lived before the Twittersphere existed. Just to have that content from one barrier-breaker, transformative icon, to another… it’s humbling, it’s inspiring; it’s just so many things. Of all the objects that we have here in the museum, it’s probably the one that makes me the most proud of being a representative of the Hall of Fame.
Q: On the topic of tennis history, what do you recall from when the US Open Series first started in 2004? I know that was the last year of your playing career.
TM: I was the president of the player council of the ATP much of my career, so my recollections are more of the US Open Series through the ATP lens and the concern of a circuit within a circuit, which was the challenge for the board. And the notion that it was coming from the U.S. gave more players pause because I think there was already a little bit of an idea that the U.S. had too much of a presence and we needed to globalize the sport a little bit more.
From a personal standpoint, I thought it was great—the notion that there was an added incentive for players, period, to do well. But there was also an added incentive for more of the impactful, leading players to compete in more of the tournaments that are based in the U.S. That’s a really good thing… So that’s how it was framed back then. Not to mention it brought in a whole lot extra of resources from sponsors.
Q: How has being a part of the US Open Series changed things for the Hall of Fame Open?
TM: Now, from a tournament owner/host standpoint, and partner in the US Open Series… For us, it’s just an amazing investment that the USTA makes in ensuring that professional tennis thrives in America. Professional tennis, for me, is a massive weapon in the efforts to grow the game [at the grass-roots level], and to see it utilized or leveraged appropriately like this means a lot, and certainly means a lot to us at the Hall of Fame to help our own efforts to not only host a successful and inspiring professional tennis event, but we're in the business of tennis 365 days a year. So getting that additional support helps augment the rest of our business throughout the course of the year.
Q: How creative did you get in trying to host this tournament before canceling in May?
TM: Honestly, I would suggest that we were creative, but we didn’t get out of control. There’s only so much that we could have done to adapt, and at the end of the day, we were either going to be told no by the state of Rhode Island, or no by the ATP… or host something pretty close to what our norm was. I guess was, regrettably.
Our event is so intimate, our seating capacity and property capacity is so low, that the moment we start to imagine 25 percent fan capacity, the business no longer is viable. So for us, if the ATP or the state of Rhode Island would have imposed certain restrictions, we would’ve requested to be canceled, just because of the losses that we would have incurred.
Q: Having gone through that process with your own event, and now seeing the plans for New York for the US Open and Western & Southern Open, what is your opinion on the safety protocols and bubble that will be in place?
TM: The USTA staff has put in absolute yeoman’s work to figure out how to conceptualize the US Open this way. I would say I’m really confident in their plan. The challenge is always—and we’re seeing it in other sports, in basketball down in Florida—a bubble relies on everybody within the bubble to comply. And I think that’s the great unknown, and I just hope that everybody really does appreciate the amazing sacrifices that so many people have made in order to plan this event, have it for the players, for the fans, for television. For it to succeed, it really does depend on everyone.
It’ll be the first US Open that I miss since I went to my first one in 1988, and I’ll be watching with great interest. I’ve got so many friends on staff and in board leadership at the USTA. I will gladly send them all a congratulatory, get-some-rest message on the Monday after the Open.
(Photo courtesy of the International Tennis Hall of Fame)