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Still standing tall

Todd Martin in the 1999 US Open.
By Robin Jonathan Deutsch
Thursday, September 4, 2014

At 6-foot-6, Todd Martin had an imposing serve-and-volley game that helped lift him to the No. 4 world ranking in September 1999. Playing in an era that features such greats as Andre Agassi, Michael Chang, Jim Courier and Pete Sampras—arguably American men’s tennis’ greatest generation—Martin reached two Grand Slam singles finals, losing to Sampras at the 1994 Australian Open and falling to Agassi at the 1999 US Open. In addition, Martin reached the Wimbledon and US Open semifinals twice each. He won eight singles titles in his 16-year career and was a member of the 1995 Davis Cup championship team. Currently serving his second term on the USTA’s Board of Directors, Martin recently was appointed Chief Executive Officer of the International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum. Here at the US Open this week and playing in the Champions Invitational, Martin sat down with to discuss his new job and his memories playing at the US Open. What intrigued you about becoming the CEO of the Tennis Hall of Fame?

Todd Martin: Tennis is my lifelong passion, so the notion that I had an opportunity to influence the sport as CEO of the Hall of Fame was appealing. This job suits some of my skills – vision, diplomacy and relationship building. The history of tennis has unbelievable aspirational capabilities. I believe history inspires the future. Pete Sampras always talked about Rod Laver being his idol. I am a year older than Pete, and I never once saw Rod Laver play on television. He was done by the time tennis on television became popular, but through the Hall of Fame we can educate tennis fans worldwide on our sport’s great history. What do you remember most about your first US Open in 1990?

Todd Martin: A week before, I played my last match as an amateur at Forest Hills in the WTC Tournament of Champions against Mats Wilander in the first round. I lost the first set, 6-0, and it didn’t feel that close. The first point of the match I came to net and Mats flicked a topspin lob over my head, six feet inside the baseline, and I was like, ‘Whoa, what was that?’ Coming from the college game, I had never seen anything like that before. After that, I stuck around and ended up winning the match. Mats probably wanted some practice before the US Open and didn’t need five matches worth, so he probably shrugged it off. But I thought, ‘Oh, man, I am going to take this world by storm.’ At the Open, I played Jean-Philippe Fleurian of France in the first round. We had a very competitive match, but I lost. I was disheartened because I thought, ‘I can beat this guy,’ but I was optimistic because I knew I could beat this guy.

Some strange things happened that first match. I was sitting at a changeover, and a guy I went to college with at Northwestern came up to me and wanted to talk, saying, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ It was bizarre. I said, ‘Hi, I am kinda in the middle of something here.’” What are your fondest memories of playing at the US Open?

Todd Martin: Early on, I loved playing and then going to watch my buddies play or watch some of the guys I should learn from play. As I started to do better and better, I really came to embrace our national championship. Apart from Davis Cup, it’s the most energetic environment a tennis player gets to play in. When you play a night match in Arthur Ashe Stadium, there is absolutely no way you can’t feel that the attention of the entire world is on you. It’s what I imagine Monday Night Football to be like. The New York crowd is not accepting of a below-par performance, and I liked that. I liked the pressure and the feeling that the people that paid for their tickets wanted more and expected more and were going to tell you. For me, it was the most enjoyable place to compete, and that has always been one of my favorite things in the world – competing. You were up two sets to one in the 1999 US Open final. What are your recollections of that match?

Todd Martin: I lost to Andre three weeks before in the semifinals at Washington before the US Open and didn’t have a sniff. I felt and played horribly. I came to the Open having had a great year and success in pretty much every tournament I’d played in. It was by far the best year of my career, but I felt like I had no chance to do well here. The week before the Open I worked real hard, practiced a lot, got rid of some of those thoughts and won my first-round match against Stéphane Huet of France, 7-6, in the fifth, which started me on my way. I played really well in the quarters and semifinals. There were two previous matches that figured into my thinking in 1999. The night before I played Sampras in the 1994 Australian final, I couldn’t eat and couldn’t sleep, and I still couldn’t eat in the morning. I had let the moment get to me, and I was unprepared to play the match. In the 1996 Wimbledon semifinals, when I was up, 5-1, in the fifth set against Mal Washington and lost, I was already playing the final in my head and just got ahead of myself. The moment got the better of me.

Against Andre, I ate and slept the night before. I was prepared. I played three great sets to go up, 2-1. Andre raised his game, and I didn’t. I wasn’t able to go to his level. It wasn’t because the moment got the better of me, so even though I lost the match, it was a very gratifying moment in my career. For a guy who had a history of letting the moment get to him at times, I handled the opportunity as well as I possibly could have. When you came to New York, was it all about playing tennis, or did you try to have some fun off the court?

Todd Martin: Before the 1999 US Open, I threw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium to current Yankees’ manager Joe Girardi, which was really cool. Occasionally I’d go to the theater. I loved night matches because I could sleep in, get a big breakfast at the deli across the street, walk to the record store and buy CDs, then hang out and listen to them a few times. I’d walk around the city not searching for anything, just walking. My favorite thing in the world and best part of my job was travel. Is the US Open the most difficult environment of the four Grand Slams to play?

Todd Martin: One of my favorite things to do was to play Davis Cup away. I loved the notion of energy, noise and being the underdog. I really like noise and found walking around New York City to be one of the most private things in the world because there is so much going on nobody notices. When I played here, the noise allowed me to focus. I found playing on Centre Court at Wimbledon to be more difficult because you were alone with your thoughts. You could hear a pin drop. In New York, there’s noise and activity and great people watching. At the changeover, I’d review what just happened, think about what adjustments could be made, fuel myself, and then I could just people watch, thinking, ‘What is that person wearing?’ I found that moment of distraction very helpful. Who are your choices to win the 2014 US Open?

Todd Martin: You can’t look past (Roger) Federer, (Novak) Djokovic and (Andy) Murray as the three guys in the men’s draw who have the most reasonable chance. Murray hasn’t been playing great since his back injury. He’s in Djokovic’s quarter, and I guarantee you he doesn’t think that’s the greatest draw in the world. Although Novak has had a very uncharacteristically bad summer, he won Wimbledon two months ago, and he has to be the No. 1 favorite. It doesn’t matter that Federer won Cincinnati or made it to the final at Canada. Djokovic is the best player in the world and has proven repeatedly that he’s great in these settings. I think Roger has another Grand Slam in him, and this one makes a lot of sense. I think the women’s side is less open, but I think that every year. I think Serena is going to win every tournament, every week, every year, always.