Last year, renowned tennis star Kim Clijsters was named honorary president of the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island. That role has her representing the organization publicly, but also contributing to their various initiatives to preserve and celebrate tennis history, with a focus on connecting with players past and present.
Clijsters recently spoke to AA on the ITHF, including their TennisWorthy video series (streaming for free on YouTube) on notable people and moments from the game’s history (which last month spotlighted the 50th anniversary of the Women’s Tennis Association with a Billie Jean King-narrated video). She also talked about where tennis as a whole is today, where women’s tennis is at, and how women’s tennis can connect with and benefit from the recent surge in interest in other women’s sports. To start with, Clijsters said she began her involvement with the ITHF after they inducted her in 2017, and was thrilled to get the chance last year to take on this role of honorary president, particularly with an eye to boosting the organization’s worldwide profile.
“My connection with the Hall of Fame started in 2017 when I got inducted myself. It was an amazing experience to be able to personally have, to reflect on my career and share it with family and friends. And the group and staff at the Hall of Fame makes those opportunities possible for everybody. And then I got asked last year by [then-CEO] Todd Martin if I wanted to join the team because [then-president] Stan Smith was stepping down, to see if I could fill a part of his role.”
“So I felt very honored and excited to be a part of an organization that is so passionate about our sport and wants to make sure that the history of our sport is known and stays known all around the world, not just here in the States. And with my role as a European female tennis player, to me, it felt like a very natural thing to say yes.”
Clijsters said the ITHF impressed her with their level of organization and coordination.
“I like how they’re run, how they organize everything, how they communicate. It’s a very, very well-run organization. Obviously Todd Martin’s not on board any more [he left last fall for a role at Beemok Capital], but now we have [CEO] Dan Faber, [president] Patrick McEnroe, who I obviously know and have had many, many conversations about what we see, and the future, little things that we would like to see or change. So it’s a project that I’m very, very excited about, and it’s always kind of on the back of my mind when I’m travelling or doing things, and there are ideas that I pick up. I’m so excited to make a difference and see the Hall of Fame grow, not just here in the States but internationally as well.”
As for TennisWorthy, Clijsters said she thinks it’s an incredibly valuable project to connect current players and fans to the sport’s history. She said she thinks it’s perhaps particularly important to communicate the challenges female players have faced over the decades, especially around the WTA’s 50th anniversary.
“I’m probably one of the youngest Hall of Famers, but for me to look at videos from women I looked up to, and learned a lot of tennis things from, but I never knew about the things that happened behind the scenes or the things that you don’t see when players are just playing. I love being able to share now that I’m out of playing professionally, being able to share some of the struggles that I’ve had. It’s not just all these great things and the good parts of the lifestyle.”
“Our product, and the 50 years, we have such amazing athletes in our sport that we have to keep important. I talk about Steffi Graf, and Monica Seles, and all those women that I loved. And the fact that there’s a lot of kids who play professionally but have never heard of them; it’s normal as you get older, but I think that’s where the Hall of Fame does such an amazing job of bringing those names, those women who had such huge impacts on our sport in different parts of the world to the younger generation who had never seen them play, but can see their stories and hear them talk about their experiences, good and bad. I think that’s amazing, and I’m glad that with today’s technology we’re able to do that.”
Here’s that King-narrated WTA anniversary episode, which has racked up more than 100,000 views to date:
Clijsters said while the state of equality in women’s tennis has improved significantly over that time, it’s vital to communicate what it took to get to that point.
“Our sport is such a well-known sport around the world. We play in Australia, Paris, Asia, South America, Europe, the States, everywhere. It’s a sport that is very well-known around the world, and we’ve had some great leaders on our side that have been able to step up and show the world that women’s tennis is as fun to watch as men’s tennis. And over the 50 years, we’ve seen Billie Jean King and the whole group of women that stepped up when men’s tennis was growing and women’s tennis was kind of left aside. They stepped up and they offered their careers and their tournaments to stand up for themselves and the future of our sport.”
“And everything that’s happening now, the increase in prize money and the bigger stadiums and the interest all around the world, is because of what happened back then. And I think that is really important for our younger generation to realize: it doesn’t happen overnight, it doesn’t just happen because of a few volunteers or some big sponsors. It’s because of the passion that a lot of people in our sport have for that goal, to grow.”
Clijsters said things aren’t perfect now, either, but illustrating the history is a way to keep the women’s side moving forward.
“And there will always be struggles, whether it’s about sponsors, prize money, having the same amount of women’s matches on Center Court as men’s matches, communicating with the TV rights. There’s constantly negotiations. But I feel very lucky that I grew up in an organization where I was surrounded by so many people passionate about our sport. They want to see it grow, and they don’t stop with where it is now, they want to see it grow and grow.”
And she said the recent swells in popularity for women’s basketball (collegiate and professional), women’s soccer, and more provide a good example of how women’s sports organizations can work together to benefit women’s sports across the board. Clijsters said her recent experience at the NCAA women’s basketball Final Four was inspiring to her, showing her how much interest there is in women’s sports.
“I think [women’s sports helping each other] is very important. I know that there are people on our staff, the physios, they go and speak to other organizations. I was actually at the NCAA women’s basketball tournament in Dallas; my daughter plays basketball and there was a USA Basketball U16 camp that she was invited to for the weekend. So I was just there on my own in a different hotel, and walking up to the stadium, walking over there, all of a sudden, there’s this whole line of people in the street just waiting. And then five minutes later the bus drives by and they’re going crazy.”
“And I got chills all over my body. I called my family in Europe, my friends, and tried to explain this, ‘This is for college basketball!’ I had tears running down my face, I was so proud that these girls are in this position and that they can have an impact on younger kids and anybody. It was just an amazing experience to see.”
Clijsters said that the incredible experience continued at the games themselves, too.
“And then getting into the stadium and seeing it completely packed, it was completely full, and it was absolutely amazing. I called my husband and I was like ‘I don’t know if I’ll be able to handle something like this if our daughter gets to that level.’ It’s so different. And it’s funny, because I’ve played in places like that, but when you talk about your children, it’s completely different.”
Clijsters said she loved seeing that level of mass fan excitement for women’s sports, as she hasn’t seen that on that level in her native Belgium. But she still thinks there’s a lot of work to be done to improve women’s sports equality overall.
“Seeing that in sports; I’m from Belgium, and women’s soccer there is nowhere near where it deserves to be. Women’s basketball, our basketball team has done well, but still, they’re also fighting. All the girls, they need to have another job, or maybe they have to play in two places in a season.”
Clijsters said that the need for many female athletes to play for two teams is particularly challenging. She thinks WNBA star Brittney Griner’s recent imprisonment in Russia illustrates some of the issues that can arise there.
“You saw what happened to Brittney Griner, and it’s unthinkable that something like that would happen to a male player, right? Where they’d have to go play in two different places in a season? So organizations have to step up, teams have to step up, owners have to step up, companies. And it takes passionate women to support other passionate women in sports a lot of times as well.”
But Clijsters said she’s thrilled with some of the progress she’s seen for women’s sports in the U.S. in particular, and she’s eager to continue working to advance equality in the U.S. and around the world.
“I feel very fortunate that since I’ve lived here in the States I’ve met some really great women. Two girls who live in my hometown here played soccer at Duke, had some knee injuries, but they’re very passionate about getting involved and helping the future generation and helping make a difference. So we have some ideas behind the scenes to support where we can, and be a part of organizations. It’s been very interesting for me to learn to see the differences, the good and the bad, from Belgium, and to be able to learn, absorb, and share my thoughts and experiences.”
More on the International Tennis Hall of Fame can be found at tennisfame.com. Photos courtesy of the ITHF.