ITF World Champions' Dinner
‘I always wanted to be the best, and here I am – it’s a dream come true.’ Those were the words of Aniek van Koot, the Dutch wheelchair tennis player who has stepped into the massive void left by the legendary Esther Vergeer, spoken as she received her award at the 2014 ITF World Champions dinner in Paris last night.
The annual event, which always takes place on the second Tuesday of the French Open just up the road from Roland Garros, celebrates the best in various branches of tennis, but it’s a little more than that. The best is not just someone who finishes top of a ranking list, but who gives more to the sport. And it’s also a celebration of the tennis family, a chance for many of those who give unpaid time to serve the game to rub shoulders with some of the greatest names.
So, for example, it was not Rafael Nadal who was the men’s world champion for 2013 but Novak Djokovic. The ITF has a specific set of criteria that adds additional weight to the Grand Slam tournaments and playing for one’s country, and with Djokovic having won one major, been runner-up in two others and a semifinalist in the fourth, plus steering Serbia to the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas final, the ITF computer delivered the Serb as its world champion.
And alongside the main Philippe Chatrier Award winners, there was recognition for the 71-year-old German Heide Orth. After having a family following her primary tennis career, Orth has given several decades of service to seniors tennis, and has become proof that those players who peak in their 60s, 70s and 80s should not be overlooked, just because their best does not come in their 20s.
The Chatrier award went to a pair who are no strangers to the World Champions Dinner, Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde. Woodbridge first showed up in 1987 as a guest of Jason Stoltenberg, and won the doubles award three times with Woodforde. But this was recognition not just for their prowess as a doubles team but for what they have put into the game since.
Woodbridge, who is heavily involved with Tennis Australia, told the 400 guests, ‘We’re very fond of tennis, and the only way to make sure other people can be successful in the future is to give something back, and that’s what we’re doing.’
Woodforde spoke up for the importance of doubles, thanking the ITF for its work to keep certain full-scoring doubles formats. ‘Doubles is vital and very important for the promotion of the game,’ he said. ‘We must fight for the role of doubles and the importance of doubles.’
The dinner has an element of crystal ball gazing, in which attendees quietly assess whether the two junior champions are likely to be back in years to come as full champions. The 2013 winners may well be. Belinda Bencic has already broken into the world’s top 100 just a couple of months after her 17th birthday, while Alexander Zverev showed that he has the personality to be a great character if his results make him a future star of the game. Asked by the dinner’s compere Andrew Castle, age 50, where he expected his ranking to be in five years, the assured German said, ‘Well I want to be as high as possible, I certainly want to be higher than you!’
The dinner has known nights when more champions have turned up. Djokovic and the women’s doubles champions, Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci, had both played matches that afternoon, while the women’s world champion Serena Williams and the men’s doubles laureates Bob and Mike Bryan had returned to America after defeats at Roland Garros.
But that did not detract from the event as a celebration of the tennis family, and like most families there are deaths as well as births and marriages. In his remarks, the ITF president Francesco Ricci Bitti acknowledged the passing of the Moroccan tennis association president Mohamed M’jid, the Swiss tennis administrator Eric Keller, the photographer Tommy Hindley, and the former top-50 player Elena Baltacha. With its highs and lows, it was a classic family celebration.