Pioneers in Tennis: History Lessons
Mark Stenning turns over the reins at the Hall of Fame.
By Mike Szostak
Mark Stenning recalls his first day of work at the International Tennis Hall of Fame, just a few blocks from the opulent “summer cottages” of Newport’s Gilded Age. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had a brand new tie and a blue blazer. Both were about 16 hours old,” he says with a chuckle.
Colonel Bob Day, executive director at the time, told Stenning his job was to promote tennis. Stenning said he knew little about tennis and nothing about promoting it. “Sure you do,” Day responded, handing his new aide a roll of tape and 50 tournament posters. “Now, go promote.”
That was May 1980, two months before the fifth Hall of Fame Tennis Championships at the Newport Casino. Stenning found homes for those 50 posters and, as he puts it, “morphed into an executive; I was allowed to sell advertisements in the magazine.”
More than three decades later, the last 14 years as CEO, Stenning’s career at the Hall of Fame is ending. The 2014 Hall of Fame Tennis Championships in July was his last as tournament director and Sept. 5 will be his last day as CEO. Todd Martin, a former touring pro ranked as high as No. 4 in the world, succeeds him in both positions.
Stenning’s departure marks the end of an era at the Newport Casino, site of the first U.S. National Lawn Tennis Championships in 1881 and major tournament tennis every year since. When Stenning started at the HOF, it was little more than a collection of memorabilia displayed in glass cases salvaged from shuttered retail stores, the HOF induction ceremony a filler between Saturday semifinals, and the tournament a showcase for grass-court players. He leaves an institution that is respected worldwide, an enshrinement ceremony that is laced with pageantry and televised live, and a tournament that has outlasted more prominent pro tennis events in New England.
Stenning, 58, has done it all during his 35-year career. He’s done everything from picking up players and celebrities at the airport, to negotiating contracts to attract top players, to managing multi-year, multi-million-dollar sponsorships that have kept the tournament afloat. He’s represented the smaller events in the Americas on the ATP World Tour Tournament Council and served on the USTA’s Davis Cup, Fed Cup and Olympic committees and USTA Nominating Committee. He oversaw improvements to the 7-acre Newport Casino complex, and he has been a key figure in the current $15.7-million capital campaign that will result in a new indoor tennis facility, three additional outdoor courts that will be covered by a bubble in winter, and a Memorial Boulevard façade that will mimic the shingle style on Bellevue Avenue. He launched a racquet donation program that has helped introduce tennis to hundreds of kids.
As a tennis leader, he’s also been a perfect fit for the Tennis Industry Association board of directors. “Mark has a broad understanding of the many facets of our industry — recreational to professional players, tournaments to equipment suppliers,” says TIA Executive Director Jolyn de Boer. “We’re grateful for his support in recognizing the value of the industry and helping to elevate the recently created award for the Tennis Industry Hall of Fame with a permanent dedicated section within the International Tennis Hall of Fame museum. His integrity, insight, and solid character have helped in guiding this industry for many years.”
“The thing that impressed me about him from the day I met him is his willingness to do anything asked of him,” says 2014 Hall of Fame inductee Jane Brown Grimes, a former USTA president and former executive director of the HOF until leaving to run the Women’s Tennis Association in 2000. “In the early days we were thinly staffed, and he did everything. He is the ultimate step-up guy. ”
The great irony of Stenning’s longevity in tennis is that he never played the game.
“I think that worked to my benefit,” he says. “I was more concerned about the business of the sport, sponsorship, hospitality, creature comforts for fans and sponsors.”
After a well-earned rest, Stenning will serve as a consultant to the HOF, focusing much of his attention on the capital projects currently under way.
Mike Szostak was a sportswriter for The Providence Journal from 1977 until retiring in 2013. He covered 36 Hall of Fame Tennis Championships.
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