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Steve Flink: One-on-one with Cliff Drysdale

7/23/2013 2:00:00 PM

When I went to Newport, Rhode Island the weekend before last to attend the International Tennis Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, I was moved in different ways by observing the estimable class of 2013 graciously accepting their high honors. It was a pleasure to witness Martina Hingis—the best ever woman player from Switzerland—joining the game’s immortals at the shrine of the sport, to see extraordinary contributors Charlie Pasarell and Ion Tiriac taking their well-deserved bows, to watch the incomparable Rod Laver appearing on behalf of 94-year-old countrywoman Thelma Coyne Long.

But nothing was more poignant that day to me than the induction of a man who has been one of the game’s premier statesmen and finest soldiers for the better part of five decades. As a player, he advanced to the final of the U.S. Championships in 1965, reached the semifinals of Wimbledon twice, and also made it to the penultimate round of Roland Garros in back to back years. He spent at least half a dozen years entrenched among the world’s top ten players in the sixties and early seventies, and toppled the redoubtable No. 1 seed Laver at the first U.S. Open in 1968. He was a sportsman of the highest order, a gentleman of rare class and sophistication, a fellow who—at least in my view—carried himself across a distinguished career just about as well as it can be done.

This man is, of course, none other than Cliff Drysdale. His credits as a player were remarkable, but what he achieved on court is not the primary reason why he is now a genuine Hall of Famer. Drysdale was a member of the esteemed “Handsome Eight” signed by Lamar Hunt of WCT in 1967, and his presence on the WCT circuit in the early seventies was very significant. More importantly, he was the very first President of the Association of Tennis Professionals (from 1972-74), taking an active and critical role as the leading players boycotted Wimbledon in 1973. Perhaps most impressively of all, Drysdale has been one of the game’s foremost television commentators since the late seventies, and has been “the voice” of ESPN since the inception of the network back in 1979.

Born and bred in South Africa, but now a United States citizen, Drysdale is an individual who in many ways is larger than the game he played, and fundamentally bigger than the television industry he has served so prodigiously. Drysdale is among his sport’s most authentic, probing and deepest thinkers. We spoke by telephone yesterday on a wide range of topics, starting with his International Tennis Hall of Fame induction. I wondered if it was everything he had envisioned.

Drysdale replied, “To me, it was a lot more fun and more memorable than I imagined it to be. I felt like it was a gathering of the tennis family. It was a really pleasant celebration and I was treated like I feel the players today are treated, with transportation at my beck and call, really strong organization, and every minute of every day over the weekend accounted for. It was really special. I felt like I was back on tour.”

Greg Drysdale spoke about his father at the ceremony, and his speech was so heartfelt and penetrating that Cliff was moved to the edge of tears by what he heard. The emotional impact of that speech was unmistakable. Somehow, Cliff Drysdale maintained his composure despite his son’s powerful tribute. He comments, “There is nothing more important to me than my kids. My son has had his challenges in life. He is in his forties and has become the wonderful human being that I always knew he was. He had never spoken a word in front of a crowd of any kind of size, ever. So I was concerned about him. I was immensely proud of him. He is such a fine human being that I just wanted to let him know that there is nobody more important in the world than he is to me. That is why I asked him to present me. That he did such a spectacular job was icing on the cake for me. I have always been emotional about him, very emotional. I am glad I was able to hold it together a lot better than I thought I would when I spoke.”

How does Drysdale measure his Hall of Fame status up against his many other significant accomplishments? “It is not easy to answer that question, “he responds, “without sounding cliché-ish. But it does dawn on you slowly that the honor is about the recognition of your peers and people in the sport that you have done enough to be recognized. Before it happens you feel like you don’t need the recognition, but once it happened it gave me the opportunity to look back, and to read about what I have done. It gives you a chance to reminisce and to appreciate things.”

We turn our attention to his days at WCT, and what that organization did to help the game explode into a prominence it never had reached before. How important was his role in the establishment of WCT in tennis? “I was just a player in that whole story,” he answers modestly. “But WCT was the crutch that allowed the game to get out of the rut when Lamar Hunt and Al Hill signed the eight players in our ‘Handsome Eight’ in 1967 [John Newcombe, Tony Roche, Dennis Ralston, Butch Buchholz, Roger Taylor, Pierre Barthes, Nikki Pilic and Drysdale]. A lot of people like Jack Kramer, Wimbledon and the ATP deserve credit [for boosting the game so much at that time], but the most credit should be given to the  ‘Handsome Eight’. That was the first domino and then the rest of them fell and suddenly we go through the Open Game, ATP, and the Wimbledon walkout. They were monstrous moments in the sport and I was a part of it initially as a player and then as a player-politician. I was able to play a role in the whole evolution.”

That was indeed a critical period in the sport’s development. As Drysdale explains, “In those days of WCT in the beginning, there was a quick progression of things and it was very quick after Lamar signed the ‘Handsome Eight’. The whole political process hasn’t changed much in the last two decades but in those days it changed from WCT on the one hand, the Grand Slams hand in glove with the ITF and then the ATP became part of the mosaic. After that it was the Men’s International Professional Tennis Council (MIPTC) and then we had the ‘Super Nine” which became the Masters 1000. So things changed quickly back then. It was dramatic. But WCT was the first domino that forced the game—and Wimbledon in particular—to open up, because when Wimbledon went Open everybody else had to.”

In his press conference at Newport shortly before the induction ceremony, Drysdale mentioned unhesitatingly that he felt the ATP decision to boycott Wimbledon in 1973 was an “easy” one. And yet, the players were lambasted in the British media for skipping the world’s preeminent event. To a large segment of the British media, that was sacrilegious. But to Drysdale as the ATP President—and to other towering figures like John Newcombe, Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith, Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall—it was a matter of bedrock principle, a make or break moment on multiple levels.

Nikki Pilic—a finalist at the French Open that year—was barred from Wimbledon for failing to keep a Davis Cup commitment he claimed he never made, and the leading players would not tolerate that. Drysdale and his colleagues knew they had no other choice than to walk away from a tournament they all cherished in defense of a player who had been sorely wronged. I asked Drysdale about the extreme criticism the players received in Great Britain, and how he felt about the ramifications of their brave yet unpopular stance.

“First of all,” he says, “I wasn’t reading a lot of the press at that point. Secondly, it was not my concern what the press was going to say because we understood that they were going to be hard on us. I felt they made [Executive Director] Jack Kramer the bad guy and I sort of got off lightly, not that I cared. I truly didn’t because it was an easy decision, such a simple principle that anybody could understand it. If we had allowed Wimbledon to get away with banning Nikki Pilic based on the Yugoslav Federation announcing that he was not in good standing with their federation, it would have been a step backwards in time. It was never going to happen.”

All kinds of metaphorical darts were being thrown at Kramer in the press, and it was unjustified, unseemly and ludicrous. Yet the players and Kramer were unshakable and totally united. As Drysdale asserts, “We were totally behind Jack. I was the one who in Rome went to the players individually and got a document and had each of the players sign. The signatories were signing to walk from Wimbledon and they signed so I knew the players were behind us. There was no doubt in my mind that there would be a very successful walkout. I felt sorry for Jack but I didn’t feel that sorry for him because he was doing the right thing as well. He paid a heavier price because he was a broadcaster for the BBC and I guess he lost that job. But Jack was a man of really great principle and for him it was a pretty easy decision, too.”

Drysdale handled himself impeccably through that boycott year at Wimbledon, and demonstrated emphatically that he was an excellent choice to be the first ATP President. He had garnered that post the previous September during the 1972 U.S. Open. “I remember sitting in the room as I recall at Forest Hills,” he says, “and there were maybe 12 of us forming the ATP that day. My becoming the President was just one of those things that happen in life. It was not like I was campaigning for it. I remember that Newcombe and Andres Gimeno and Mark Cox were all in the room and none of us were campaigning for this. It was more like somebody had to do that job and they sort of looked at me and said ‘Would you take this on?’ I said ‘Sure.’ Arthur Ashe took over from me two years later, notwithstanding Ion Tiriac saying to me, ‘You can’t leave now.’ But I said, ‘No, let’s switch Presidents every two years.’ So that is how it happened. It was not like it was ordained or anything like that.”

Drysdale had by then left a lot of his best tennis behind him, but he remained formidable. He had been in the latter stages of a lot of majors, and yet had never broken through to secure one of the elite titles. What would it have taken for him to secure one of those highly coveted prizes? “There are two things I will say about that,” he answers. “I had a technical flaw. My forehand was described as awful, and secondly my best shot was a two-handed backhand, which in those days was so strange that people looked at it like ‘What is this two-handed thing?’ As a result of that, I could not quite understand why I was so successful with a shot that nobody else had been really successful with. I also wasn’t in good enough shape. I didn’t treat it professionally enough because for a long time in my career it wasn’t a profession and we were just playing for the love of the game. It was not like it is today. So it was a combination of things that prevented me from winning a Slam.”

Does he regret that he did not realize that ambition? “Negative,” he replies. “But if I had to do it again on a replay, I would have got in a lot better shape and I would have gone to somebody who knew the mechanics of the game. I don’t think any of us understood the mechanics then like they do now because we were playing with a continental grip on the forehand, which has become extinct. It just doesn’t exist anymore and it never will. We might see some return to serve-and-volley but we will never see a return of the continental forehand.”

Be that as it may, Drysdale moved past his playing days almost seamlessly into broadcasting. As he told me, “The reason I got into television was because Tony Trabert had to be on the court for the U.S. as captain in Davis Cup against South Africa [in 1977]. Barry Frank was at CBS at the time and I had gotten to know him when he was doing the CBS Classic and I was a player. He asked me in the absence of Trabert if I would do the color commentary for that Davis Cup tie. That is how I got into the commentary. It was not like I was calling CBS or anybody saying, ‘Could I please get into the television business.’ It was purely fate that led me there.”

Drysdale did some other work on syndicated WCT telecasts, but it was not until ESPN went on the air 34 years ago that he found his true niche. At the outset, he worked as the color man alongside the venerable Jim Simpson. Later, he made a transition to play by play, but his analytical skills were never surrendered. As he says, “I remember the first time Jim Simpson handed me the microphone because he had to leave for another assignment. I didn’t think I could handle it [doing play by play]. I don’t remember if I was alone or working with somebody else on that occasion but I felt very comfortable. I never felt I let go of the analyst’s role. I am still and analyst and play by play person in one. I think a lot of our crew at ESPN has made the transition equally successfully, including Patrick McEnroe. Darren Cahill has also done some play by play and so has Pam Shriver. So I think I was able to set a tone where the two roles were not distinct anymore, at least in our family.”

What has always set Drysdale apart in the television industry is his selflessness, the modest approach he takes on the air, the deference he displays so regularly with his comrades in the booth. Drysdale is understated, exceedingly generous to and with the people he works, and a consummate professional who feels no need to show off his talent to the audience. He would rather set up his partners and make them look good than try to make himself the center of attention.

I speak from experience. From 1983-92, I had the good fortune to share the broadcast booth periodically with Drysdale, and his personal and professional decency was ever present. If I made a comment during a telecast that he liked, he would put his thumb up to encourage me. At commercial breaks, he would always check to make sure I felt at ease. His generosity in the booth was ceaseless and far reaching. His kindness was evident every time we worked together.

Speaking now of his philosophy as a broadcaster, he says, “I have always wanted a telecast to be an armchair conversation with the people at home. I clearly understand that it is not about me; the first thing it is about is the match. I have never tuned into any sporting competition to listen to an announcer. I tune in because I want to see the athletic competition. All you can do as an announcer is try to add a little bit of interest and excitement about what the viewer is watching. As for my ego, maybe it is like my playing days. I never really wanted to impose myself that much on the game. I really feel that I want to make it as comfortable as I can for my partners in the booth because that is what I believe makes for the best show. I also feel like I can bring out some of the internal questions that we tennis players ask of each other that may be of interest to the general viewer.”

Although the 72-year-old Drysdale has excelled in many ways as a broadcaster—with his stylish and distinctive delivery, with his sound and thoughtful analysis, with his innate feel for how the game should be played—he is never better than when he does a slow motion replay of a stroke, or the comparative strokes of the two combatants. It brings out his deep passion and the depth of his technical understanding, and his broadcast partners invariably take a step back to allow room for Drysdale to move in and handle that role as only he can.

He disputes that last claim of mine. “That is not true,” he says. “I am not the only one who can do it. I am trying to encourage my gang at ESPN to do it. They do step back and give me the opportunity because I have been doing those slow motion [stroke] replays for so long. But I don’t quite know why that is because guys like Brad Gilbert, Darren Cahill, Mary Joe Fernandez and all of the analysts should be able to analyze it. They are very deferential to me in that respect. I do like it when the producer gives me those things because when I watch other sports and they show a golf swing in slow motion or a baseball swing, I find that fascinating. It takes the viewer inside the mind of a player and inside the technique of a stroke. I do get a lot of comments from people about that because viewers can find it educational. Those replays are definitely one of the things I have most enjoyed bringing to the sport on television.”

Before we conclude the interview, I feel compelled to bring up a subject I have addressed before. In my view, unequivocally, if tennis could ever come to an accord and create an office of Commissioner, Cliff Drysdale would be far and away the best available candidate. I ask Drysdale if, under the right circumstances, he would be interested since he is one of the few people on the planet who has the credentials for such authoritative post. He tells me, “I have never seriously considered or been approached about it. You are really the only man who has broached the subject with me so I can answer the question in two ways. If somebody came and really begged me to take on the job of Commissioner, I would find it fascinating and inspiring, and I would probably do it in a New York minute. On the other hand, I don’t think it is very realistic that the position is really going to be created, or that enough people would think I would be the man for the job. So it is truly not anything that has ever really crossed my mind. That said, I have always been fascinated by politics and if someone came along and said, ‘Look, you have got to do this job,’ I would not turn it down.”

When we least expect it, dreams can turn into reality. In my view, the game of tennis needs a commissioner. I hereby urge all of the sport’s power centers--- the USTA and the ITF, the ATP and the WTA, and other entities—to fully explore this concept. It is in everyone’s interests. It could take the game into an entirely different and more orderly realm. I’m absolutely serious. Let’s make Hall of Famer Cliff Drysdale the first Commissioner of Tennis. There is no one who more fully comprehends the inner workings, subtle shadings and deep complexities of the sport than this extraordinary man.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.