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Steve Flink: Fred Stolle, An Aussie Through and Through

1/4/2010 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink
If one thread has run seamlessly through the historical fabric of Australian tennis, it must be this: their great players have always been a distinctive lot. Perhaps it is a prerequisite for most of the outstanding Aussies to add something larger than the sum of their achievements to the landscape of the sport, to spread their influence in other ways through character and leadership. And so that is how it has always been for one Fred Stolle, an Australian through and through, an attacking player of the front rank, a champion who worked hard and played fair across a distinguished career, and a man of backbone who has spoken his mind freely and stood up forthrightly for his beliefs as a competitor, coach, and broadcaster over the past five decades.

At 71, Stolle carries himself like a much younger man, offering candid opinions lucidly, travelling the world as one of the game’s best ambassadors without portfolio, displaying sharp intelligence, wit and humor across the board in all of his dealings. Stolle had just arrived in Australia last week for his duties as a commentator at the Hopman Cup when I tracked him down by telephone. For me, it was an enlightening interview with someone who collected two Grand Slam championships in singles during his heyday in the 1960’s, along with another ten majors in men’s doubles and six more in mixed. Stolle--- a singles finalist for three consecutive years at Wimbledon from 1963-65-- was in a reflective mood when asked about his surprising breakthrough at the 1965 French Championships, which he took on the red clay at Roland Garros with impressive wins over John Newcombe, Cliff Drysdale and Tony Roche.

“Clay wasn’t known to be my surface,” Stolle acknowledges. “I was lucky that particular year that the weather was warm and we were playing with pretty light Slazenger balls. The courts were quick to the point where I served-and-volleyed pretty much every first serve. I was not bad at that stage of my career from the back of the court. My backhand was my best shot, I played a lot of slice forehand approach shots, and I covered the net well throughout the tournament. When I beat Newcombe, I got in on his backhand a lot. With Cliff, it was a tough five set match but that came down to endurance, and I felt confident in the fifth because I felt I was in better shape than he was. And in those early days, I owned Roche and knew where he was going to hit almost every single ball.”

Placing that triumph in perspective, Stolle adds, “Having struggled beforehand in Grand Slam finals, you just doubted whether you could win one or not. I lost a bunch of those to Emmo but against anybody else I was pretty comfortable. My victory at the French was a bit like Andre Agassi winning his first Grand Slam event at Wimbledon in 1992. You felt that Andre was going to win one somewhere at that stage, but it was not supposed to be on grass courts, which he had said he hated. But it was very warm at Wimbledon that year and the ball bounced very high, which suited Andre. The French was not the one I was supposed to win but it was exciting for me.”

Capturing that prestigious clay court crown for his first “Big Four” title also brought Stolle a considerable amount of relief. He had already been beaten in the 1963 and 1964 Wimbledon finals, had lost in the finals of the Australian Championships in 1964 and 1965, and fell in the championship match at Forest Hills in 1964. Four of those five defeats came at the hands of his frequent doubles partner Roy Emerson, who held the men’s record for singles majors with 12 from 1967 until 2000, when it was broken by Pete Sampras, who kept the high honor until Roger Federer surpassed him last year.

Why was Emerson so formidable and what was it about his game that was so burdensome to Stolle over the years? Fred replies, “He was a bit quicker than I was around the net and he moved better than I did around the court. Roy was just a better athlete on the run and probably a better competitor. The fact that I lost to him in five Grand Slam finals over the course of our careers speaks for itself.”

That is indeed the case. But the record also reveals that these two friends and doubles partners ate breakfast together the morning of their 1964 Wimbledon final. “We flatted together in Sloane Square and we used to take turns making breakfast for each other,” says Stolle. “We used to have scrambled eggs, and on that particular day of our final it was Emmo’s turn to cook. The press in those days wasn’t anywhere near what it is like today, but they wanted to do a photo of Roy and I having breakfast. We went round to Abe Segal’s flat for the photo so nobody would see us. It was a different world back then. We only did press conferences after the semifinals and finals. We would go to talk to the press guys like Bud Collins in the bar at the French or the press room at Wimbledon.”

In any event, Stolle had put his name on the Grand Slam singles board at Roland Garros, but was determined not to settle for that lone triumph. At Forest Hills in 1966, he made one of the most spirited runs of his career on the grass in New York, claiming the U.S. Championships in style. Over that fortnight, Stolle may well have raised the level of his game to unprecedented heights. Stolle was not seeded at that tournament, which he felt was a serious injustice.

How riled up was he by the seeding committee omitting his name? Was that really what fueled him? “There was a lot of truth in that,” he responds. “In those days they seeded only eight players. I had lost to Bob Hewitt in the second round of Wimbledon so they thought I was over the hill and finished. But I had come back after that to win the German Championships and beat some good players there. I hadn’t been playing that poorly. I will never forget that Ernie Oberlander was chairman of the seeding committee then and he put four Americans on the seeding list. I beat [No. 3 seed] Dennis Ralston in the fourth round, Clark Graebner [No. 7] in the quarterfinals, Emmo [No. 2) in the semifinals and Newk in the final.”

The victory over Emerson was particularly rewarding after his many setbacks on big occasions against his close friend. As Stolle recalls, “Emmo was my nemesis but I can still remember hitting every line on the court against him that day at Forest Hills, particularly off my return of serve. I served well and the match never got close. I never had a chance to gag or get nervous. It was just one of those days where nothing could go wrong for me. I won 6-4, 6-1, 6-1. The chalk was flying everywhere for me in that match.”

Confronting Newcombe, Stolle was in excellent form against the man who would claim the title the following year. “I always felt I had a chance against Newcombe on grass,” asserts Stolle. “It was just a matter of who could break serve at the right time. I always felt confident against him. I lost the first set but then on a big point near the end of the second set he played a lob over my head and I went back, ran it down and hit my favorite shot, which was a backhand passing shot winner. Newk doesn’t like to remember that as much as I do. I won in four sets. Beating Emerson and Newcombe back to back was pretty satisfying.”

As Stolle prioritizes what happened in those vintage years, he points easily to the three seasons in a row--- 1964-1966--- that he played a crucial role in leading Australia to victory in the Davis Cup. In the first of those triumphs, he overcame Ralston of the U.S. in the decisive match in the Challenge Round at Cleveland; the following year, he made a stupendous comeback from two sets to love down against the immensely talented Manuel Santana of Spain in the Challenge Round; and he concluded that stretch with two singles wins against India in a 4-1 Australian Challenge Round victory.

Stolle’s 1964 win over Ralston is the stuff of folklore in the annals of tennis, not simply because he prevailed in a much heralded five set skirmish. He remembers that match primarily for a fifth set incident that gave him the encouragement he needed to make the final push when the momentum of the contest appeared to be swinging permanently in the American’s favor.  As Stolle explains it, “I won the first two sets, lost the next two sets, and when I lost my serve to go down 2-1 in the fifth set, Don Budge stood up in the third row back and said, ‘Come on Denny. You’ve got him now.’ I went to the changeover and sat down and Hop [Australian captain Harry Hopman] said, ‘Are you o.k.? Can you handle this?’ I told Hop I had just seen the great J. Donald Budge say that Dennis has got me, but Hop told me he thought Dennis was nervous and Hop said I should go for my returns in the next game and keep them close to the lines--- which is all he used to say. I broke serve straight away and broke again to win 6-4 in the fifth set. Thank you very much Mr. Budge.”

While that was an emotional success story for Stolle, his terrific comeback against Santana was another occasion when victory came about only after he had endured a test of character for which he could not have been fully prepared. In this instance, Stolle’s father was there with Fred’s wife watching him compete against Santana, but his old man did not stay in the stands when the outlook appeared bleak. As Stolle recalls, “My Dad--- God bless him--- hadn’t seen me play for a while because he didn’t like the way I played at times. I was a young, brash kid at that stage and said, ‘Dad, if you don’t like the way I play, don’t watch me.’ And so he didn’t for a number of years, except at some smaller events. Now he was sitting with my wife Pat for the Davis Cup match against Santana in Sydney, and I lost the first two sets. I looked up in the stands and there is my Dad walking out of the stadium.”

Stolle recouped to win the next two sets and take the match into a fifth set. “We were doing battle in the fifth set,” Stolle recollects, “and I saw my father walk back in. I finished up winning that fifth set 7-5. I still remember stretching wide for a forehand volley when Manolo hit a backhand down the line, and I knew I made it because of my fitness. Our Australian Davis Cup teams were great because we were far and away the fittest Davis Cup teams that ever played the game. So I was proud to make that comeback against Santana. When I got back to the locker room, my Dad was in there talking to Prime Minister Bob Menzies, whom he did not like at all. At dinner that night, he said to me, ‘Son, Bob Menzies is not a bad bloke after all.’ I said, ‘Dad, he is the Prime Minister but he is a regular fellow.’”

The central figure in Australian tennis, and a man who was in essence a czar, was Harry Hopman. Stolle’s relationship with Hopman was complicated. Stolle felt strongly that he should have been a playing member of the 1963 Australian contingent that lost to the U.S. in the Challenge Round, but Hopman went instead with the 19-year-old Newcombe along with the redoubtable Emerson in singles, and Emerson joined forces with Neale Fraser for the doubles. “In my mind,” Stolle contends now, “I definitely should have played in 63’ when Newcombe played. And Bob Hewitt and I should have played in the doubles. Had Bob and I played in the doubles we would have won the Davis Cup that year--- no question in my mind about that. But Hopman kicked Hewitt off the team for hitting a ball out of the stadium, and Emerson and Fraser lost to Ralston and Chuck McKinley.”

The following year, Stolle was suspended from the team by Hopman, but was reinstated with Emerson when the Australian authorities and Hopman realized how much they were needed if the Aussies were going to raise the Cup at year’s end. “Hopman never really liked me much at all,” says Stolle. “He thought I was pretty lazy because I didn’t do a lot of running and training outside the court. I did most of my stuff on the court and would work for five or six hours a day on the court.”

In that period, Stolle had an altercation with Hopman, and did not hide his disillusionment with the way his captain was treating him. “Mr. Hopman,” he said, “if you think this is the way I want to represent Australia, you can shove it.”

Stolle assumed that he had thus taken himself out of consideration for the 1964 Australian Davis Cup squad because he had addressed Hopman so caustically. But Hopman had other notions. Says Stolle, “We were on our way over to the Davis Cup draw, and I thought there was no way I was going to play. But Hopman had a strange way of doing things. On the way to the draw he called Newk and told John he wasn’t playing, but he did not tell me I was playing. I did not know until my name was pulled out of the hat at the official draw ceremony. Just picture that happening today. Absolutely impossible.”

Stolle made his captain look like a genius that year.  When the Australians toppled Mexico, Stolle won a singles match and took the doubles with Emerson. He kept performing admirably in the clutch all year, with his win over Ralston the culmination of that memorable campaign. He had demonstrated emphatically to Hopman that he belonged among the elite as a prime time Cup performer. He came through emphatically again in 1965 and 1966.

After the 1966 season--- which included both the triumph at Forest Hills and a third straight starring role for the Australians in Davis Cup--- Stolle was offered a professional contract.  He reflects, “Strangely enough, as much as Hopman disliked me at the start of my tennis career, we were very good friends towards the end of my amateur career. I had fought my way into the Davis Cup and played well. So at the end of 1966 I went to Hop and by then he could tell just what I was thinking and I knew how he was thinking as well. He said, ‘Fred, you have got the two boys [Newcombe and Roche] hammering down your throat and they will be right on your tail, so if you get a good contract I would advise you to take it.’” Stolle did just that.

Issuing his final assessment of the late Harry Hopman, Stolle says, “Everybody had their ax to grind with Hop no matter who you were, but I finished up giving the eulogy at his memorial service which was a tough damned thing to do. Emmo didn’t want to do it because he reckoned he would break down. So I did it. Vitas Gerulaitis went before me. I then got up and used Hop’s line. I said, ‘This is very difficult for me to get through but if I don’t get through it and I start to choke up, I will take a deep breath and then I will come back and hit for the lines.’”

When Stolle joined the pro game for the 1967 season, he was 28, still in his prime, but not really enjoying what he was doing. “It was grinding with all the one night stands. It was a lot tougher than I thought it would be. Then Open Tennis came about in 1968 and I did all right in the Grand Slam tournaments but I played on the WCT tour and that was a grind. Mentally I got to the stage where you would go through the motions during some matches. It amazes me today that everybody expects these top players to go out and win every match they play, which was true in my day as well. You used to go out and you would try but you didn’t have your heart and soul in it.”

By 1972, at 33, Stolle knew it was time for him to plan a sensible departure from the game. He played his last major at the U.S. Open, but the self awareness and recognition of his plight allowed Stolle to go out and compete with an exuberance and freedom he hadn’t known for a long time. He knocked off Emerson, the No. 5 seed Newcombe, and No. 11 Drysdale before bowing in four sets to eventual champion Ilie Nastase. “The monkey was off my back,” muses Stolle. “ I had made my decision that I was going to retire and I was happy with it and I just went out there and played the best tennis I had played in three or four years.”

Gone was Stolle from the demands of tournament tennis, but he found another avenue of competition that suited him exceedingly well as he moved through his mid to late thirties. He found World Team Tennis, joining that league at its inception in 1974 as a player for the Philadelphia Freedoms, moving on to play for the New York franchise as a player/coach. “Those four years (1974-77) in World Team Tennis in the seventies were probably the most enjoyable of my life and career. In Davis Cup teams you were there for a few weeks and then gone. In World Team Tennis you were there with the same group of people for three months straight, with three weeks off for Wimbledon. We had to mesh together as people. And then after that first year when Billie Jean became the first female coach of a sporting team in Philadelphia, we went to New York and swapped roles and I became coach with Billie Jean, Virginia Wade, Sandy Mayer and Phil Dent as players, and then Ray Ruffels and JoAnne Russell. And that was when I became Vitas Gerulaitis’s coach and I had four great years travelling with him on the tour as well. He became like a second son to me.”

Stolle did an outstanding job with Gerulaitis during their years together in the late seventies and early eighties, when Gerulaitis was regularly among the top four in the world. Recalling that period, Stolle says, “ Vitas had the yips on his second serve so we would literally hit 300 serves a day and he was fine and his second serve improved. But when he got into tight situations in matches, it was just like myself or Dementieva or Safina or anybody else. You go into muscle memory. And I don’t care what shrinks you go to, in my mind that is impossible to change.”

In the final of the 1981 Masters event at Madison Square Garden, Gerulaitis took on Ivan Lendl, and led two sets to love with a match point for a straight sets win. “I was always trying to get Vitas to chip and charge. And I can still see that match point in my mind. Lendl hit a second serve, Vitas chipped it back, and Vitas took two steps forward and then five steps back. He lost that match point and lost the match in five sets. I was doing commentary on that match and nearly fell out of my chair because we had been working and working and working on this and suddenly, what does he do? But Vitas was such a kind hearted fellow.”

Gerulaitis was also a creature of habits--- some of them healthy, others clearly not. As Stolle puts it, “At the end of his life, Vitas was on his way to being a very good commentator when tragedy struck and he lost his life at 40[in a freak accident]…. Vitas was always addicted to something. He went into rehab with drugs, and he was addicted to golf, playing 18 holes a day whether he was doing commentary or not. I can’t say enough about Vitas and what a fine family he came from.”

On the subject of commentary, Stolle shifted naturally into that arena in the early 1980’s, and has been there prominently ever since. For the better part of two decades--- deep into the 1990’s—Stolle was one of the leading voices for ESPN. At the outset, he would be at courtside with Cliff Drysdale and Jim Simpson up in the booth; later, he joined Drysdale in the booth and the two former players were a formidable duo behind the microphone. As Stolle says, “I thought Cliff and I worked very well together in the booth for about 17 years. We had a lot of fun together and brought something to the audience that I don’t think can be done with a professional broadcaster and a player. Cliff was doing play by play and I did color, and then we would sometimes switch it around. Now that is what I do for Channel 9 in Australia. I just believe that two tennis minds are better than a professional voice and a tennis mind. The professional broadcasters do a super job but I don’t believe they can explain the nuances the way that players can.”

After his long and successful run at ESPN, Stolle understandably was unhappy that ESPN no longer wanted him as part of their broadcast universe. “It was disappointing,” says Stolle, “because I felt that Drysdale-Stolle were the best in the business and I think a lot of people felt that way. We got a lot of accolades. Quite frankly, I was disappointed with the way Cliff handled it. Whether he was put under any pressure from ESPN I don’t know. But I have always been one to speak my mind and I did speak my mind. I was disappointed with how it was handled. They just sort of let you go and that’s it. And I felt if the shoe had been on the other foot I would have fought a little bit harder for Cliff than Cliff fought for me.”

And yet, even after leaving ESPN, Stolle has remained an essential commentator for Channel 9 in Australia. “I started with Channel 9,” he says, “a couple of years after I started with ESPN. Now Newcombe, myself and Mark Woodforde do the whole bloody day for Channel 9. There are so many commentators out there working for other networks that it is mind boggling. Everybody wants to be part of the gig. When times are tough, I don’t think there is a need to have that many people out there doing the commentary.”

Naturally, Stolle’s commentary is almost entirely connected to singles matches. He has watched doubles get substantially relegated, much to his dismay and sadness. In his era, Stolle was easily one of the three or four best doubles players, winning all four majors in men’s doubles with three different partners (Bob Hewitt, Emerson and Ken Rosewall), taking three of the four Grand Slam events in mixed doubles with Lesley Turner Bowery and Margaret Smith Court. Those achievements were all the more remarkable because in the sixties the top singles players all competed regularly in doubles.

These days, of course, are fundamentally different, with the finest singles players staying largely away from doubles, especially at the majors. How does Stolle feel about the diminished role of doubles? “I will probably get a lot of people a little annoyed with me, but I don’t think doubles is anywhere near in the category it once was in the years when the singles players did play doubles. There were changes in the sport and they put doubles on the back burner and the top players didn’t want to play it. I thought that was detrimental to the game. The doubles champions of the past 15 years aren’t anywhere near as good as the doubles champions of 25 years ago, or even further back.

“You can only beat the competition that is out there, but having said that if you look at the guys the Woodies [Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge] played in their Wimbledon finals, they beat Eltingh-Haarhuis, Connell-Galbraith, Black-Connell, Leach-Melville, and Haarhuis and[ my son] Sandon Stolle. You are not going to tell me that you can put that up there with Emerson and myself against McKinley-Ralston or Newcombe and Roche against Stolle and Rosewall. What would you rather watch: Newcombe and Roche against Stolle-Rosewall or Eltingh-Haarhuis playing Woodforde-Woodbridge?”

Having addressed that topic with the utmost of candor, Stolle is asked to talk about the modern game being weighted so heavily on baseline skills, with the serve-and-volley style all but disappearing. He responds, “I personally think it is coming back a bit. But, as I have said on television, all this stuff about no serve-and-volleyers has been brought about by coaches that don’t know how to serve-and-volley. They have never been involved with the serve-and-volley game. I honestly believe that.”

Interestingly, while he is an ardent booster of Roger Federer as a great champion, Stolle does not like the way the world No. 1 produces his volleys. He asserts, “Technically I don’t think Federer has that good a volley. If you analyze it the way Billie Jean King does, she says every time you hit a volley you have got to bend your knees and get your head down to the level at which the ball comes over the net. Federer never does that. He stands pretty much upright, starts with the racket head up shoulder high and goes down with the racket until it gets to ball height. Then he tries to take the racket head forward. You never see Federer get behind the flight of the ball on the volley. If you think about the errors he makes on the volley, they happen because he is upright.”

The interview was just about over. Stolle was characteristically Stolle, speaking unabashedly about what matters greatly to him, laughing periodically because he refuses to take himself too seriously, sharing his expansive knowledge of the game with unbridled enthusiasm. Before he left, I wanted to know his projections for the upcoming Australian Open. He began by saying he thought Del Potro or Federer would win the tournament, but then added, “Andy Murray is probably the most talented player out there at the moment, except between the ears. I say that not in a derogatory way, but the game becomes easy for him at times and then he gets bored and starts messing around out there. Somebody has got to get to him mentally. I think he has got to win a Grand Slam event, maybe many. I want to see Murray win the Australian Open this year.”

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