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Steve Flink: Chat with Cliff Drysdale

2/18/2008 6:30:00 PM

by Steve Flink

For more than three decades, tennis fans have invited him into their living rooms, listened to his sharp insights, benefitted from his understated manner. They have heard him provide television commentary of the highest class on ESPN since 1979. They have become deeply appreciative of his vast knowledge of the game, his unbridled enthusiasm for and about a sport he once played commandingly, his admirable habit of presenting his views with an unmistakable and refreshing absence of ego. They reached a comfort level long ago with Cliff Drysdale, who has enriched all of our lives with not only his style but his substance. Clearly, he stands on a distinctive platform as a man who has always pursued his craft earnestly but has never taken himself too seriously.

Drysdale was a far more distinguished player than most of today's observers realize. The only elite player of that era to employ a two-handed backhand, he grew up in South Africa and was one of the game's foremost players from the middle of the 1960's into the early 1970's. In that span, he was ranked by most authorities (there were no official computer rankings back then) at least five years among the top ten players in the world, rising to a high of No. 4 as an amateur in 1965, when he was a finalist at the U.S. Championships. He was twice a Wimbledon semifinalist and a two-time semifinalist at the French Championships as well, recording those achievements in 1965-66. In the early stages of the"Open Era", when amateurs and professionals were allowed at last to compete against each other, Drysdale concluded three years (1968, 1969, and 1971) in the exclusive territory of the world's top ten, and toppled the great Rod Laver at the first U.S. Open in 1968. Those were no mean feats.

And yet, he does not give himself the credit he merits for having been a front line player. As he puts it,"I was a very adequate player. I had real longevity and played for about 20 years. For a long time I was never outside the top 20 or 25 in the world. I could play, but I never considered myself to be on the top rung and I never was. Laver and Rosewall and Emerson and Stolle were the best players of my time. If you look at my results, I was like a second string player."

I beg to differ. A case in point was his come from behind, five set win over Laver at that initial U.S. Open in 1968, when the No. 16 seed Drysdale recouped from two sets to one down to win 4-6, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-1 over the top ranked player in the world. As he recollects that contest,"I was playing with a Spalding Smasher racket and it was the first time I had not used a wooden racket. It was a really dramatic change for me and made me feel like I had a new life with this racket. I seemed to be able to generate so much more power with it. It turned out to not be a very good frame, but that is another story. I liked playing Laver and beat him a few times. I enjoyed playing left-handers. In my era they never really learned to serve to the forehand because almost all of the players had sliced backhands so they would serve to that side, and Rocket was no different than the other great left-handers of that era in that regard. My two-handed backhand was my biggest weapon so I enjoyed that. I take pride in the fact that his loss to me was the last one he had at a major before he won his second Grand Slam the following year."

He also was proud to reach his only major final at Forest Hills as an amateur in 1965, losing on the grass there to his nemesis Manuel Santana, a rival he never found a way to beat. But he had no larger sense of what it meant to be competing in a Grand Slam tournament final. As Drysdale explains,"It was different in those days. I took the subway out to Forest Hills with the fans that day and walked with them out to the event. I knew I had been having a good year and was feeling good about myself but it was not like I was thinking, "Gee, I am in a Grand Slam final.' It was just another match and that's how it was before the professional era. But I did not like my chances that day anyway because Santana was more of a tennis genius than anyone I played against. He was even tougher for me to play than Laver. Santana had so much variety of shot."

All through his playing days, Drysdale was an exemplary sportsman. He was unfailingly good natured on the court, applauding with his racket when an opponent made a dazzling winner, never resorting to gamesmanship. He believes his upstanding conduct was simply how it was done in his time, that there was nothing extraordinary about how he handled himself. As Drysdale reflects,"I was brought up the way the Australians were. I wasn't walking out there thinking I was going to beat everybody. SoI felt a certain humbleness about playing the game, at least for me anyway. When we played the players were your family. Now your entourage is your family. The idea of anyone stalling or bouncing the ball 30 times or anything like that was just not going to happen. You couldn't hook the guy by day on the court and then go out to dinner and have a beer with the boys at night. So there was a different atmosphere then. But I wouldn't make that much of my sportsmanship because I was no better a sport than anybody else on the tour."

That is not really so. As an impressionable kid getting deeply immersed in the game in the 1960's, I saw Drysdale play frequently at that time and on into the seventies. And I felt he did indeed set himself apart as a sportsman. He was one of the leading players who made me feel that the world of tennis was the right place to inhabit. He epitomized class, decency, and sophistication. I have this enduring image in the eye of my mind. It was 1967 and I was 15. Drysdale had just finished winning an early round match at the Merion Criquet Club in Pennsylvania, a fixture on the grass court circuit in that era. He stood out there in the sunshine on a scorching day, gulping a ginger ale from a green bottle, looking the way I thought a tennis player should look. To me, he was an inspiring symbol of not only a game but a way of life. 
I thought he played an important and unsung role in raising the trajectory of the sport in his playing days. But as he looks back on that part of his life, Drysdale is critical of himself in some ways for his makeup as a player.

"It was too easy then for me to look for an excuse, like getting hooked by somebody on a line call. I look back and feel that happened to me way too often. I wish I could have given it 110 percent all the time no matter what the circumstances like Jimmy Connors did. But I didn't have that kind of an attitude. I had certain matches when I did find that in me, like when I beat John Newcombe one year [1965) at Wimbledon and Roy Emerson another year [1969] at Wimbledon. I had another match like that when I beat Newcombe in Boston [1971] where I felt like I was ready to die on the court to win. But that didn't happen often enough for me. So, as I look back, I would call myself a relatively flakey player."

Be that as it may, Drysdale was a player known for looking beyond himself toward a better future for tennis. That was why it was no accident that he became the first President of the newly formed Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) in 1972. He garnered the respect of his peers across the board as a man of reason and intelligence who could guide the players through difficult times and represent them in the best possible way. Drysdale was the ideal President for the association when nearly all of the top players--- including Laver, Rosewall, Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith and John Newcombe-- boycotted Wimbledon in 1973. The International Tennis Federation had suspended Nikki Pilic, claiming he had reneged on a Davis Cup commitment. That meant that Pilic would be prevented from competing at Wimbledon for unjustifiable reasons. The players--- who sacrificed a great deal by missing the world's premier tournament in the prime of their careers-- were lambasted by Wimbledon loyalists in the British press, although Drysdale correctly recollects that he was treated well under the circumstances.

As Drysdale recalls of his Presidency and the boycott that followed nine months into his term,"I was involved and interested and excited about the new direction of tennis. I guess I was a natural choice for the boys to say, "Why don't you take the first Presidency?'It wasn't particularly an honor; it was more of a job which I enjoyed. What happened with the Wimbledon boycott was that the ITF was trying to regain control of every player in the world. So that was an issue about which we all knew we were right. The ITF took another position and Wimbledon went along with them, which in the modern world now would be unthinkable. We tried hard [to avoid the boycott] and went to the law courts in England to force them to have Wimbledon not cut off their nose to spite their face. These days Wimbledon would never do that, but that whole thing and the start of the ATP changed the landscape of tennis. We never looked back. It led to the tennis boom which was already starting to happen."

In any event, Drysdale played on until 1978, but by then he was making a smooth transition from the courts into the broadcast booth. He was asked to call a U.S.-South Africa Davis Cup contest in 1977 because CBS analyst Tony Trabert had to fulfill his responsibilities as the American captain. Drysdale had his foot in the door."That was historic," says Drysdale,"because there were demonstrations on the court in California against the apartheid system and we were caught with a live show. That was my first foray into the television business. I did a few more outings in those years including a World Team Tennis on ABC [1978] which I thought was too nerve wracking. I was thinking, "Let me just go back to playing and finishing out my career.' But then I got asked to do other television and I thought, "Maybe I am o.k. at this.' And then I got very comfortable with my role and I have been ever since."

In 1979, ESPN was born. Drysdale remembers," Mike Davies of WCT asked me to be a part of the first WCT matches on ESPN and they liked what I did and that is all she wrote because that started a 29 year career for me with ESPN." It was apparent from the outset of the Drysdale-ESPN connection that he was a natural for the medium, that it was as if he was made for television and had been destined for that territory all of his life. From the time he established himself as one of the premier commentators in the late seventies and early eighties, Drysdale was authoritative without being overbearing, enlightening without a trace of arrogance. In those early years, working primarily with former NBC commentator Jim Simpson, Drysdale took on the job of color commentator. His analysis was regularly spot on, and his capacity to break down strokes in slow motion replays was magnificent, a talent which remains strikingly evident today. Drysdale was at home on the air; it was as simple as that.

"I was the expert in those days," he recalls."My role was to add color. I took seriously trying to identify the drama of a match and identifying the technical differences between players that would affect outcomes. I enjoyed doing that. Now my role has changed and I try to bring out good qualities in whomever I am working with. I am trying to draw them out and make them comfortable to share their knowledge with everybody. If I can put Patrick McEnroe or Mary Joe Fernandez or whoever I am working with in a position where they are enjoying what they are doing, then they are going to say more insightful things. In my role now I am not trying to inject the knowledge that I might have. That is my attitude."

My feeling is that Drysdale, who shifted to the play-by-play role seamlessly over the years, knows a great deal more than the viewers can possibly discern because he is so generous with his partners in the booth and so self effacing. He constantly downplays his own views in deference to the likes of McEnroe and other formidable commentators with whom he shares the airwaves. Is he deliberately attempting to be understated as he allows his cohorts to shine?

"That is in the ear of the listener," he replies."I do feel like my role is first of all to engender a comfort level with a sort of conversational tone to watching a match, to not be invasive in the show. When I am watching sports myself I am looking to see what the outcome will be. That is paramount for any show. So I understand that it is not about the announcers; it is about what is happening on the court. I am not trying to hide my own knowledge but I am making a genuine attempt to make a conversation. If I am out there trying to articulate my own views all the time it doesn't make for a conversation. I am more inclined to turn it into a fireside conversation where we as announcers are watching this thing together with the viewers. I want to be part of a group conversation at home. We are watching this game together so I am imagining people a home listening to us and thinking, "I was just about to say that.' That is the greatest compliment an announcer could receive."

How does Drysdale evaluate his work? Does he have a gut sense after a broadcast that the show has gone well or not so well? "It very often depends on the quality of a match," he replies."It is very hard to make a racehorse out of a pig. You don't have the same sense of accomplishment after an ordinary match as when you watch matches that are spectacular like I did at the Australian Open this year. One that comes to mind was Nadal losing to Tsonga. That was not a close match but it was very dramatic to me so I was particularly happy with it. But I can honestly say I am at the stage now where I look at this as a team effort. I don't think about how I called the match; I think about how we called it."

These days, Drysdale and his colleagues at ESPN focus sharply on the major events rather than doing so many regular tour events, as was the case in times gone by. He likes the notion of the network comprehensively covering a major like the Australian Open from start to finish, giving the audience wall to wall viewing through the day and night."What we have done lately at ESPN is to tie a bow around an entire Grand Slam event. We have come to grips with the fact that live tennis is always the best result rather than replaying a match just because it involves an American player for example. So I feel overall the coverage has improved dramatically lately. We have Chris Fowler at the desk with his excellent reputation and Dickie Enberg who is such an icon in the business, lending support to the sport just by being there. The viewing is very compelling now. To be honest I believe we have broken the code in covering major events and I am very proud of our people."

Meanwhile, after playing, observing and commentating for so long about the game over his lifetime, the 66-year-old Drysdale has distinguished himself in another capacity--- as one of the sport's deepest thinkers. If he were empowered to do so, Drysdale would make two fundamental changes in the presentation of the game: reshaping the Davis Cup format, and putting a shot clock on the court, thus forcing players to adhere more strictly to the 20 second rule between points.

"The new Davis Cup format that I would introduce," he explains,"would be to play the event every other year over a four-and-a-half week period. I would have the winning nation from two years earlier host the Davis Cup semifinals and final. The other three semifinalists would come from zonal round robin competition. If we did it this way, a fan sitting in Barcelona or Boston or Moscow or Santiago would be able to follow it all over that time frame of about a month. The whole world would be mesmerized by the sport during that time. It would be television driven, with people getting involved in the personalities of the players and in the teams. The defending champion nation would have two years to promote it."

Drysdale wants to be absolutely clear that he is not knocking Davis Cup as it is, but simply advocating a new way of staging the competition that would take it to another level of worldwide interest."I always say,"he stresses,"that Davis Cup is the best tennis that the sport has to offer. It is the most beautiful and compelling competition that tennis has. I am just making the point about how much more successful it could be, and that if it was more successful it could help the rest of the game. The ITF argument is that Davis Cup has an American problem, but it is definitely not. If you walk the streets of London or Melbourne or Moscow and ask the average sports fan where Australia is that year in Davis Cup or how Russia is doing, they do not know the answer to that question. The ITF have learnt some lessons from the past, but not all of them yet. They tend to protect things. But for me the word protection is nothing more than a buzzword for keeping things the way they are. I feel tennis should have a Davis Cup that is more like "March Madness" in basketball or World Cup Soccer or the NFL Playoffs."

As for having a timer on the court to keep the players honest, Drysdale says,"We have gotten used to the idea that these players can take as much time as they like between points. We are not even coming close to enforcing the 20 second rule. So I think we need that shot clock on the court to force players to play more quickly, which in turn would rid us of these regiments that players today go through that are not attractive or helpful to the sport at all."

In any event, Cliff Drysdale has covered much ground during our interview. As we finish our conversation, I ask him about his aspirations for the future. He responds,"I am really enjoying life and enjoying the stints that I am doing on ESPN. I am still very comfortable doing that and it doesn't present any negative issues for me. It is not too demanding. We have so many more people that are now involved in broadcasting and we have such a large and capable crew. I will continue to do the broadcasting as long as I have an effective role to play, for maybe two years or something like that."

Be that as it may, Drysdale has other revitalizing things on his plate these days."What is equally exciting for me along with the commentary,"he says,"is the new business I have gotten into which is the management of tennis clubs. That is a dramatically growing business and I think there is a great need for it. It helps tennis in communities where we get involved and I am spending more and more of my time assisting that new venture. We had this concept about ten years ago and got started about seven years ago with the Ritz Carlton in Key Biscayne. We are operating, in one way or another, eleven clubs ranging from the upscale Ritz Carlton to a public facility in western Florida, so Cliff Drysdale Tennis runs the gamut. It is becoming a brand which has huge value for local tennis communities so that is something that occupies my time and enthusiasm. Like so many things in my life, it seems like everything has fallen into place."

It has not happened by accident.

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