by Steve Flink
FLUSHING MEADOWS--- The U.S. Open has always been a deeply celebratory time for me as a tennis journalist. I love the feeling of driving out to the tournament each day, watching a cavalcade of matches played by the game’s greatest players, and then returning home exhilarated every night. I have been to all but one U.S. Open since the first in 1968, and from my standpoint it has always been an inspiring end to the Grand Slam season, the ideal way to leave summer behind and approach autumn in a good state of mind.
Right, now, however, my spirits are dampened, as are those of so many fellow journalists, players and distinguished citizens of the tennis world. We found out yesterday that our colleague and my close friend Joel Drucker had suffered an irrevocable loss. His wife Joan--- with whom he had lived with since 1983, for whom he was a loyal and endlessly supportive partner, on whom he always relied to share his laughter and sharp wit--- passed away far too young at 56. It was a devastating blow for Joel, who had seen his wife suffer from Lupus since 1981. She had fought courageously ever since to defeat that horrific illness, but yesterday she lost a long battle. Joel was right by her side in California, holding her hand, watching his best friend go with grace and serenity.
You must understand: Joel is one of the brightest and best tennis journalists in the world, and has been for quite a long while. He has written for nearly every esteemed publication in the sport across the last thirty years, and has been reporting extensively on tennis for two decades. He has worked behind the scenes for Tennis Channel as an invaluable consultant in a wide range of capacities for several years. He was packed and ready to fly to New York to work for Tennis Channel here at the Open, but then Joan’s health took a serious turn for the worst, and Joel fittingly stayed at home to be with her during her final days.
In any event, Joel wrote the widely acclaimed book, “Jimmy Connors Saved My Life” in 2004. The subtitle for that book was “A Personal Biography”. Drucker told the reader the story of his life, and the colossal role Connors has played in it. It is one of the gutsiest books I have ever read.
Ironically, Joan Edwards died on September 2nd, which happened to be the 58th birthday of James Scott Connors, who is at the Open doing commentary for Tennis Channel. Joel called me this morning before I left to come out to the U.S. Open, less than 24 hours after his wife has passed away. We have been close friends for twenty years now, talking frequently on the telephone, watching a considerable number of matches together at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, constantly sharing knowledge with each other and very rarely disagreeing. But when I picked up the phone this time, it was with a foreign feeling. I simply did not know what to say, or how to convey the depth of my pain for his loss. But Joel was amazing. His sadness was evident, but his humor was ever present.
He told me about how Joan had joked with him about the many hospital visits she had been required to make across the years of enduring Lupus, which consistently weakens the immune system. As she moved beyond 15 visits, she said, “I’m going to break Roger Federer’s record”, a reference to the Swiss Maestro’s number of Grand Slam titles. When she got to 18, Joan Drucker said to Joel, “Tell Martina [Navratilova] that I’m going to pass her.” I could tell how much Joel appreciated his wife’s capacity to laugh, even during almost unbearable times, even when she was suffering beyond all reason. But it was very significant to Joel that his wife died on the same day that Connors celebrated another birthday. As he told me, “Now I will always have a big anniversary every year during the U.S. Open. Joan dying on Jimbo’s birthday was almost meant to be. I think in a way she knew that.”
Joel Drucker has thrown his heart and soul into the field of tennis reporting, and has done it as well as anyone in the world. He has also been dealt too many rough hands during his life. He lost his father in 1992. His Dad was only 66; Joel was in his early thirties. Joel’s brother was hit hard by mental illness, which had a big impact for the entire family. And yet, through it all, despite all of the hardship, Joel has never been the kind of man who looks around and asks, “Why me?” He has taught all of his friends and fellow members of the tennis community an awful lot about how to handle setbacks with grace, humor, and integrity. He has demonstrated strength of character that few of us could match. He has been a champion of the human spirit.
I have no doubt that he will bounce back steadfastly in the weeks and months ahead, and know he will never stop celebrating his life with and love for Joan. But he will still move into the future with brightness and optimism. Above all else, he will hurtle himself back into tennis and bring his singular talents and passion back into the area of journalism. I must confess one thing: several times as I wrote this column, I had to stop for a few minutes to compose myself. My eyes kept welling up, and I had to duck my head into my press cubicle to keep my colleagues from seeing me crying.
So this piece is for the estimable Joel Drucker. I want him to know how much we all care. I hope he fully understands that the tennis world mourns his loss deeply. He will be back among his colleagues soon, and we will all be better for it.
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