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Steve Flink: A Salute to Emmo

1/10/2011 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Down through the vast corridors of time, Australians have enjoyed almost an embarrassment of riches in the game of tennis. To name just a few of the many mighty players that have emerged from the land “Down Under”, Jack Crawford was a standout in the 1930’s. Frank Sedgman was magnificent in the late 1940’s and early fifties. Lew Hoad in 1956 and 1957 played the kind of tennis that led effusive critics to believe he would have flourished against anyone at any given time. From the early fifties into the mid-1970’s, Ken Rosewall’s immaculate strokes—most notably his golden backhand slice—carried him on one of the longest runs ever through the upper regions of the game. John Newcombe thought and played as only a champion could in the 1960’s and seventies. And the dazzling Rodney George Laver won two Grand Slams in the 1960’s, earning the right to be considered by more than a few authorities as the single greatest player ever to set foot on a tennis court.

But when seasoned observers sit back and reflect on prodigious Australian competitors, they always include one crucial name on their list of individuals who belong very much among the elite. They know that this man was highly revered by his colleagues—and out in the court of public opinion—for his supreme dedication to physical fitness, his unimpeachable credentials as a sportsman of the highest order, and his wide ranging achievements. Roy Emerson has won more Grand Slam championships in singles and doubles combined—28—than any man has ever done. He secured 12 of those majors in singles, winning every “ Big Four” tournament at least twice—a feat matched only by Laver among male players who have secured career Grand Slams. In 15 Grand Slam tournament finals, Emerson was beaten only thrice—all at the hands of the redoubtable Laver, and all in Laver’s first Grand Slam season of 1962. Moreover, Emerson was arguably the greatest Australian Davis Cup player ever, capturing 21 of 23 singles matches, winning 13 of 15 doubles contests, leading his nation to no fewer than eight championships between 1959 and 1967—a feat no one has matched.

Moreover, Emerson was an outstanding doubles player, capturing 16 majors with five different partners, (Neale Fraser, Ken Fletcher, Fred Stolle, Manuel Santana, and Laver) taking at least three titles at each of the majors in that forum. No other man has triumphed in singles and men’s doubles at all four Grand Slam events, and almost certainly no one ever will. But Emerson is largely overlooked by fans and writers because he did his best work from 1961-67 (recording all of his singles Grand Slam championship victories in that span) when only amateurs could compete at the premier events. Open Tennis arrived in 1968, but Emerson was 31 by then, and no longer capable of elevating his game regularly the way he once did. That was a shame; Emerson at the height of his powers may have lacked flair, but he was irrefutably the tennis player’s tennis player, an unshakable craftsman and unwavering match player, a larger than life figure in many ways who knew what he wanted and understood precisely how to go about accomplishing it.

In the middle of last week, I spent an hour on the phone with Emerson, who spoke from his California home, conveying his thoughts with his usual low key dignity and humility. Near the beginning of the interview, he expressed mild remorse about the timing of Open Tennis. Had Open Tennis commenced five to seven years sooner, Emerson would have been a force at the biggest tournaments during a burgeoning period for the sport. As he told me, “I was coming to the end of my career anyway by the time Open Tennis came in. I was more or less starting to cool off. It would have been nice from my point of view if Open Tennis would have come in a little earlier, because then I would have been able to compete a little better at that time.”

And yet, while Emerson never advanced beyond the quarterfinals at any of the majors in singles while he was still competing early in the Open Era, the fact remains that he was astonishingly good in his heyday. In that remarkable stretch from 1961-67, he averaged almost two major singles titles every year, enjoying his finest season in 1964 when he swept three of the four Grand Slam tournaments, winning them all save Roland Garros, where he lost in the quarterfinals to Nicola Pietrangeli, the 1959-60 Roland Garros victor. Emerson would win Wimbledon (1964-65), Forest Hills (1961 and 1964) and the French Championships (1963 and 1967) two times each, but his strongest showing at a major by far was in his native Australian Championships. On his home turf, he was victorious for his first Grand Slam singles title in 1961, and later added five in a row (1963-67). He holds the men’s record with six Australian Championship singles crowns.

Asked why he played so well in the championships of his country, Emerson replied, “I was always in pretty good shape and playing well at that time. In a lot of those years we had played our Davis Cup Challenge Rounds not that long before the Australian Championships. I had trained hard for Davis Cup so I was ready. The Australian was on grass, which I liked, and it definitely mattered to me that it was my national championship. I quite liked the grass courts we had in Australia. They were nice and hard and the ball bounced well. In the U.S. the grass courts weren’t very good. The Centre Court at Wimbledon was good, and our courts in Australia were the way I liked them. They were fairly fast and I liked to serve-and-volley so it suited me.”

In the final of his first tournament triumph at the Australian in 1961, Emerson toppled Laver in a four set final. As he recalls, “Rod was a great player so beating him in the final definitely stands out for me. It gave me a lot of confidence. When he won his first Grand Slam the next year, he beat me in three of the four finals, but I quite liked playing him because he was left-handed so his serve mainly came to my backhand, which was my strongest part. We had some great battles over the years. Rod was awfully difficult in best of five set matches because he would always finish strong and he was always in great shape, too. Rod was one of the toughest I ever played in best of five because he would not get tired and he would be playing better in the fifth set.”

Emerson routed countryman Ken Fletcher for his second Aussie crown in 1963, and then beat his friend Stolle in the 1964 and 1965 finals. They captured four major doubles championships together, and shared the same brand of attacking tennis. But Emerson was the superior athlete and moved much better than Stolle, plus his return was more reliable. All of these factors gave him the clear edge in their duels. But Emerson says generously now, “Fred was a little psyched [out] playing against me. We both hit the ball fairly flat and both of us served-and-volleyed, but his game seemed to make me raise my game because I always seemed to have good results against Fred and played well almost every time against him. He had me down two sets in the 1965 final but if I was down two sets to love or two sets to one, I still felt confident because of my fitness and thought I had a chance to win in five. If someone gets tired, you have got the match. That may have happened with Fred that year.”

In the 1966 and 1967 finals, Emerson dissected Arthur Ashe. Ashe, of course, would win the first U.S. Open in 1968, the Australian Open in 1970 and Wimbledon in 1975, demonstrating his unmistakable prowess on grass courts with that trio of victories. But Emerson in 1966 and 1967 was fundamentally a sounder player than Ashe, defeating the American in a four set battle in 1966, followed by a straight set win in 1967. Emerson recollects, “Arthur was awkward to play against. He would serve big and also go for big returns. But he wasn’t a consistent returner. Sometimes you would win your serve three or four times in a row very easily but then, all of a sudden, he would bring off some great returns of serve, hitting complete winners. I tried to play every point like a match point and keep getting first serves in during our two Australian finals. I felt if I kept my consistency it would be difficult for Arthur to beat me. Later on, he seemed to get a little better each year. He tightened up his game in 1968, 1969 and 1970.”

Shifting his attention to his two tournament triumphs at Roland Garros, Emerson was surprised when I mentioned that he had battled back gamely from two sets down in the 1963 quarterfinals against Italy’s clay court wizard Pietrangeli, achieving an uplifting five set win that eventually set the stage for a four set victory in the final over Frenchman Pierre Darmon. “I had forgotten I was down two sets against Pietrangeli,” Emerson says. “He was a difficult customer because he hit his passing shots so low over the net that you didn’t know half the time if they were coming over or not. He was hard to read when he was passing. On the baseline he had a great drop shot and he could move you side to side, so if you let him dictate you would be covering a lot of court. I didn’t want to run into him too often. That was a good win for me.”

Emerson believes he was a much better clay court player by the time he succeeded again at Paris in 1967, when he knocked out defending champion Tony Roche in the final. Emerson says, “When I first started playing on that surface I was not a very good clay court player. I had the serve-and-volley game but in the beginning my ground strokes weren’t good enough to allow me to stay back and keep a rally going, and then wait for the right time to come in. That happened later on for me. Earlier in my career on clay I came in on everything. But winning the French two times meant a lot to me because it showed how I had become a better all court player who could do well on different surfaces. The win over Tony Roche in 1967 was very satisfying because I knew how much I had improved on clay by then. When I turned pro early in 1968, I won my first pro tournament on clay in Hollywood, Florida, beating Rosewall in the semifinals and Pancho Gonzalez in the final.”

Emerson halted Stolle in the Wimbledon finals of 1964 and 1965, taking the former contest in four sets, winning the latter in straight sets, reaffirming with those triumphs that he was too good for his compatriot. But those matches are remembered for more than the tennis itself. As Emerson recollects, “Fred and I were rooming together in an apartment in London in those years. Wimbledon gives the finalists a court to warm up on and I said, ‘Fred, I know your game backwards and you know mine backwards, so we may as well warm up together.’ Fred knew I had a lousy forehand and I knew he had a lousy forehand so we would just point to the forehand when we served to each other in practice and say, ‘Here it comes.’ I also remember cooking breakfast for both of us because I had to make sure that he didn’t cook any breakfast! I saw a dead fly on the windowsill and put one of those in his scrambled eggs just to give him a little kick along. We were good friends and we were dying to beat the hell out of each other, but when those finals were over we would just say, ‘Let’s go have a beer.’ “

Emerson took a while to find the right formula for being in peak form at Wimbledon. As he says, “I finally found a good solution for doing well at Wimbledon after many years of trying. I had always played the tournament at Beckenham followed by the Queen’s Club event. Sometimes that wasn’t the best preparation because you would be sitting under a tent while it was raining and then you would go out and play on slippery courts. I finally stopped playing Beckenham and one year I grabbed [Brazilian player] Ronnie Barnes and the week of the Beckenham tournament we practiced indoors at Queen’s Club on the wood. That worked much better for me. I would train in the morning and play six sets of singles every afternoon, then go for a run and do some more training, have a massage, and go to bed. I did that for ten days in a row. I wanted to win Wimbledon three years in a row to become the first man since Fred Perry to do that. In 1966, I had that chance and was seeded No. 1 and I was the odds-on favorite.”

But then major misfortune struck the enormously popular Australian. Emerson was on course for his “Hat Trick” at Wimbledon, surging into the quarterfinals commandingly, taking the first set 6-1 from left-handed countryman Owen Davidson, a 2010 International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee. British scribe Richard Evans wrote in World Tennis about what transpired thereafter: “The Centre Court respects no man. Those who seek to tread its velvet path must accept anew the hazards that lurk in its famous turf. Roy Emerson will tell you so. Title holder for two years and now looking more a Champion than ever, Emerson was sprinting to yet more success on this grey Monday afternoon against his unseeded, sixth-ranked countryman Owen Davidson, who believed even less than the prophets in his ability to win. The first set took Emerson precisely 14 minutes to win 6-1….There was no danger in sight unless it lay in the greasy rain-slicked turf, and of this, surely, Emerson was aware. So it surprised many people when he raced for a Davidson drop volley in the third game of the second set. And it horrified us all when he skidded headlong into the umpire’s chair and brought the BBC microphone crashing down on top of him.”

Emerson had seriously damaged his shoulder. Crippled and compromised, he bowed 1-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4. As Evans described it, “Emmo, being the man he is, played on without fuss or favor, giving practically no sign of the pain that now restricted his ability.” Davidson knew full well what had happened, conceding later, “I would have lost 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 it not for the injury. There was no way I could have beaten him.”

As Emerson recounts now, “I had dislocated my shoulder. But back then the rules of the game were that you couldn’t receive any help at all. If I had called a trainer out for my shoulder, I would have had to forfeit. So I was trying to run and drop shot Owen Davidson and thought maybe he would sprain an ankle or a miracle would happen. I wanted to equal Fred Perry’s record of three in a row, but it was actually stupid for me to carry on. I should have forfeited in the first place.”

Typically, Emerson refused at the time to make any excuses. The Australian motto has always been, “If you walk on the court to play a match, you have no excuses.” Emerson epitomized that philosophy, and lived by that creed better than anyone. As he explains now, “It is difficult to play somebody who complains of an injury yet they are running around like a blue assed fly. You don’t respect somebody who every time they walk on the court there is something wrong with them. You can never beat them properly because they always have an excuse. That didn’t appeal to me at all because every time I walked on the court when something was wrong with me, no one knew about it.”

Everywhere Emerson went, he comported himself scrupulously, never resorting to gamesmanship. And so it was when he took his pair of U.S. Singles Championships in 1961 and 1964. In the former of those events, he repeated his Australian Championships final round win over Laver, taking apart his formidable rival in straight sets. But Emerson only narrowly got by the crafty and elegant Rafael Osuna of Mexico in the semifinals. Osuna—who would win the title two years later but died tragically in a 1969 plane crash at age 30—pushed Emerson to his outermost limits before bowing 9-7 in the fifth set.

As renowned British journalist Lance Tingay wrote, “It was a contest played between the two fleetest-foot men in the tournament. What was so remarkable about it was that Emerson began with a brilliance of virtuosity that, on the face of it, ought to have taken him to the quickest victory ever. He was like a man in a hurry to catch a train. His serve was tremendous—it overwhelmed Osuna utterly. Emerson was fast and sure and projected thunderbolts all around. In his first seven service games, Emerson yielded three points. In only 35 minutes Emerson was up two sets and looking as if he would be in the final in another fifteen.”

Yet it did not play out that way at all. Osuna salvaged the third set, saved two match points at 4-5, 15-40 in the fourth set, and made it safely to a fifth. In that final set, Osuna rallied from 0-3 to 3-3 before Emerson came through. As Emerson told me in recalling Osuna that day, “He was a serve-and-volleyer and he came in a lot. If you didn’t come in on your serve, he would come in on you. He was awfully quick and wasn’t overpowering. He couldn’t hit you off the court but he had great hands and good feel. He volleyed well and had a good drop volley, which was great for him at Forest Hills. If you could drop the ball real short on your volleys there, the ball did not bounce on the grass. Osuna had good hands and sliced the ball well off the ground, keeping the ball low. He was fit. I guess I had some good luck to get me through that one, but I relied on my fitness again that was so helpful to me in five set matches. If you can get through a match like that, it gives you confidence, which I then had for my final with Rod.”

After his 1967 triumphs at the Australian and French Championships, Emerson closed out his amateur career at the end of that season, and turned pro in time for the start of 1968, signing with George MacCall’s National Tennis League, joining Laver, Rosewall, Gonzalez, Stolle and the stylish Spaniard Andres Gimeno in that venture. But Open Tennis was right around the corner and started in April of that year, giving Emerson a belated opportunity to test himself against all of the best players, professional and amateur. Speaking of his experience signing with MacCall, Emerson says, “I had always planned to turn pro and I had different offers over the years, but I stayed amateur for quite a while. I always felt if I won some more majors I would probably get a better offer so I was feeling it was about time to turn pro and make some money out of the game. I did not know that Open Tennis would come in when it did.”

Emerson knew that he was playing essentially on borrowed time as a top flight competitor. He says, “Physically I wasn’t up to it as much and I knew I needed to be exceptionally fit to play my best. I was getting older and not recuperating as well as I had in the past after matches. You realize you are getting a bit old for this game at that stage, and know it is hard to be competing at a high standard all of the time. It takes a lot to stay up there and remain physically fit so I knew I would be around for only a couple of years in Open Tennis and that would be it. I didn’t play too much after that.”

In 1970 at Wimbledon, a reinvigorated Emerson had one last chance to reclaim the glory of his exhilarating past. In the quarterfinals he took on Newcombe. After losing the first set badly, Emerson found his bearings, burst into stellar form, and pushed the eventual champion right down to the wire. In the end, the 33-year-old Emerson went down gallantly, falling 11-9 in the fifth set. It was a heartbreaking defeat in many ways, and perhaps a sign that he no longer could perform as majestically in the tight corners of pivotal contests. As Emerson reflects on that loss to Newcombe, he says, “I always played well against Newk. I worked hard to try to do well at Wimbledon that year. I knew I wasn’t going to play much longer so I got in real good shape for that Wimbledon. I felt I had a chance of winning the tournament that year and I felt confident against Newk because I think I had won 14 times in a row against him earlier in our careers. Then obviously Newk got better and better. I was definitely disappointed to lose that match. I had a few chances in the fifth set with some break point opportunities, and I don’t think he had any chances on my serve until he broke me at the end by bringing off a great shot just when he needed it. That is how close it can get.”

Emerson held the record for Grand Slam singles championships for 33 years, when Sampras broke it at Wimbledon in 2000. It was not until Sampras started closing in on that record that many modern followers of the game took serious note of what Emerson accomplished. How did he feel about that?

“In the past,” answers Emerson, “tennis wasn’t publicized like it is today. I felt proud in doing well at the majors and I knew it was down in the record books and on paper what I had done. I spent a lot of time with [Australian Davis Cup captain] Harry Hopman and played in a lot of Challenge Rounds with Hopman. He always emphasized to us that we should make sure to get well prepared for the majors. He told us if we could win those majors it would go down in the record books. But nobody kept records then the way they do now and tennis wasn’t on television like it is today. I felt proud I won as many titles as I did and I was very dedicated to both Davis Cup and the majors.”

How does Emerson regard his place in history? And does it bother him that when the names of great players are thrown across living rooms among passionate sports fans, his name can often be left out of the conversation? “It doesn’t worry me too much,” he responds. “I am not the only one left out. Today’s tennis people—all they think about is the Open Era. It is as though tennis didn’t exist before then. There were many great players in the past that did so much, but the statistics are only from the Open Era. I felt I could compete against anyone in the years when I was playing my best and I was in great physical shape. I didn’t mind who I played. I know I may not have had the greatest equipment stroke wise as a lot of past champions but that is not the only thing that wins matches. Competing well and being in great physical shape also helps. I was grateful I was able to compete for so long.”

His self effacing analysis of his own strengths and shortcomings is validated entirely by an assessment made by esteemed sports writer Herbert Warren Wind in The New Yorker. Wind wrote in the mid-1960’s, “Emerson is foremost a player rather than a thrilling shot maker. His service and first volley cannot compare to Hoad’s. His backhand is far inferior to Rosewall’s—whose isn’t?—and Rosewall returns serve better. Sedgman has a much surer forehand and a more powerful overhead. Laver is just about as fast afoot and produces more exciting passing shots. Emerson merely does everything pretty damn well, or—closer to the point—there is nothing he does poorly. I can think of no other player since the Second World War I would rather have on my side and playing the fifth match of a Davis Cup Challenge Round with everything riding on it.”

That was indeed the essential Emerson: steadfast and forthright, solid and resourceful, strategically sound, unwavering. Flamboyant he was not, but Emerson fully understood what it took to win big matches and get the most out of his game. Meanwhile, at 74, Emerson is not caught up in glorifying his past. He is a big fan of today’s leading players, and marvels at the brilliance of Nadal and Federer. As he puts it, “Nadal and Federer are fantastic the way they compete. They are both great ambassadors for the game. Their dedication shows how much they love to play. Federer is 29 and will obviously have to watch how many tournaments he plays, but whenever someone asks me who is going to win a particular tournament, I say Federer straight away. He is such a great competitor. Nadal is way up there, too, and it is just mind boggling how much court coverage he needs to win a match. I think that would have worn me out a long time ago. Every point for Nadal is like the Second World War. Both men are fabulous players.”

Can he envision himself out there in some kind of time warp, having the chance to test his skills against the best in the business these days? “Well,” he replies, “the way they hit the ball I don’t think I could compete against them. They are hitting the ball so hard with that equipment and those strings, but unless you hop on the court with them when you are at your best it is hard to say what would happen.”

Is Emerson concerned about the diminished importance of the volley in the modern game? He says, “ It is Rip City from the baseline and no one comes to the net that much, but there is a great opportunity around if there was a great athlete like Federer who can come in a little more, and maybe attacked second serves more, and came in behind the first serve at times. A real all court player could come up and dominate in the future. If you have got a good volley with these rackets these days, the ball comes off the strings awfully fast, so opponents would have to worry about keeping their returns lower.”

Emerson has lived in the United States for more than 40 years, but remains an Australian from head to toe. He is unhappy about the state of Australian tennis, although he concedes that he does not have any solutions to the problems of maintaining an Australian presence at the top of the sport. Patrick Rafter and Lleyton Hewitt both won two major singles titles, but the prospects now for another top of the line champion are not terribly good.

“It is a little sad at the moment,” laments Emerson. “No one can find an answer. We have a junior development [program] but obviously it is not producing the right kind of players. It is sad to see the majors where we are flat out having two players out of 128 in the men’s and the same thing with the women. It will take a long time probably before it ever comes back. Even America is in a bit of strife in that regard. The game is dominated by players that are hungry and they are coming from Spain and Serbia and South America and other places. They seem to be hungrier. I haven’t been living in Australia since 1968 so I can’t see what is happening up close, but I feel sad about what is going on.”

Be that as it may, Emerson will celebrate his heritage in a substantial way on January 22, when he is honored at the G’Day USA Awards Dinner in Los Angeles, a celebration of the virtues of Australia as an outstanding nation with industrious and enterprising people. Emerson—who will receive the award almost 50 years to the day after he won his first singles major at the 1961 Australian Championships—is delighted. “They have given awards,” he explains, “to film stars and Greg Norman in golf and Rod Laver in tennis, and now me. At the dinner in Los Angeles, Andre Agassi is going to make the presentation for me, which is terrific. They do this every year to show Americans what Australia is about and let everyone know how wonderful a country Australia is. This is a great honor for me.”

It is an honor richly deserved, for a man of immense character and integrity. Near the end of the interview, I asked Emerson how he would define his legacy. He said, “Hopefully I would be regarded as one of the tough players over the years to play against, and I would like to think that my fellow players had some admiration for me as a person both on and off the court.”

Call Roy Emerson the master of understatement.

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