He’s been around the game for so long that he remembers the days when equipment modifications meant a leather grip on a racquet handle, or a slice of cabbage placed beneath a baseball cap to keep the head cool.
Times have changed, but Drysdale remains a constant as a voice of tennis for more than three decades, most recently on ESPN2.
Born in Nelspruit, Transvaal in the Republic of South Africa in 1941 as Eric Clifford Drysdale, he attended college in the United States (the college-age Drysdale is portrayed in Gordon Forbes’ classic A Handful of Summers as quite a player both on and off the court) and later became an American citizen.
An accomplished pro, Drysdale reached a career-high rank of No. 4 and in 1965 became the first player with a two-handed backhand to advance to the U.S. National final (now the U.S. Open). A Roland Garros and Wimbledon semifinalist in 1965 and 1966, Drysdale defeated Rod Laver in the fourth round of the 1968 U.S. Nationals just weeks after the Aussie legend won Wimbledon and a year before he would sweep his second Grand Slam. In addition to his six finishes in the Top 10, Drysdale was a respected doubles player who partnered with Roger Taylor to capture the 1972 U.S. Open doubles title. He also played on South Africa’s 1974 Davis Cup championship squad.
As one of World Championship Tennis' "Handsome Eight", Drysdale was instrumental in the dawning of professional tennis. As a co-founder and the first president of the ATP, he played a prominent part in providing players with a platform within the politics of the sport, and maintains unique understanding of the decision-making dynamics of the game's governing bodies.
Today, when he’s not calling tennis matches, Drysdale runs Cliff Drysdale Tennis, a tennis club management services company that performs daily tennis operations and management for resorts, hotels and private tennis clubs. We caught up with him for this interview on the evolution of equipment and style.
TENNIS.com: Cliff, Pat Cash told us he believes the ITF should have regulated string technology because, he argues, the ability to create massive spin and speed with strings has killed the volley. Do you agree with that assessment?
Cliff Drysdale: I think the racquets have had an impact as well as the strings. As for regulating the strings, I think a lot more thought should have been put into it before we got to this point. The tournaments, the tours and the ITF constantly have to try to balance conditions in accordance with the evolution of the equipment and the game. And for the most part they have done that pretty successfully. Has the volley become extinct? To a large extent, yes it has. Has tennis become less interesting to watch overall? Definitely not. Professional tennis is as much fun to watch now as at any point in the past. And remember, at one time three of the four Grand Slams were played on pretty poor grass courts and it was all serve-and-volley then, because you couldn’t stay back on grass with the unruly bounces. There is no question the strings and racquet technology have given the returners a huge advantage and made the volley almost extinct, and that part is sad. I wish there was a way to re-introduce the volley because it has become a lost art in some respects.
TENNIS.com: In your era, almost all the top singles players played doubles as well. Is it possible for the tours to encourage younger players to play more doubles, or do the physical demands of today’s game mean it’s just too much to ask?
Cliff Drysdale: No, there’s not a way to get them to play doubles. And even if there were a way of encouraging doubles play, it would not solve the problem we’re discussing. It would not make the singles players more prone to playing volleys in singles match. The character of the game has changed. It’s now a matter of set-up shots to hit winners from the backcourt, whereas in the past, the first short ball was the set up to get into net and finish the point at net.
TENNIS.com: So many top players now have gone to increasingly small grips so they can snap the wrist to turn the ball over. How has your grip size changed since the days you were a Top 10 player?
Cliff Drysdale: I use a 4 and 1/2-sized grip now and I was 4 and 5/8 during my playing days. I never went that thick on the grip as many of my contemporaries did. I used a thinner grip than most; I wanted my whole hand around the grip. My racquet was much heavier during my playing career. In the days of wood racquets, you needed a certain weight to accommodate the strings and tension.
TENNIS.com: You teach tennis a lot now; how has equipment changed your game and your style of play?
Cliff Drysdale: At my age there’s not much that has changed. The only thing that changed was my forehand grip. In my era, we all played with a continental grip on our forehands. The idea was simply to get into the net, and the slice forehand was used for that purpose. Now, if I had my druthers and I could start all over again, I would start with an eastern or semi-western grip and be able to come over the ball more. Manolo Santana could do that in our day. The changes to my style were not so much strategic as they were technical.
TENNIS.com: Any time another player aside from Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal wins a major, there is speculation about the changing of the guard. Barring injury, how long can Federer and Nadal sustain their success at the top of the game and their rivalry?
Cliff Drysdale: Rivalry is one thing and success is another. Rivalry, they can maintain for another five years. Obviously, Nadal is young enough and Federer is fit enough, and I think his game takes so much less of a toll than most. Federer’s genius for movement and his economy of strokes will allow him to play at least another five years and maybe more. Remember, Ken Rosewall, at age 39, reached the finals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Jimmy Connors, at age 39, made a run to the U.S. Open semifinals. Age, in and of itself, should not be the closing factor for Federer and Nadal. They’ve both got at least five more years. The biggest problem for them is the generation headed by Novak Djokovic that has learned to play the way Federer plays, which is no weaknesses and great speed and court coverage. And that is more of a factor in impacting the Federer-Nadal rivalry than age, in my opinion.
TENNIS.com: You saw a lot of Milos Raonic and Alexandr Dolgopolov, Jr., during ESPN2’s Australian Open coverage. Among the younger players, whose game excites you most and which man has the best game built for long-term success?
Cliff Drysdale: It’s too early for me to tell you that. I like Raonic’s game and aggression. I don’t think Dolgopolov, with his unorthodox style, is going to be able to challenge in the same way for the same length of time. Andy Murray is not out of the picture and I think he’s going to be a factor in the near future.
TENNIS.com: Of the American men aside from Andy Roddick—specifically Mardy Fish, John Isner and Sam Querrey—who do you think is poised to have the best season?
Cliff Drysdale: I think that is a question that will be answered this month. We will know the answer to that after Indian Wells and Miami as the clay-court season is obviously not going to be of much assistance. Mardy has a much more well-rounded game. I think Mardy potentially will have the best year of his career this season, depending on his health. I think Mardy sees the light at the end of the tunnel and that will inspire him. John Isner has got such a big game and is so tough to break he will be a threat. I don’t see him in that category of Federer and Nadal, but he is a threat when he’s playing well.
TENNIS.com: Years ago, shortly after Federer won his fourth major, you told me then he was the best player you had ever seen. Do you still believe that?
Cliff Drysdale: Given Roger’s record, I have not changed my mind about him: he is the best player I’ve ever seen. I think the other players are catching up with him; that was inevitable. I discount Pete Sampras’ suggestion that the competition is not as great as it was in his era. I think it’s every bit as strong, and even stronger. I still stand by Federer being the best player I have ever seen. I don’t say greatest of all time because I didn’t see Don Budge and Bill Tilden and Fred Perry. But if you gave me a 100-match series between Federer and anyone else, I would say that Federer would win the majority of those matches against anyone I’ve ever seen.
TENNIS.com: Is there any champion from the past whose style reminds you of Federer?
Cliff Drysdale: That question kind of goes back to what we were discussing earlier about string and racquet advancements and how grips have changed. Pancho Gonzalez, for instance, rarely hit over his backhand. He was basically slicing it to get to net as quickly as he could. So it’s hard to compare different generations. If you name a shot and ask me if Federer can hit it, I say yes, he can. He is the most complete player. If Federer had played in any other era, he potentially would have dominated that era the same way he has dominated this era. His movement, his strokes, his serve and his volley are all textbook. I’ve seen many great volleyers from Newcombe to Roche to Emerson to Edberg and I would put Federer’s volley up against almost any of the great volleys. In my book, he is the best player I’ve seen.
TENNIS.com: Last question: we spoke about the impact equipment has had on tennis. How has tennis itself impacted you over your many years in the game?
Cliff Drysdale: Running a tennis club management business that continues to grow, in addition to the tennis commentary work I do for ESPN, keeps me involved in the game. Tennis can help you stay energetic and enthusiastic and that’s what we look for in our business: enthusiastic, energetic people who love the game. Clearly, the internet has had a major impact on tennis in terms of how it’s covered, how people learn to play, how people connect to the game, so I really want to join all of those forces because it is so important to the game. Above all else, tennis really is a fun lifestyle so I’m privileged to be a part of it.