Dynamic, Debonair, Delightful

Friday, July 12, 2013 /by
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

This year’s class of inductees into the International Tennis Hall of Fame features three of the most important movers and shakers in tennis: Cliff Drysdale, Charlie Pasarell, and Ion Tiriac. All three men helped shape the game we know today, but only two of them can be called founding fathers of Open-era pro tennis.

That honor goes to Drysdale and Pasarell who, unlike the entrepreneurial and considerably more controversial Tiriac, often stood elbow-to-elbow in the meeting rooms and other nominal trenches where the political wars that shaped the game we know today were fought out. Tiriac, in fact, was often in conflict with his fellow inductees. He was the freebooter, the pirate to Drysdale and Pasarell’s fair impersonation of the king’s men—if Jack Kramer, the George Washington of men’s pro tennis, could have been so called.

All three men were excellent players in their day, but Drysdale was the best of the lot. He was one of the “Handsome Eight” who signed contracts to play on the World Championship Tennis pro tour alongside the likes of Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, and other familiar names who had previously bolted the amateur ranks. The action of the Handsome Eight and the solidarity it represented had a seismic effect on tennis politics, because it stripped the amateur establishment (represented by the ITF and its affiliates) of many potentially great—and marketable—amateur players.

The Grand Slam tournaments and the amateur game in general could live with defections by individual players who had already established themselves. But if you can imagine what tennis would be like if the present-day Top 10 suddenly decided to skip Wimbledon and the other Grand Slam events, you can see how the Handsome Eight made the establishment realize that they could no longer hold the amateur fort.  If the best 10 or 15 players in the world were ready to sacrifice the prestige of competing in amateur events—including Wimbledon and what was then still called the U.S. National Championships—and take their chances on a nascent pro tour, it was endgame.

Cliff and his cohorts—Nikki Pilic (from what was then Yugoslavia), Americans Butch Buchholz and Dennis Ralston, Pierres Barthes of France, Great Britain’s Roger Taylor, and those two familiar Aussies, John Newcombe and Tony Roche—had sounded a death knell for the amateur game.

In a way, that was Drysdale’s Rubicon. Born and bred in South Africa when it was still an extremely conservative country living under the blight of apartheid, Drysdale showed considerable courage and vision when he broke away from the amateur establishment as well as his nation, in which opportunities were small and isolation from the world community loomed.

To say it all worked out okay is an understatement.

Tennis proceeded to change at a breakneck pace after the Handsome Eight signed their contracts. Within the next two years, Drysdale had helped organize and establish the ATP, and he was elected the first president of the outfit. Articulate and charming, Drysdale had leading-man looks and a suave, James Bond-ish bearing—when playing, he wore a white golf glove on his right hand, with which he hit a sweet two-handed backhand (though not in this photo at right). He was the ideal front-man for an organization trying to trade on the image of tennis as a classy, aspirational game—a game for thinking, sophisticated, internationally-minded men and women.

But in reality, Drysdale was a player/activist representing a large body of fellow young men who were green around the gills and, much like the players of today, just wanted to play tennis. Thus, they were at the mercy of both the ITF and its member federations (including the USTA) and the pro tennis promoters. As ATP president, Drysdale was on the point in a slew of political battles—the most significant of which was the Wimbledon boycott of 1972.

The short version is that when Pilic, one of the Handsome Eight but now a pro eligible to play in open tournaments, was suspended by his national federation for declining to play Davis Cup, Wimbledon decided to back the federation (and, by extension, the ITF). The All England Club barred Pilic from Wimbledon, and Drysdale and his allies among the players called for what would be, in retrospect, a successful boycott.

It marked the second time Drysdale had been instrumental in a high-stakes showdown, and the success of the boycott shattered the ITF’s attempt to exert more control over the players and events than it had any defensible right to claim. For Wimbledon officials made it clear that they weren’t going to be pawns in such battles going forward.

The boycott completed the liberation of players from the long tentacles of their national federations as well as the ITF. Although the pro tennis tour organized around "open" tournaments was still in its infancy (four years old, to be exact), the boycott was the watershed moment. 

Cliff is 71 now, and still going strong as the eminence grise of the ESPN broadcast team. Most of you are familiar with his urbane voice and trenchant observations. He helped shape ESPN into the reigning tennis media powerhouse, and—surprise, surprise!—he was in the commentary booth for the very first tennis event ESPN broadcast, a Davis Cup tie between the U.S. and Argentina in 1979.

I’m proud to call Cliff my friend. We see each other frequently at tournaments, and you don’t know what hospitality is until you let Cliff show you around his digs on Key Biscayne and in nearby Miami. When you go out to dinner with Cliff, chances are that the owner of the restaurant rushes forward with arms flung wide, crying as if he’d just set eyes upon a prodigal son: “Cliff!”

Cliff is as even-keeled and as nonchalant as ever (it’s impossible to imagine Cliff rushing through anything, even a particularly bad Jennifer Aniston movie), and he easily leaves the impression that he’s led a charmed life. It’s far from the truth; he just knows better than most how to hide his troubles.

Drysdale lost his first wife, Jean, a world-class tennis player who was immortalized by Gordon Forbes in the most beloved of all tennis books, A Handful of Summers. Jean was Forbes’ sister. And Cliff’s own daughter, Kirsten, developed a rare degenerative spinal condition that left her paralyzed—a hard hand for a woman who’s loved riding horses all her life, and still does.

Cliff has a passion for the game that is undiminished despite his experience and his years. You want to get him all wound up? Just ask him about how to improve Davis Cup. You want to see him at his critical, skeptical best? Try suggesting that today’s players are inferior to the legends of the past. One of Cliff’s great talents has been the ability to see change coming, and to not only embrace it but to be part of it. Cliff was the debonair man wearing the white glove, but he was never afraid to get his hands dirty on behalf of his fellow players and the game in general.

The International Tennis Hall of Fame is soon going to be running out of candidates who were instrumental in creating the game we have today. That era and its leading figures are slowing fading into history. They’re probably already irrelevant to many of the younger fans reading this. There isn’t a better representative of those transformational figures than Cliff Drysdale. You know how it goes—you save the best for last.

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