The Hall of Famer has been ESPN's voice of tennis for more than three decades. Yet Drysdale's most memorable moment from The Championships didn't happen with a microphone in his hand — it featured a walk down the aisle followed by a trip onto Centre Court.
“I’ve been going to Wimbledon since 1962, and reached the semifinals twice (1965 and ’66) and three more times in doubles, but in 1968 I had the most interesting day," Drysdale recalled. "I got married in the morning in the Chelsea section of London and played on Centre Court in the afternoon. My bride, Jean, was the sister of my Davis Cup teammate Gordon Forbes. And my partner that day — on the court — was Torben Ulrich, father of musician [Metallica drummer] Lars Ulrich. We lost the match but it was a beautiful time.”
A Roland Garros and Wimbledon semifinalist in 1965 and 1966, Drysdale defeated his friend, 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.
The veteran of the small screen spends some of his spare time pondering tennis's big picture. We caught up with Drysdale for this Wimbledon preview interview.
Tennis Now: Novak Djokovic has been a dominant world No. 1. Losing to Stan Wawrinka in Paris denied him the Grand Slam and dropped his record to 8-8 in Grand Slam finals. Will there be any residual effect as Djokovic tries to defend his Wimbledon title?
Cliff Drysdale: I don't think it's an issue. I really don't think the French Open final loss had as much to do with him as it had to do with Stan Wawrinka. In my mind, Novak Djokovic is still the clear favorite to win Wimbledon.
TN: Novak hired Boris Becker to help him get over the finish line in major finals. No doubt, Becker has helped his game, but how can a coach help a player prepare for those critical stages in major finals?
Cliff Drysdale: You're talking to somebody who believes coaches have got some relevance, obviously. But to me, with or without Boris Becker, it's still a matter of winning a couple of points here and there. The idea that some ex-champion is psychologically gonna carry you over the hump on his shoulders — it doesn't make sense to me. It is what it is. A few things happen, a few points here or there can make a big difference and sometimes decide these matches. I am not blaming Becker for the fact his record in major finals has been less than stellar compared to his overall record.
TN: Conventional wisdom — and recent results — suggest if Roger Federer is going to win an 18th Grand Slam title, then Wimbledon is the likely place. He came very close to doing it last year, he's looked good this year. Do you believe Wimbledon is his best shot for another major?
Cliff Drysdale: I don't think there is any special advantage Federer has at Wimbledon. His toughest Grand Slam is the French and after that I give him an equal shot of winning in Australia or at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon is certainly one of those where he's got a legitimate shot of winning. So I understand about conventional wisdom, but we conventionalists have been writing him off as a potential Grand Slam winner now for years. And Federer always ends up in the last eight, most often in the last four and sometimes in the last two. So the Federer story has not yet been finished. That book is still open.
TN: When you see a 33-year-old Serena Williams dominating the sport and standing halfway to a calendar Grand Slam, a 33-year-old Roger Federer playing dynamic tennis as world No. 2, a 30-year-old Stan Wawrinka winning Roland Garros, a 37-year-old Tommy Haas coming back, a 34-year-old Martina Hingis and 41-year-old Leander Paes winning Australian Open mixed doubles are we entering the age of the senior set? Will over 30 Grand Slam champions become more frequent in the near future?
Cliff Drysdale: The answer is unequivocally yes. I've been struggling with why. And I'm having a tough time answering that question. I think it has to do with the fact that the game is now a movement of corporate enterprises. It is less easy now to say 'I'm in this for myself, this is me versus the field and I've had enough.' As Borg, McEnroe [did] etc. Today, if you stop, then you let down the hundred people that rely on you and your expertise as a tennis player. That's one explanation I can come up with, Richard. Another one is the fact players are so much more inclined to keep themselves in top physical condition that it's not really a question of physicality anymore. Because they're in spectacular shape and getting better. They use knowledge of nutrition, training technology and the like. That's the explanation I can come up with. When is a 17-year-old going to win another major like Becker did, like Chang, like Sampras at 19, like Wilander? I just don't see it happening. The age shift in the sport, that is true.
TN: Years ago, I remember talking to you in Miami and you were one of the early vocal proponents for using instant replay. Is there any other rule change you believe is imminent? Like using technology to make other calls, a shot clock, play let cords?
Cliff Drysdale: Definitely. I think you can more widely use the replay system. You can use it for foot faults, for double bounces, which I think Hawk-Eye or a replay system should be used for both of those things. And I think a shot clock is going to happen. It's just a matter of time before somebody bites the bullet and introduces the shot clock. I think that it will be welcomed by the players, certainly welcomed by the spectators and it will be welcomed by the viewers. The shot clock, I think, is just around the corner and honestly I think it's about time.
TN: What's your position on on-court coaching? Do you want the Grand Slams to allow women to use coaching? Do you favor on-court coaching in the men's game?
Cliff Drysdale: Yes to both of those things. Look, I come at this thing from a television standpoint and from making things more exciting and interesting for the viewer. I think to be a part of a conversation between a player and a coach on court — and to see and hear that unfold on television or even on the internet — to make the viewer part of that conversation, makes the game more interesting. I've seen it a few times during matches on the women's tour where I'll be damned if the viewer is not drawn in to stay with the match because of this interaction between player and coach. So unequivocally yes. The ITF always says it's [adverse to change] "to preserve the integrity of the sport." But I think it's ridiculous. I think it's time to make changes to make the sport more attractive to A. watch live and B. watch on TV.
TN: Both Andy Murray and Boris Becker have been quoted saying having microphones on court minimizes player outbursts and deters players from showing their true personalities on court because they don't want to deal with the media fall-out afterward. Do you agree with the notion that technology has created a sanitized version of the sport where players are scared to really express raw emotion? Or has it brought the curtain down a bit, brought us all closer to the action? Also, some say microphones on court really amplify the shrieking. What's your view?
Cliff Drysdale: The idea that we have to get back to the days of players terrorizing officials and/or each other in order to make the sport more attractive to view, I think, is ridiculous. If anything, I think the antics and histrionics of players, while it may get on Sports Center's play of the day, I think if anything it turns people off more than it does turn them on.
And as for the shrieking, I think that is a huge turnoff for viewers. There's not one person that has ever come to me and said 'Gee, I really love to hear all the shrieking of Sharapova and Azarenka.' Not one. On the contrary, Rod Laver told me that the first time he has watched a women's Grand Slam final [in years] was at last year's U.S. Open final [between Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki] because there no shrieking. Otherwise he just turns it off and goes out and plays golf because he refuses to listen to the shriekers. And I agree with that.
There should be a limit to the volume of noise for a variety of reasons. One, because it is very unattractive for people watching in the stadium. Two, it is very unattractive for the people watching on TV. Three, it is very distracting for opponents. And four, I really believe there are certain times when the shriek muffles the sound of the ball on the racquet, which is a negative for the opponent. As a player, you listen for the spin and what kind of spin is coming toward you. Sometimes you'll hear the miss-hit or you'll hear the different spin coming off the racquet. The sound of the ball on the racquet is a legitimate part of the game.
TN: Over the last half-century you've either played or covered the greatest players in the game. Many years ago, you told me Roger Federer was the greatest player you ever saw. Do you still regard Roger as the greatest ever? Do any current players like Rafa or Novak have a chance to claim that GOAT mantle in your mind?
Cliff Drysdale: I think overall Roger Federer is the best I've ever seen. It is hard not to give Djokovic or Nadal, if he gets himself back on track, a huge nod. And I really think with Rafa's record against Roger, it speaks volumes for where he would be in history [if he returns to form]. The question is if Novak had won the French Open and ends up winning the Grand Slam, then how can you not enter Novak into the conversation of the Greatest of All Time? It's always a tough question. I think overall I would have to give the nod to Federer for his consistency and excellence over the years. And let's not forget: He's still won more Grand Slams than anybody else.