Tennis icon Cliff Drysdale is putting down roots for a second time in Austin’s nearby Hill Country. High above Lake Travis, bulldozers paw at the landscape surrounding a newly remodeled contemporary home. A pool is near completion and a greenhouse is on the drawing board. But inside there are no photos or trophies in sight of a Hall of Fame career that included a Grand Slam title, a Davis Cup championship, a #4 singles ranking and six years among the top 10. And what he’s accomplished off the court is equally impressive: co-founder and president of the Association of Tennis Professionals, “the voice” of ESPN tennis coverage for nearly four decades, and founder and CEO of Cliff Drysdale Tennis, a tennis and resort management company which he recently sold. It’s hard to imagine anyone with a more comprehensive perspective on the state of amateur and professional tennis.
“Ask me anything,” Cliff offers.
You’re coming off covering Wimbledon for ESPN. Your impressions.
“It was an absolute extravaganza. On the men’s side, it was of course the Big 3 once again. What has changed is, in previous eras, we had players like Sampras or Agassi who would win at a high level for a few years. But now we have an elite group of players [Federer, Nadal, Djokovic] who have been dominating for well over a decade. What makes it additionally amazing is they’re achieving this when the depth and talent of tennis players globally is greater than ever. On the women’s side, Coco Gauff generated a lot of enthusiasm. The women’s side is a lot more dynamic.“
What explains the dominance of the Big 3?
“It’s the damnedest thing. This is a sport where one player—or two or three—are able to dominate. Whereas in another sports, especially a team sport, that wouldn’t happen. In tennis, players are going one-on-one. That enables dominance. Plus, they all have incredible levels of mental toughness. They all can fight through adversity.”
Are today’s fans overly fixated on the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic Slam race?
“When I was playing, Roy Emerson was winning all of these Majors and no one was counting! (Laughs). The debate then about who was number one was very subjective. I suppose a lot of the interest in the Slam race today is because a lot of the fans don’t want to see Roger get caught.”
What are your predictions going into the US Open?
“I tend to go with the front runners and that’s Djokovic.”
Which players today do you enjoy watching the most?
“I can’t believe I’m saying this but if I had to pay to see someone it’d be that crazy Australian Nick Kyrgios! You never know what he’s going to do! I also like Fognini’s game. Thiem’s too. And Stan Wawrinka—a great player and a very nice guy. Among the younger players, Tsitsipas appears to be the one with the biggest ‘it’ factor.”
You grew up and played in South Africa during a troubling time.
“It was very difficult because South Africa had a great tennis tradition but its apartheid politics were unacceptable at home and internationally. That put it in opposition with the world at large. I reached a point where I couldn’t play Davis Cup anymore. I came to regard Nelson Mandela as one of the greatest statesman of the 20th century. His absence of rancor after being unjustly imprisoned all of those years should inspire us all.”
I read you always yearned to be an American.
“Yes. My dad would bring home Time and Life magazines from the US. I would read the articles and see advertisements for Chevrolets and Cadillacs. At the time, 99 percent of the world’s potential immigrants wanted to come to America. I still think that’s the case.”
You were on the vanguard of professional tennis. A Founding Father so to speak.
“Yes, I made it to the Wimbledon semi-finals twice. And my prize money as an amateur—and I’m serious—was two lily-white tennis shorts. The situation of pros [who were banned from Wimbledon] versus amateurs was unsustainable. This kind of neglect created a opportunity for Lamar Hunt and Al Hill Jr. They saw an opening to make tennis more professional, so they launched World Championship Tennis, which was a major force in the sport’s rise in popularity in the ’60s and ’70s.”
And that’s how you initially came to Austin.
“I was eager to leave South Africa and Lamar Hunt offered me $30,000—which seemed like a fortune at the time—to play for World Championship Tennis. I was one of the original “Handsome Eight,” along with John Newcombe, Tony Roche and others. I also helped to promote and run clinics at the World of Tennis in Lakeway.”
Is there one win or title that was the most gratifying?
“Not really. From one day to the next, I never saw myself as an iconic athlete. You just keep working hard and you try to win matches. Among other things, playing a lot of tennis teaches you how to deal with losing.”
It took a lot of effort, including a Wimbledon boycott, to launch the Open Era of tennis. Does it frustrate you that many professionals today are probably clueless about the sport’s history?
“I am well aware most pros today don’t know anything about how the Open Era came to be. But I do not blame them and I do not care. A great artist owes only his or her talent and nothing more than that. I’ve enjoyed seeing the sport grow and prosper for everyone.”
What are the major challenges facing Novak Djokovic as the current president of the ATP?
“The biggest challenge Novak is struggling with is: Should the ATP remain a players’ union or should it model itself after the PGA, whereby it owns some of the tournaments? Personally, I don’t think you can be a legitimate union and own tournaments at the same time.”
How would you characterize the state of professional tennis, today?
“I feel very positive about it. It’s generally in a good place in part because ESPN and others have pushed for changes to improve the fan experience. I envision, however, some structural changes…new circuits…new tournaments…perhaps folks like Larry Ellison will try to elevate their tournaments to a Slam level.”
Final question, how does our country get more young people involved in grassroots tennis?
“The key to grassroots tennis is the tennis pro. Pros are the ‘Pied Pipers;’ you need to inspire young people to get excited and take up the game. You can’t have good programs without good pros.”