At 63, weathered by a lifetime under the sun, he looks like a poster boy
for the Seamen's Institute and moves at a speed closer to that of flowing
lava than greased lightning, but he does so with the grace, majesty and skill
of an eagle in flight.
Arguably the best tennis player in the history of the fuzzy ball and
"thank you, Court One," Roy Emerson is still a revered icon in the tennis
world. He is also a boundless source of wisdom about the business of his
During a recent all-day pro-am/celebrity exhibition program at Ocean
Reef Club in Key Largo, Florida, he paused between matches to air his views
on tennis - as it was, as it is, and as it may be in the future.
He reminisces with relish about the kinder, gentler era when a
victorious player leaped over the net to congratulate his vanquished opponent
and engaged in cordial conversation as they strode off the court together.
(In these days of gladiatorial combat between established and/or would-be
millionaires, a grueling three-hour match is most often capped with a
handshake resembling the exchange between a cleanliness freak and a cesspool
He agrees that something has been lost in a professional game where the
other guy's brilliant shot is no longer acknowledged with so much as a nod,
much less a gesture of racquet applause or an audible "nice shot." Instead,
the reactive body language, he says, usually implies "lucky bugger," or even
Emerson does, though, genuinely admire the current crop of top stars,
including Pete Sampras, who has surpassed the veteran's long-held
record of 12 Grand Slam championships.
But comparison of his peers with the luminaries of today is nigh
impossible, he says, because of the differences in equipment, conditioning
and training regimens. (Although he didn't mention them specifically, the
beer consumption and propensity for partying of Emmo and his peers in their
salad days were reportedly Olympian in scope.)
When queried about changes he'd like to see in the modern professional
game, his comments were wide-ranging, including these few vignettes:
- Players, especially the baseline bashers should compete in both
singles and doubles in order to round out their games. Boycotting by (mostly
male) singles "specialists" has reduced the popularity of the doubles game
and tends to discourage an "all-court" style of play.
- The balls could be deadened somewhat, the court surfaces slowed and/or
racquet designs modified in order to restore finesse and strategy to the
game, which now sometimes resembles an exchange of artillery fire. He prefers
these anti-missile defenses to any of the remedial rule modifications that
have been suggested, such as going to a single serve and/or the elimination
of ad scoring and/or moving the service line closer to the net. Meanwhile,
"they'll just have to learn how to return those 130 mph serves." (And he
thinks they can.)
- All pro players should make themselves available for Davis Cup
competition, restoring these events to the preeminence they deserve in the
tennis world. (He recalls a 1954 tie between Australia and the U.S., which
drew capacity crowds of 28,000 for three successive days, compared with a
more recent matchup of the same two nations in Boston that was played before
about 5,000 spectators.)
With respect to on-court demeanor, Emerson feels that the players'
behavior has improved considerably since the "bad boy" antics of Nastase,
Connors and McEnroe, but notes an increasing tendency among some of them to
question line calls more frequently than in the "old days" and to engage in
attempted intimidation of the volunteer line judges.
"We used to pretty much take the calls as they came and tried to help
the umpires do their job," he recalls.
Even when it meant reversing a really bad call against one's opponent?
"Well, of course, when you got down to the nitty-gritty of a really important
point, it was less likely." (And, albeit he didn't say so, the implication
was that if the "nitty-gritty" had involved at that time, as it could now,
maybe a few hundred thousand dollars of prize money, it might have been as
rare a gesture then as it is today.)
Listening to a true legend such as Roy Emerson, and watching him play
exhibitions with the enthusiasm of a college kid, you get the impression
that, while much has changed in tennis, one priceless characteristic of the
game has remained: it is still, as it always was, a pleasurable pastime that
can challenge the skill, arouse the competitive spirit, improve the physical
condition and, above all, entertain people at any and all stages of life.
His records may all be eclipsed, but no one is ever likely to cast a
longer shadow behind him in the tennis world than the aging figure who rose
from our interview to confront yet another opportunity to hear the sweetest
words of all: "Game, set and match to Mr. Emerson."
A lovelier, livelier legend than Emmo you couldn't hope to meet!