Cliff Drysdale: Federer is the best player I've ever seen play.
The Tennis Week Interview: Cliff Drysdale
Photo By Bob Strauss By Richard Pagliaro
Tennis Week: This is the 25th anniversary of ESPN's tennis coverage and you are the second longest running announcer with the network. When it all began, did you envision ESPN's coverage lasting this long and you becoming the voice of ESPN tennis?
Cliff Drysdale: When you start, who knows what's going to happen? So no, that's not something I had in mind. Here's how it happened: I started doing a series of syndicated shows for WCT World Championship Tennis and they signed a deal with ESPN to do some shows in the early days. It just seems like, everything in my life, whenever I'm ready for the next move, it happens. I feel very lucky in that regard. Except this, I really didn't feel this would be a 25-year handshake I really didn't. I just didn't imagine it.
Tennis Week: Who could have envisioned it? ESPN was such a new network then. It's hard to imagine life without ESPN now, but remember when it wasn't around?
Cliff Drysdale: Right. The thing that I remember most about that first telecast was that Stan Smith, who was part of the Davis Cup team for the U.S., I'll never forget when he said to me: "Is this going to Lamar Hunt's bedroom?". Because he thought Lamar Hunt (the former owner of the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs, who is credited with coining the term "Super Bowl") owned ESPN and he owned the WCT. The point Stan was making was he thought this was really "rinky-dink", which it was. But we had no idea what would happen.
Tennis Week: What was the biggest adjustment when you went from color to doing the play-by-play?
Cliff Drysdale: I think they are different roles in as much as one is just trying to hold the whole show together. And obviously going to commercials and coming out of them the technical side of things you've got to be familiar with which is not brain surgery quite frankly, but it takes a little practice. It's a different attitude because I'm now, for the most part, in my efforts trying to bring the best out of the people that I'm working with.
Tennis Week: I notice that you're very good asking questions of Patrick McEnroe or Mary Carillo or whoever you're working with that can elicit interesting responses. It's like a point guard in basketball getting his teammates involved in the action.
Cliff Drysdale: Obviously, I have my own views on everything that I'm asking. But I'm trying to figure out what it is that the viewer wants. The viewer is number one he or she is the only one that really matters. So I'm trying to figure out what the viewer would be interested in on any occasion.
Tennis Week: I remember last year during one broadcast you telling Patrick that you believed Roddick's serve was the most devastating serve you've ever seen. He countered with Sampras, saying that Pete's just served bigger at a high level in major matches for many more years. Do you ever intentionally take a position you might not necessarily agree with just to provoke a debate with Patrick?
Cliff Drysdale: No, no, no. But sometimes there are subjects like that that I know are going to provoke him now. I don't always do it originally because sometimes I am generally surprised at answers that my cohorts will give. So I will talk to Patrick about stuff and then I am aware that he looks at me on the air like my elevator goes to about the fifth floor is all when I say that I think Roddick's got a better serve than Sampras because most disagree with that. But in my heart, if somebody said to me you've got a choice: you can take Pete Sampras' serve or you can take Andy Roddick's serve, in my heart, I'd take Andy Roddick's serve.
Tennis Week: So in those debates with Patrick, you're just offering your honest opinion?
Cliff Drysdale: Yeah, sure; that's the way I feel about it. And it upsets Sampras fans, but you know what? You cannot please everybody all the time, that's for sure.
Tennis Week: I grew up watching you and Fred Stolle and Mary Carillo. That team was just stellar to me: insightful, good chemistry and funny. What was it like working with those two and were you as tight off the air as you seemed on the air?
Cliff Drysdale: You know we really did get along. We were very close and we'd spend four nights a week eating out together. So we (Fred and I) were very comfortable with each other. And you know Mary is Mary, she just adds incredible humor, intelligence and I think she does it with a lot of thought. In other words, I don't think she over does it. She's totally unique, so she adds a lot in that regard and she's still a part of that. Really, Richard, in my heart I feel like Patrick McEnroe and I have become very close friends also and I feel like we've got that same kind of chemistry (that Fred and I had).
Tennis Week: I get the feeling you and Patrick have a good sense of camaraderie. He's always willing to challenge you and tell you very directly when he doesn't agree, yet at the same time there's mutual respect there and you both have a sense of humor, which makes those clashes very natural.
Cliff Drysdale: Well, some people think we hate each other.
Tennis Week: To me, it's more like two buddies sitting in the corner of the bar talking about the game they're watching: you can disagree or get along. But do you ever purposely press his buttons? Like during the Indian Wells Federer final you said: "I want to go back to your best thought of the broadcast, Patrick" and he said sarcastically, "Are you saying that's my only good thought of the broadcast?", but I thought you were being genuinely complimentary and he was just goofing with you on it?
Cliff Drysdale: (laughs) Right, right. Well, I was being genuine with him: it was a good point. And you're right: I think he was goofing with the viewer, primarily because he's looking at certain things in certain ways and that's his sense of humor.
Tennis Week: But do you get that reaction from viewers a lot do some think you two don't get along? Because many times people who post on our message board or readers will ask me: "Why does Patrick give Cliff so much crap? Do they hate each other?"
Cliff Drysdale: Do they really say that?
Tennis Week: Yes, people have asked that many times. But I know from his press conferences and interviews, he's got a good sense of humor and he's just being sarcastic sometimes, but you would know best.
Cliff Drysdale: Of course he does. He's got a good sense of humor. And there's nothing that we would ever say I mean we can disagree sometimes but there is nothing that he would ever say or that I would ever say that is intentionally deeply upsetting to the other.
Tennis Week: So you're not intentionally trying to stir him up or get him going?
Cliff Drysdale: Well, I'm not saying we would never try to stir each other up because we don't mind stirring each other up in a very friendly way. Because if there are areas we disagree, sometimes it's good to discuss that. I now find myself, in the last couple of weeks, thinking ...Either we're becoming more like brothers or something, but I'm thinking I would say what I would say if I was in his shoes and coming up with almost exactly his words. So I find myself thinking more along his lines.
Tennis Week: Do you and Patrick ever discuss before a match what you're going to look for and talk about? Or do you just watch it and spontaneously pick out points and let the match tell you the story?
Cliff Drysdale: It's hard enough just to get P-Mac to the production meetings beforehand (smiles). Everything we do is purely spontaneous. We will have one rehearsal before the opening on-camera spot if we have time; we sometimes don't have time for that either. We might go through that once, but for the most part it is spontaneous. And Patrick will trick me often because we'll go through the rehearsal and then when we do the real thing he will come up with something that will completely surprise me. And I think he does that on purpose sometimes, but I don't care.
Tennis Week: You've called thousands of matches for ESPN. Are there any that really stick out as either being so exciting or surprising that you'll never, ever forget them?
Cliff Drysdale: Sampras crying on the court and coming back to beat Courier at the Australian Open is one I'll never forget. I'll never forget (John) McEnroe and (Mats) Wilander in Davis Cup (McEnroe beat Wilander 9-7, 6-2, 15-17, 3-6, 8-6 in a record six hour, 22-minute Davis Cup match in the 1982 Davis Cup quarterfinals). I'll never forget the 1987 U.S. Davis Cup tie in Paraguay when (Hugo) Chapacu beat Jimmy Arias (6-4, 6-1, 5-7, 6-3, 9-7). There were drums going. It was very nearly a genuine riot, people were really going crazy, and Paraguay finally beat the U.S. (3-2) in that tie. And that was in Asuncion, Paraguay. I'll never forget Andy Roddick and Younes El Aynaoui at the Australian Open quarterfinals last year. That was one of the best matches I've ever seen sheer brilliance that to me is a real classic match, not just in name, but a real classic match.
Tennis Week: What's the most bizarre experience you've ever had doing a match?
Cliff Drysdale: Little things like I would have my regular glasses around my neck, then I'd be wearing another pair of dark sunglasses and I've had my headset on and I'd get them all mixed up and at one point we were on the air and I got caught with all of my glasses on my head. The other story I'll never forget is my second effort ever on the air. It was on ABC and we were doing a World Team Tennis all star match in Las Vegas. The first match I did was a Davis Cup match between the U.S. and South Africa on CBS and because Tony Trabert was their main announcer, he was on the court as the U.S. captain and so I called that match with Pat Summerall. So my first match on television was with an icon in Summerall. But the second one was with ABC in Las Vegas and I was supposed to interview Rod Laver, who is a very good friend of mine. They all had these yellow jackets with the ABC patch on them, but I was only doing one show with them so I used someone else's ABC jacket. There was a Valium tablet in the pocket of that yellow jacket, which had come from whoever it was who wore it before me and I knew exactly how that guy whoever it was felt because it was the most nerve-racking experience doing television in the early days.
Tennis Week: How long did that Valium last in the pocket before you ate it?
Cliff Drysdale: (laughs) I was not a Valium taker. But it just illustrated to me the nerves that guy must have felt. I said "Yeah, man I know what you're thinking." I really thought at that stage, "This is too nerve-wracking." Because I was still playing senior tennis and I thought "Let me just get back to the court and forget this..."
Tennis Week: It's funny because I would think playing is so much more nerve-wracking than commentating, but maybe in some ways, it's not?
Cliff Drysdale: You know in those days it was just the three networks, really. This was before the days of cable. It was 28, 29 years ago. Maybe just beginning stages of cable. Now there are so many networks with so many shows. Maybe it would still be nerve-wracking to start now, but anyway it really was (nerve-wracking) for me in those early days.
Tennis Week: Can we talk about the power of television? For so many fans, who can't get to Australia or Paris or here in Miami or wherever you are at a tournament, for those fans, you are the connection to the action that comes from television. What have you learned about the power of television? Have you ever been recognized in very obscure places?
Cliff Drysdale: I can only say that I'm far more recognizable as a broadcaster than I ever was as a player. I was a fair player got to number four in the world but there's nothing quite like the power of television. With it comes an obligation and I mean a serious obligation. People will look at me and meet me and greet me like they know me because I'm in their home sometimes in the bedroom late at night or otherwise certainly in the living room. So people feel familiar with you and I really like it. It's one of the really sweet things about what I do. And then there are people who don't appreciate it. And you just cannot please everybody, which would be nice to do. But you have to understand that some like your presentation and others do not. Regardless of that, I hate it for the people who don't because, as you said, Patrick and I and ESPN have been so pervasive in this tennis business for so many years. It would be nice to please everybody and I truly wish we could, but I realize you cannot please everybody.
Tennis Week: In terms of helping grow the game domestically, what role can TV have? With ESPN replying to viewers email on TV, your use of shot spot as an analysis tool, you do try to bring the viewer closer to the match. What can ESPN or any network for that matter do to make the game more appealing or viewer-friendly for people? Or is that asking too much? Is your job just to tell the match story without obligation to the growth of the game?
Cliff Drysdale: I think our job is to bring the story of the match to the viewer. It is, after all, a sporting contest. The viewer really cares about one thing: the tennis not about listening to the announcers nobody who I know has ever turned on because so and so is announcing they tune in because they want to see a contest between two people. They're interested in the outcome, in the sport. Tennis is a very special, different sport. It's unlike anything else. It's mano a mano. It's day in and day out. It's like boxing, but it's not like boxing where it's once every six months. Tennis is basically every single day. It's totally unique.
Tennis Week: Does television have a responsibility in terms of getting the game out there to a new audience or is there only so much that television can do? Is the ball out of your court?
Cliff Drysdale: No. Just last night I typed a response to a request from ESPN. Because we've got the three Grand Slams now so it's become far more important to the network. It was always a nice sideline for them, but now it's up front and center because (owning rights) to three of the four Slams is just a huge thing for ESPN. We're doing a lot more in every regard in terms of our coverage. So they have come and asked us for our ideas, for the things that we can do to improve our coverage they've asked everybody (on the broadcast). One of the things that I came up with is that I think ESPN should take a position on the question you are asking me: How can we get the movers and shakers, the decision-makers in tennis, to change certain things that will help our production. Because I don't think there's anything more important than making the television production more interesting to the viewers.
Tennis Week: It's especially important because that's how most fans see the game on television.
Cliff Drysdale: Exactly. So a few of the things I'd like to see is clearly use Shot Spot, so that the chair umpire has got Shot Spot so that these calls can be challenged by a player. I'm for twice a set so that there is some strategy in when you use it.
Tennis Week: So you're convinced Shot Spot is 100 percent accurate? Because I've heard a few players question it.
Cliff Drysdale: Even if it's not, even if it's off by one-tenth of 100 percent it's impartial. And that's the key and it's better than the naked eye I'm convinced of that. So if yo combine those two things it's close enough to where it should be used. I'd like to see players have a chance to legally talk to a coach by calling a timeout, once per set, for example. More than anything, I'd like to see the Davis Cup competition be played in a season. Because now it's a competition that nobody understands, nobody understands, and nobody ever will as long as it's separated by three months every tie. If you ask me what I'd like to see, I'd like to see the administrators of the game help us be able to present a better product.
Tennis Week: Are you optimistic that will happen sooner rather than later?
Cliff Drysdale: Yes, yes, yes.
Tennis Week: Why do you think people are so reluctant to use Shot Spot or slo-mo instant replay when it's done in other sports pretty frequently?
Cliff Drysdale: I think it's brand-new and I think that people players, administrators and lines people are skeptical about how accurate it is. But the truth is, it's very accurate and it's impartial and that's really, to my view, all you need. The really best solution should incorporate the replay machine that everybody in the stadium can see, which they don't all have yet. But how nice would that be? Because then you involve the whole audience that's there in the stadium as well. I don't think you need that because the television audience is, I hate to say as important or maybe more important because of the numbers, but for your television presentation it would be so huge.
Tennis Week: Looking at Roger Federer, is greatness, his brilliance on court, enough to popularize tennis or do you need personality and rivalry in addition to that. Or is just being a phenomenal player like Federer enough to propel popular interest in tennis?
Cliff Drysdale: A phenomenal player is enough. Rod Laver was not a great personality. Ken Rosewall was not a great personality. Borg was not a great personality. None of those guys who were such great champions were necessarily great personalities. Winning in and of itself is enough. Tiger Woods, I mean he's a great-looking guy, but he's not a great personality. So if tennis needs "a great personality" always to head the field then I think we're in trouble because we're not fundamentally strong there.
Tennis Week: Are the Williams sisters vital to the game and imperative to its success in this country?
Cliff Drysdale: Nobody is imperative to the game. Tennis players are like buses there's always another one around the corner (smiles). Temporarily, in any one three or four-year span players become as important as the game, for the moment. But never in the long term.
Tennis Week: Do the ESPN programming people ever come to you and say: "Cliff, look at the schedule, what match would you do?" Do you have any input at all into the matches ESPN selects to telecast?
Cliff Drysdale: Now, our broadcasts on ESPN are for the most part driven by the programmers. Do they ever come to us and say "What do you think?" For the most part, no. I mean, I'm one of nine, however many announcers we've got. So no, they don't usually come to pick our brains about what we think.
Tennis Week: Whenever I've spoken to your colleagues about you in the past whether it's Patrick, Mal or May Joe they've described you as "intelligent", "charming", "sophisticated" "funny" and "ladies man." This reputation you have as sort of a James Bond type of tennis guy as this charismatic, worldly figure women like and men like to talk to is that image accurate or is it a bit of an exaggeration?
Cliff Drysdale: (laughs). I can't answer that. I'm not sure exactly how people see me. I think my accent has something to do that with that. Some people relate what they think as an English accent I'm from South Africa as you know for the most part Americans don't always recognize a British accent from an Australian or South African. But I think that accent affects different people in different ways. Some will automatically think that you somehow think you are superior or something. And others are fascinated by it, so in that sense it's like a two-edged sword. I'm only saying that because you referenced the James Bond-thing I only say that because I think it's an accent thing more than me. All I know is that I feel I am honest. I feel I am honest. I think that age does that for me in that what you see is what you get. A little crazy, a little nutty.
Tennis Week: Personally, I like when you two get a little crazy. You don't take yourself too seriously.
Cliff Drysdale: I try not to. Because I'm also a big viewer of sports and there's nothing that aggravates me more than listening to two guys who think that they are covering a funeral or something that is hugely significant.
Tennis Week: After all these years and all the thousands of matches you've called, it's great to see that you still seem so eager and enthusiastic. Watching the Tennis Masters Cup, Australian Open and Indian Wells on ESPN, you really seemed into it to me.
Cliff Drysdale: I am into it. I'm glad you say that comes across because I really am into it.
Tennis Week: How do you prevent yourself from going through the motions and thinking to yourself: "I've seen this all done before..."
Cliff Drysdale: I love it. The whole tennis thing the whole one-on-one competition, it's great. I've been through it as a player. I know what these guys are thinking; I know what's going through their minds then again sometimes I don't and I'm speculating. But I think these are fascinating questions and they get answered every day. Look, tennis, for the tennis player, is 20 years of losing every week unless he wins the tournament, which not many do. So you've got hundreds of people who learn to deal with defeat on a weekly basis. It's a very hard way to make a living very hard. And for me it's fascinating to be a part of it and to watch and sympathize with the pain these players are going through. There's not much pain when you see the checks at the end of the day, I suppose, which did not exist in my day. But you carry the defeat with you every day. No matter how many dollars you make there's always some other clown that you're playing against who is making more and you are comparing yourself to a higher level of player the better you get in the game.
Tennis Week: You've been involved and instrumental in so many important aspects of the game: you were a U.S. Open finalist, you were there to help the dawning of the professional tennis, you served as President of the ATP, you helped South Africa win the Davis Cup in 1974 and you have been the voice of tennis for ESPN for 25 years. Of all your accomplishments, what's been most meaningful for you?
Cliff Drysdale: The broadcast business for me has been by far the most meaningful thing. As you said earlier, it's the most significant thing. The early days of the ATP Tour were hugely important. The Wimbledon walk-out by the players (in 1973) was something that I was very much a part of I was president of the ATP at that time was something I think was hugely important in giving players a voice. As a player, I had my good days and I had my bad days.
Tennis Week: You beat Rod Laver in the U.S. Open quarterfinals, you watched Pete Sampras' entire career and now you're seeing the most gifted player of this generation in Roger Federer. Who is the best player you've ever seen?
Cliff Drysdale: Federer is the best player I've ever seen play.
Tennis Week: Right now you would say that? If Federer never played again, if he retired tomorrow, you would still say he's the best you've ever seen?
Cliff Drysdale: Yes. I would say that if you put Federer at his best with any other player in history, that I've ever seen, at their best, that Federer would beat them.
Tennis Week: Cliff, that's a big statement. You've seen almost every great champion. That's a big statement.
Cliff Drysdale: It is a big statement. You know, a lot of your readers are going to disagree with me especially since he hasn't been out there very long. But if you ask me to make a definitive statement in that regard and say: "How would Laver have done against him?" Because Laver is the next most well-rounded, complete player I've seen after Federer.
Tennis Week: I thought you would say Sampras.
Cliff Drysdale: No. Because Pete didn't have great ground strokes.
Tennis Week: His forehand was pretty devastating.
Cliff Drysdale: It was good. His running forehand was pretty good. But if he didn't have the serve if you take the serve away from Pete he would be relatively naked.
Tennis Week: Federer's game is very strong and exciting in all phases and I'm very impressed with how well he returns and defends as well as his obvious ability to attack.
Cliff Drysdale: His movement, his transition game, his ground strokes, his volley, his serve Federer is the most complete player and that's why, when you ask me, in my view Federer is the best I've seen.
Tennis Week: So are you of the opinion that the players of today, the depth of the game, the quality of play is superior to any other era of tennis?
Cliff Drysdale: Yes, absolutely. There's no doubt that tennis, the men's game, is better than it's ever been. It's at its best right now. This is an exciting time for tennis and that's another reason I feel so privileged to be in this position watching these players and the game. It's really a very, very exciting time for tennis in my view.