Drucker Tennis Interview
Oakland-based Joel Drucker is one of the
world's leading tennis writers. Author of the book, Jimmy
Connors Saved My Life, Drucker's work has appeared in a wide range
of print and broadcast media, including Tennis, USTA Magazine, ESPN,
CBS and The Tennis Channel. For The Tennis Channel he's worked as
an on-air analyst and is co-producer of the program, Center Court
with Chris Myers. An avid recreational player, Drucker's lefthanded
4.5 game attempts to combine the tactical array of Brad Gilbert with
the variety of John McEnroe, a style he fondly refers to as "Spinning
Here is a link to some of Joel's articles
at the Tennis Channel: http://www.thetennischannel.com/columnists/roving_player.aspx
Tennis4you: How well
did you come to know Jimmy Connors over the course of writing your
book? Was he helpful in writing it? Without reading the book yet (I
plan on it!) I assume you and Connors came to know each other well?
My book recounts more than 25 years of interactions with Connors,
from childhood into my 40s - including numerous odd personal conversations,
as well as many interviews. As you'll see when you read it, he had
no involvement once I commenced it. This is neither a book written
with him, nor a book you'd consider "unauthorized" with all its salacious
implications. As far as how well Connors and I know each other, you'll
also see in the book that there's a curious kind of exchange we have.
I don't think he cares to know me at all, but certainly I've wanted
to understand him - as a way to better understand myself. One key
theme I try to tackle in the book: How does anyone know anyone? It
takes enough effort merely to know oneself, and if you're lucky, you
might meet one person who wants to know you too.
Dmastous: Having been around players in the
past (such as Borg, Connors & McEnroe) and players of the modern day
(such as Sampras, Agassi, Federer & Nadal), what are the differences
in attitudes of the generations. Does the money in modern tennis shape
the player of today. Are they less likely to speak their mind? Less
accessible? What would be the biggest differences between the generations?
Make no mistake: Players such as Borg, Connors and McEnroe made plenty
of money. Plenty. By age 22, each was financially set for life. But
as Connors once told me, "At least when I played you had to win big
to make big money." So the players at the very top of each era have
much in common: an insatiable ambition and desire to get better. But
we also have an era where many players make so much they might not
feel the incentive to improve. Such is the challenge of a singular
activity in a time of growth. Borg, by the way, and Connors too represent
the beginning of the era of the handler - the player be cosseted by
agents, managers, go-fers, etc. Access varies wildly across generations,
across players and also - very important - across a particular writer's
experience and engagement level. I was lucky enough to get an interview
with Connors a month out of college just after he won Wimbledon. But
that was fortuitous. In large part, money has been shaping the sport
since 1968. That's the real dividing line year. Tennis players before
then were scarcely-known, so access was easy - but interest was low,
so who really cared (at least in America) if in 1966 one could a one-on-one
interview with Wimbledon champion Manuel Santana?
Tennis4you: I know you have interviewed several
famous tennis players, but which tennis pros have you hit with, and
which ones were the most fun to hit with? What was your experience
with being able to hit (or even play) with them?
Joel Drucker: No
writer in tennis has done more of these kind of first-person hits
with the pros than me. As a high-performance 4.5 player, it's been
a sheer delight. Just to recount a few, but not all - Luke Jensen,
Murphy Jensen, Trey Waltke, Sandy Mayer, John Lloyd, Tracy Austin,
John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Mark Philippoussis, Bob Bryan, Mike Bryan,
Rick Leach, John Newcombe, Fred Stolle, Roy Emerson, Kathy Rinaldi,
Lori McNeil, Brian Gottfried, Dick Stockton, Mark Woodforde, Ross
Case, Marty Riessen, Owen Davidson, Ken Rosewall, Pancho Segura, Tony
Roche, Cliff Drysdale, Mary Carillo, Rod Laver and Andy Roddick have
all been kind enough to get on the court with me. All have been incredibly
fun, and because they've been so kind, I'm reluctant to praise one
more than others.
You might think that the more I do this the closer I think we recreational
players might be to the pros. After all, by now I've absorbed enough
pace, seen how they hit the ball, etc.
The gap is not just a river. It's an ocean. I'm not saying the 27-year-old
5.5 at your club would go down easily to 73-year-old Ken Rosewall.
Yes, he'd probably beat Rosewall. But even a 5.5 is nowhere near as
competent as the pros are at generating consistent depth, pace and
accuracy - all while retaining exquisite balance. Balance is exceptionally
important - the point is that it's hard for world class players to
feel particularly hurt by a ball struck by we civilians. Pros are
superb at tracking the ball, moving their feet and efficiently (big
word) using their bodies.
Kick Serve: What do you think of the changes
to the ATP calendar, with the downgrading of Monte Carlo and Hamburg?
Do you think the game is becoming more hard-court-centered, and is
this a bad thing? On a related note, what are your opinions on the
slowing down of Wimbledon's surface and balls, to the point where
the US Open is a quicker surface than Wimbledon?
Joel Drucker: The
game in large part is a business market. In order to succeed the ATP
must go where its events are most popular - not just in the local
market but also in matters of sponsorship, TV revenue, etc. Nothing
was ever cast in stone that made Monte Carlo and Hamburg eternally
more significant than, say, San Jose and Rotterdam. And at the same
time, haven't players for years been demanding a less taxing schedule.
The Wimbledon slowdown is frustrating. It's nice to see more consistent
bounces, but to see grass so punish attacking is a bit sad. Still,
this is largely in harmony with the way the rest of the game has evolved
all over the world.
Fantennistic: Do you think American pros are
a disadvantaged lot in general as the epicenter of tennis has clearly
shifted from US to Europe?
Joel Drucker: Yes, they are. One reason American players don't
do as well in Europe is simply because it's harder just to even make
a phone call - life in Europe simply gets one off-balance. I roll
my eyes when people say these things are cyclical, because cycles
go in all sorts of directions rather than the assumed back and forth.
But the truth is that tennis is far more popular in Europe and that
everyone from fans to sponsors feels they get much more value out
of a tennis tournament in Europe than in the U.S. One big factor is
that we in the U.S. have such a sophisticated, cluttered and popular
sports marketplace. Face it: just about every little kid rapidly absorbs
the language of football, baseball and basketball. But tennis is rather
arcane, a subculture. More and more I think the American tennis boom
of the '70s was a freaky occurrence.
Tennis4you: What tennis professional have you
learned the most from about tennis?
Joel Drucker: A delightful byproduct of being able to write
about I sport I play is the chance - an excuse as it were - to draw
on the expertise of tennis' greatest minds. I once asked a coach what
made John McEnroe so effective as a lefthander and was able to hijack
some of that information for myself (some).
Former pros such as Allen Fox, Trey Waltke, John Newcombe, Jose Higueras,
Lynne Rolley and Billie Jean King have generously given me hours of
time in describing so much of the game's psychology - both the mental
and strategic, the emotional and the tactical. Others like Vic Braden,
Martina Navratilova, Robert Lansdorp, Chris Lewis and Sandy Mayer
have broken down so many concepts for me.
Where I live in Northern California has always been a powerful spot
for great tennis minds - perhaps because for much of the 20th century
NorCal was working hard to keep up with its sunnier part of the state
down in Southern California. Michael Wayman is a strategic genius.
John Yandell is one of the only teachers you'll ever meet who knows
the scientific reality of every shot. Todd Mitchell and Steve Stefanki
gave me powerful insights into how I can best grasp what's going on
with my body - by far the hardest part of tennis for me. And Brent
Abel is a guy with more common sense about how to think, practice
and play this game than just about anyone I know.
As a child, Tony Trabert ran and was on-site at his tennis camp I
attended for four years. For starters, I'm glad I learned him from
the only shot I've ever possessed that's been called "pretty" - a
one-handed topspin backhand. From age 12, he gave so many great insights
- "Show me a dinker and I'll show you a room full of trophies" or
"Serve into the body on a big point so the ball will come back to
your volley" or "Lob a lot early in the match against a netrusher"
- that I remember to this day.
But all take a backseat to Jimmy Connors - all have, in fact, over
the years, done much to help me better understand Connors. As I discuss
in my book, Connors showed me that tennis wasn't just a matter of
hitting the ball better than the other guy. Tennis was personal.
Mogdesai: I have been watching tennis from
early seventies. You must have had many opportunities to meet many
top champions. I have always admired Borg, Lendl, Sampras and Federer
for their attitudes and how they handled on and off the court. They
are the example of perfect gentlemen for youngsters to watch. I would
like to know from your angle what do you think of these players, and
how you rate them as champions. Your opinions about these players
will be more respected and valued. It is such a pleasure and opportunity
to exchange opinions with such knowledgeable person like you.
Joel Drucker: First, the pure
tennis stuff, the rankings:
- Sampras still best-ever due to 14 Slams and six straight years #1
- Federer appears on a path to passing him
- Borg just off the heels of titans Sampras, Federer and Laver
- Lendl up there, a lot closer to Connors and McEnroe than one dares
admit. He should be not be punished for lack of charisma.
He was darn effective, and that's what counts.
As gentleman and people:
- Sampras I've always found thoughtful, sincere and glad to speak
to people who have a genuine understanding and appreciation
- Federer I like, but have hardly spent enough one-on-one time with
him to see past his kindly UN-like manner. Still, he seems
- Borg in the few times I've been around him found rather remote,
inadvertently chilly, rather world-weary
- Lendl has more humor than one dares think, but can come off as distant.
Still, I'd think after a few more interviews he could
be fairly real.
- As a general statement, it's easier to get to know players near
the end and after their careers than during.
Dmastous: Do you believe, as some contend,
that the three headed monsters of tennis (ATP, WTA, ITF) are attempting
to just drive doubles out of the game entirely? What do you think
of the changes that have been instituted in doubles? Is it a better
game today with the new rules?
Joel Drucker: I hope you feel the monsters each occupy separate
bodies. For they do - though sometimes they come together.
Face it, doubles is just part of the tennis marketplace. One argument
goes that since so many play doubles, they'd surely love to watch
it. But just because I sing in the shower doesn't mean I want to hear
others do likewise (pardon me, American Idol). One big life lesson
I've learned from tennis is that we are each very much responsible
for our destinies. So I'm tired of hearing professional doubles players
whine - when they are perfectly capable of looking for ways to better
market and promote themselves. How 'bout putting names on their shirts?
How 'bout putting on frequent rather than corporate clinics? How 'bout
doing more than just cashing in? I exclude the Bryan Brothers, who
actually do lots of this stuff. The changes are a reality that I as
a fan enjoy - they give doubles a chance to efficiently be part of
Pawan89: What do you think the media are doing
'wrong' or what can they be doing different to stop the apparently
downward spiral of interest in tennis in the states. Do you think
its entirely due to the fact that Americans were spoiled by Connors,
McEnroe, Agassi, Sampras (among others), and now Roddick and Blake
just aren't what Amercians are used to or do you think the media can
do something to reverse this trend?
Also, how much respect do tennis players give to journalists? Do they
like the media and attention or do they do it like they are forced
to do it, and if so do they at least try to care or show interest?
Joel Drucker: The
media's job isn't to make tennis go up or down. I assume by that you
mean editorial media - journalists, magazine writers, even TV producers
and announcers. Popularity actually dropped during the Agassi-Sampras-Courier-Chang
era. Too many people think fans follow tennis by dint of nationality.
We all know that tennis lovers care more about players than countries
- from Newcombe and Rafter to Borg, Edberg, Guga, Becker, etc.
In another sense, media is a market like everything else - and the
sober truth is that the core tennis audience of people who play and
love the game is cheap beyond belief. While golfers do things like
take lessons and buy instructional and historical tapes and books,
tennis players whine about increases in the price of balls. Tennis
players themselves help contribute to the depressed tennis marketplace.
I meet people who send their kids to Stanford, ask me for free tickets
to tournaments and then wonder what's wrong with the game. Physician,
A mutual collision occurs in America between journalists and players.
Since pro tennis is a small sport that at best comes to a city for
a few days a year (even the US Open), editors often assign it to someone
who's not particularly familiar with the sport. I mean there are journalists
who barely know a volley from a rally. This in turn leads players
to question how much media really knows. And at the same time, for
a long time the sport has been so confused about its own identity
- all these aspects to make tennis cool or glamorous in fashion magazines
- that agents and tour handlers will grant more time to those outside
of the sport than those in it.
Players go through a number of phases with journalists:
- I'm new, this is great
- I'm jaded, go away
- I'm almost finished, please pay attention to me
A lot of them go through the motions, but from time to time there
are surprises. Roddick couldn't tank an interview to save his life.
Paul Goldstein and Tatiana Golovin are among the few active players
who've ever asked me questions.
As in all areas, respect is earned rather than granted. Not easy in
an individual sport.
Dmastous: This topic has come up now and then
here. I'll put the question this way. Is serve and volley tennis dead
as a steady diet? I mean coming in nearly every first serve and many
seconds. It's still viable as a change of pace, or surprise tactic,
but will it work any more as a Plan A?
The history of the game moves forward and changes. Circa 1969, there
was talk about the shortage of rallies and how serve-volley tennis
was boring people to death. Things changed.
What's sad is that the way the game is taught often precludes learning
to be an all-court player. Time was when a young teenager had to transition
from being a little pusher into all-court player. But now, largely
thanks to the two-handed backhand, a ten-year-old can instantly start
mimicking the game of, say, David Ferrer or Lleyton Hewitt. And parents
(and kids) care too much about short-term wins than long-term development.
History shows that it takes longer to build an attacking game. But
with so many entertainment and athletic options, not to mention training
for the SAT so he can apply to 20 colleges, little John and Jane ain't
about to take time to learn how to volley.
My hope is that there are indeed courageous coaches and students learning
to come to net, willing to understand the concept of cumulative pressure
and how much fun it is to be an all-court player. Whether these gutsy
souls become college players, pros or even mere civilians like me
is of little concern. What matters is that they learn enough to stay
in the game.
Dallas: What is your take on Jimmy Connors
coaching Andy Roddick? Do you see that union continuing? Or has it
run its course?
It's been a good pairing. In a reversal of most player-coach relationships,
Connors has engaged less in empathy and more in transference: He has
helped Roddick see the world through his eyes, helped Andy see what
it takes to compete and build points with keen urgency.
Making predictions is my least favorite part of journalism. It does
nothing to raise a reader's consciousness. I could spend hours parsing
what seems viable and dysfunctional about Roddick-Connors. But to
predict? Golly. So right now it's a continuing relationship. How can
we tell what the course is and if it's reached the end? But Dallas,
you're on to something: With Connors, you never know, and it could
well end tomorrow - or last five more years.
Tennis4you: In your experience, which
tennis pros have given the best interviews? Did any of them have a
great sense of humor??
Billie Jean King by far is the best. She thinks, she cares, she reassesses.
It's more than a soundbite, but an experience of being taken inside
a very generous heart and soul. Other superb interview subjects in
my experience include Mary Carillo, Luke Jensen, Martina Navratilova,
Pam Shriver, John Newcombe, Fred Stolle, Michael Chang - not just
for what they say, but for the candor and depth with which they contemplate
Humor-wise, you might not believe this, but Pete Sampras has a cheeky
side. He won't always show it, but it's there, lurking right under
his diplomatic surface. Ditto for Todd Martin and Jim Courier.