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Joel Drucker Tennis Interview
11.06.2007

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 Ugly."

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?

Joel Drucker: 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?

Joel Drucker: 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.

Guess again.

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 of tennis
- 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 exemplary.
- 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 the party.

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, heal thyself!

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?

Joel Drucker: 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?

Joel Drucker: 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??

Joel Drucker: 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 their answers.

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.