Cliff Drysdale, former championship player and an outspoken and influential leader in issues on and off the court since his playing days, has served as a tennis commentator for ESPN since the network’s very first tennis telecast. For that and more – indeed, a lifetime devoted to the sport of tennis – he was selected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2013.
Upon Drysdale’s selection, ESPN president John Skipper said, “Cliff is one of the special voices in sports television and few in any sport have combined such an outstanding career in competition with leadership roles off the court and we are proud to call him our own.”
That first ESPN tennis telecast – the U.S. vs. Argentina in a Davis Cup match in Memphis, Tenn., on September 14, 1979 – came just one week after ESPN had debuted on September 7. Among current ESPN commentators, only SportsCenter’s Bob Ley, who joined the company on September 9 of that year, has been with ESPN longer. In 2011, he also called the first match ever on ESPN 3D, a Gentlemen’s Semifinal at Wimbledon between Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Novak Djokovic on Friday, July 1. An analyst at first for ESPN and even earlier for CBS, Drysdale has mostly called match play-by-play since the mid-1980s.
Drysdale remains one of the most respected figures in the game. In 2011, the esteemed tennis journalist Steve Flink wrote, “Drysdale has long been one of the chief voices of reason and intelligence in the world of tennis. If the various political factions in the sport could ever agree on a Commissioner, he would get my vote in an instant. Drysdale knows the inner workings of tennis as well if not better than anyone, and he followed the US Open off court developments closely.”
Noted for his low-key but elegant manner – of Drysdale, tennis legend Rod Laver once said, “(he) could talk a lion into becoming a vegetarian” – along with knowledge and objectivity, the affable and unflappable Drysdale, along with his instantly recognizable voice, has graced virtually every ESPN tennis telecast.
His broadcasting resume includes all four majors, including ESPN’s current unprecedented position of start-to-finish coverage of three – the Australian Open (since 1984), Wimbledon (since 2003, exclusive since 2012) and the US Open (since 2009, exclusive since 2015). In addition, for many years ESPN’s coverage of the U.S. Davis Cup team provided many memorable moments. Drysdale worked the John McEnroe – Mats Wilander Davis Cup match in St. Louis in 1982. The telecast, including their marathon six-and-one-half-hour battle, lasted 9 hours and 17 minutes.
A Champion on the Court
Drysdale, who was ranked as high as No. 4 in the world, was in the top 10 six times, and won 35 singles titles. One of the first players in the game to use a two-handed backhand, he won the German Championship in 1965 when he also finished as runner-up in the US Open singles competition at Forest Hills. In 1965 and 1966, he reached the semifinals at both Wimbledon and the French Open. At Wimbledon in 1967, he played Roger Taylor on Centre Court on BBC2 in the first color television program ever in England. He also captured 24 doubles crowns, highlighted by the 1972 US Open men’s championship with Roger Taylor. A veteran of 45 Davis Cup matches, in 1974 he led South Africa to the Davis Cup championship. In 1989, Drysdale was ranked #1 on the Senior Tour.
A Leader off the Court
Drysdale has been an outspoken and influential leader regarding issues on and off the court since long before his playing days ended. One of the first players in the game to use the two-handed backhand, he was instrumental in the founding of the Association of Tennis Professionals and served as its first president (1972-74). During that time, he led the successful 1973 Wimbledon boycott (including 13 of the top 16 seeds), protesting the suspension of Yugoslav Nikki Pilic (who had refused to play Davis Cup). Famed tennis columnist Bud Collins later wrote, “The boycott made the ATP. The players’ message to the ITF was clear: they were finally united in an organization to influence their own destiny.”
In addition, since 2001 he has operated Cliff Drysdale Tennis, a full-service tennis management company. It specializes in tennis program development, daily tennis operations and management for resorts, hotels and private tennis clubs; design and construction consultation for companies interested in building world-class tennis facilities and unrivaled tennis educational programs, clinics and retreats.
In 1998 won the William Johnston Award for contribution to men’s tennis, given by the International Lawn Tennis Club of the U.S.A. In 1985 and ’86 Tennis Magazine named the articulate Drysdale “Best Announcer” on television. In 1982, the readers of Tennis Magazine selected Drysdale as their “Favorite Television Announcer,” and in 1991 they selected him the “Best Tennis Announcer.”