Roy Emerson: Emerson, the cream Down Under, rises again

The original Sampras will be remembered once more by his home crowd when the Australian Open starts on Monday
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With the Australian Open, the latest instalment of the world's four grand slam tennis championships, about to begin in Melbourne, Roy Emerson, one of the sport's great characters, can look forward to another round of cheerful greetings.

Emerson, whose eccentric wind-up service action was reminiscent of a demented chef on Shrove Tuesday, had the biggest hoard of major singles titles - 12 - until Pete Sampras came along.

Aged 67, Emerson is among the great players due to be fêted at the International Tennis Hall of Fame's 50th anniversary celebration in Newport, Rhode Island, on the weekend of 9 to 11 July.

Prior to a black-tie dinner, a "Parade of Hall of Famers" will take place. Emerson, who was enshrined in 1982, will be proud to join the line but is unlikely to rush for a place at the head, even though Sampras will not be there (players are ineligible for the Hall of Fame if they have been a significant factor on the professional tour within five years of election).

It was Emerson's record that Sampras broke at Wimbledon in 2000 to become the most prolific grand slam singles titlewinner in history. But it is Rod Laver, the only man to have completed two calendar year grand slams, whom Sampras will be measured against when discussions start over who was the greatest player ever.

The same was true for Emerson 30 years ago. His achievements were invariably asterisked with the note that Laver, his left-handed compatriot, was not competing against him during most of his years at the top. Similarly, Sampras' incredible record of 14 grand slam titles carries the footnote that, unlike Laver, he failed to win the French Open.

Emerson, who dominated tennis in the mid-1960s, just prior to the sport going open, agrees that the omission of the French Open from Sampras' CV will cause some experts to place him below Laver in the list of all-time greats. But he believes such an assertion is a little unfair.

It will be important in the purists' eyes, but they forget that Sampras has won in Rome, which is a fairly big clay-court tournament, even though it is not one of the Slams, Emerson says.

Rome was an awfully tough tournament to win, and it proves that Sampras could actually play on that surface. Emerson admits, though, that Sampras could have done more to be successful at the French Open, where the American's best result was reaching the semi-finals in 1996.

"I don't think he really gave himself a chance in Paris," Emerson said. "He usually went over to Europe so late. If he really wanted to play well on clay he should have gone over for three months in advance and really grubbed it out with a lot of match practice."

Emerson held the record for the most grand slam singles titles for 33 years, until Sampras broke it in the Wimbledon final of 2000 against Emerson's countryman, Patrick Rafter. Emerson was obviously sad to see the record go, but he wished Sampras well.

"I knew it had to happen eventually," Emerson said. "Records are there to be broken and I knew he was going to break it, particularly at Wimbledon."

Emerson, a Queenslander like Laver, was born in Black Butt, a crossroads. A slim, quick, athletic farm boy, he strengthened his wrists for tennis by milking innumerable cows on his father's property. His family moved to Brisbane, where he could get better competition and coaching, when his tennis talent became evident.

He won his grand slam singles titles between 1961 and 1967. For much of that time, though, Laver was playing on the professional circuit. Laver completed his two calendar year grand slams either side of Emerson's reign, in 1962, just before turning professional, and in 1969, after the Open era had begun.

So, whenever a discussion about the greatest player of all time begins, Emerson rarely gets a mention. He is not bitter. In fact, had Laver been around in the intervening years, he knows he probably would not have won as many grand slam titles. "I didn't mind [Laver] turning pro, because that gave me a chance to win a few more," he said. "Anyway, he was terrific for the game."

Greatness did not happen to Laver overnight. Emerson had the upper hand in their early exchanges in 1961, beating the man known as the "Rockhampton Rocket" in the Australian and US finals. Laver got a licking for the first six months or so but then improved his second serve, Emerson remembers. When he came out of the professional ranks he tightened up his game, improved his second serve and became a better player because of it.

Emerson played on eight winning Davis Cup teams between 1959 and 1967, a record. He won 28 of the major singles and doubles championships - a record for men - including two Wimbledon singles, in 1964 and 1965, and two US singles, at Forest Hills in 1961 and 1964.

As a right-court doubles player who could make anybody look good, Emerson achieved 16 major titles with five different partners, the last in 1971 at Wimbledon with Laver.

Emerson's best-known partnership was with the Australian left-hander Neale Fraser, with whom he won Wimbledon in 1959 and 1961, the US title in 1959 and 1960 and the doubles in the Davis Cup triumphs of 1959, 1960 and 1961.

Known as "Emmo" to his wide circle of friends on the circuit, he was gregarious and could lead the partying without jeopardising his high standards of play. Fitness was his hallmark (as a boy he ran 100 yards in 10.6 seconds). Though primarily a serve-and-volleyer, he had the versatility to adapt to the slower courts, winning the French singles in 1963 and 1967, and leading the Davis Cup victory over the Americans on clay in Cleveland in 1964.

That year, Emerson was unbeaten in eight Davis Cup singles as the Australians regained the Cup. He had a singles winning streak of 55 matches during the summer and autumn, while establishing himself as No 1 in the amateur game by winning 17 tournaments and 109 of 115 matches.

The only prize to elude him in 1964 was the grand slam. Nicola Pietrangeli, of Italy, made that an impossibility by winning their quarter-final at the French Championships, 6-1, 6-3, 6-3.

Emerson was denied a third consecutive Wimbledon singles title in 1966, when he was heavily favoured. Winning a fourth-round match against Owen Davidson, he skidded in pursuit of a short ball and crashed into the umpire's stand, damaging a shoulder. He was unable to do much but finish the match.

Between 1961 and 1967, Emerson won six Australian singles titles, a record in the men's game, the last five in a row. Beginning in 1959, he was ranked in the world's top 10 nine years in a row, and was No 1 in 1964 and 1965.

After resisting several previous offers, Emerson turned professional in 1968, just before open tennis began, and was still competing in 1978 as the player-coach of the Boston Lobsters in World Team Tennis, guiding them to the semi-finals of the league play-offs.

How would Sampras have fared if he had been around in the 1950s and 1960s? "He would have been up there because of his terrific serve," Emerson reckons. "He would certainly have been a very difficult customer."

What disappointed Emerson was that Sampras rarely played doubles. Emerson played doubles throughout his career and still holds the record for the combined number of singles and doubles grand slam titles. "With 28 titles I have a record that no one's going to break because no one plays doubles any more," he said.

While the prize money in singles goes up year on year, there have been cuts to doubles budgets recently as tournaments struggle to sell tickets on the back of doubles-only specialist players.

The decline in interest in doubles from players and tournaments is something that Emerson does not understand. "It does sadden me, because doubles is such a great part of the game. It shouldn't be lost. Eighty-five per cent of the people who play the game today play doubles and the crowds still love to watch it."

He believes that nothing will change for the better until the ranking system is altered to recognise both disciplines.

"What I have been recommending to get doubles back into the game is for the ATP to start making the No 1 player at the end of the year the player that has the best combined singles and doubles results. That would make all the top players play doubles again.

"Bjorn Borg was the first one to not play and because he was so successful all the other players said: 'Well, if Borg isn't going to play doubles, I won't either.' You've got half of all the top men not playing doubles because they find it too gruelling. But they have a day off to practise anyway, so why not play a couple of sets of doubles instead?"

It seems to be the only tennis regret that the amiable, down-to-earth Australian has, and it has nothing to do with his own career. Like Sampras, he set records all over the place, including forming part of an Australian team that reached the Davis Cup final for eight years in a row, winning seven of them.

Emerson's advice to Sampras is simple: he should not worry about the ones that got away, he should thank his lucky stars for the opportunities tennis has given him.

"Tennis opened my eyes to a lot of things," Emerson said. "It gave me an opportunity to travel the world and meet some of the nicest people around, so what else could you ask for? It certainly beat milking cows back in Australia."

Life on the tennis circuit before the open era - The humour of Roy Emerson

A passage in A Handful of Summers (Sportspages/Simon & Schuster) - the classic evocation of big-time tennis prior to the open era, written by the South African Gordon Forbes, a former international player - encapsulates Roy Emerson's personality.

The scene is the Rome tournament on the clay courts at the Foro Italico in 1955. Emerson is singing in the shower, drifting off-key.

This week the song is one of the current hits: "Many a tear has to fall-l-l-l-l

But it's all-l-l-l-l

In the game.

All in that wonderful game

That is know..."

"Shad up. Shad up, shad up, bloody Emerson!"

It was Drobny [Jaroslav Drobny, the Czech player who won the men's singles title at Wimbledon in 1954]. He had entered the dressing-room, covered in the marks of a titanic struggle. Red dust, sweat, dirty shoes, fogged-up spectacles, tousled hair, generally unkempt. The singing stopped. Emerson's eyes appeared around the edge of the cubicle, then disappeared. Drobny dropped his rackets into the silence.

"That is known," came from the shower, "as LOVVVVE."

"Bloody Australians," said Drobny.

Another silence, humming with prospects.

"Once in a while she may call-l-l-l," (came from the shower)

"But it's all-l-l-l

In the game

All in that mad, crazy game..."

"Emerson!" shouted Drobny. "Shad up singing or I'll get really mad."

Emerson's head reappeared from the shower. "What's up, Drob?" he asked, infinitely cheerful. "What's up? Did you play like a ****, or what?"

Emerson is one of tennis's all-timers. An unbelievable disposition - perhaps the perfect combination of kindness, humour, determination and ruefulness. Tremendous lust for life.

Roy Emerson the life and times

Born: 3 November, 1936, Black Butt, Queensland, Australia. A long jump and high jump champion at high school.

Grand Slam record

Australian Open: Singles champion: 1961, 1963-67. Singles finalist: 1962. Doubles champion: 1962, 1966, 1969. Doubles finalist: 1958, 1960, 1961, 1964, 1965. Mixed doubles finalist: 1956.

Wimbledon: Singles champion: 1964-65. Doubles champion: 1959, 1961, 1971. Doubles finalist: 1964, 1967.

French Open: Singles champion: 1963, 1967. Singles finalist: 1962. Doubles champion: 1960-65. Doubles finalist: 1959, 1967-69. Mixed doubles finalist: 1960.

United States Open: Singles champion: 1961, 1964. Singles finalist: 1962. Doubles champion: 1959-60, 1965-66. Doubles finalist: 1970.

Davis Cup: Team member 1959-67, winning 34 out of his 38 matches in 18 ties.

He says: After Pete Sampras had surpassed his record of grand slam wins: "Sampras is the greatest of all time, and I have to give him a pat on the back for getting there, because the tournaments are a little deeper these days."

They say: "Breaking Emerson's record is something I think about a lot. It would mean a lot to me." Sampras in 1998.