Born: May 26, 1941
in Nelspruit, South Africa
Whenever the name Cliff Drysdale is mentioned, the word “voice” immediately comes to mind. Drysdale has been the “voice” of tennis for more than 30 years at ESPN. As the President of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) from 1972-74, he “voiced his discontent” with how touring pros were being treated by the International Tennis Federation, which led to the 1973 Wimbledon boycott. As a tennis announcer par excellence, Drysdale’s has a soft, smooth and comforting “voice,” the authoritative broadcaster on ESPN’s tennis coverage since 1979.
As a player, activist, and broadcaster, Drysdale has been the “voice” of tennis for nearly five decades, and in all three capacities, no one has represented the game with more dignity, grace, and distinction than the man from Nelspruit, South Africa. While Drysdale’s playing career isn’t loaded with major championships, throughout his 12-year amateur and professional career, he was known as a competitive and combative “tough out,” a threat to win any tournament he entered.
Drysdale won his first titles at the 1963 and 1964 Dutch Open, defeating Roy Emerson (6-3, 6-4, 6-2) and Brazilian Thomaz Koch, 7-5, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5, respectively. He captured the 1965 German Open Tennis Championships played in Hamburg, defeating Yugoslav Boro Jovanovic in four sets, 6-2, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3. Drysdale won five titles in the Open Era, his first coming in July 1968 at Gstaad, Switzerland, where he thumped Tom Okker of the Netherlands, 6-3, 6-3, 6-0. His next two titles, both earned in the 1971 season, came over Rod Laver in Miami (6-2, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4) and Ilie Năstase in Brussels, Belgium (6-0, 6-1, 7-5). Defeating that pair proved Drysdale had the mettle to compete against the world’s finest. He was a semifinalist as the French Open twice (1965, 1966), falling to eventual champion Fred Stolle and Hungarian Istvan Gulyas, respectively. Those same two years, Drysdale knocked on Wimbledon’s championship doors, losing to Stolle in 1965 and American Dennis Ralston in 1966.
Drysdale nearly placed his name in the U.S. National Championship record books in 1965 when as the No. 8 seed he advanced to the finals with a terrific run through the draw. He swept Vic Seixas in the fourth round, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 and played a rousing five-set match against Ralston in the quarterfinals, coming back from 2-0 sets down to earn a clutch 2-6, 3-6, 7-5, 6-3, 8-6 victory. In the semifinals, Drysdale squared off against Mexico’s greatest player ever in Rafael Osuna, a player who could match Drysdale for clever and tactical play, but the South African was superior that afternoon, winning 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 6-1. His opponent in the final, No. 4 seed Manuel Santana from Spain, had long voiced his disdain for playing on any surface that wasn’t artificial. He bellowed that “grass is for cows,” but in the championship match against Drysdale, it suited him nicely, registering a 6-2, 7-9, 7-5, 6-1 victory.
Drysdale garnered his sole major title in doubles, teaming with Brit Roger Taylor to win the 1972 US Open, defeating the formidable Aussie pair of John Newcombe and Owen Davidson, 6-4, 7-6, 6-3. In doubles competition, Drysdale advanced to the Wimbledon semifinals in 1974 and 1977.
Drysdale was a pioneer of the two-handed backhand, a stroke rarely seen until he brought it to fruition in the 1960s. “I used to say I have a forehand side and a suicide,” Drysdale told USA Today in July 2013, “because the backhand was the only side that could do some damage. I was ambidextrous. That, I think, was the big reason for me to use the two-hander. We didn’t have coaches at the time. We played it off the cuff. If anybody had brought a coach into the locker room in my best era, the rest of us would have laughed him out of town. I wish I had known that it was the stroke of the future. I did not realize that. I considered myself to be like an enigma, because I was really the only successful singles player of my era that used the two-handed backhand.”
The stroke paid dividends: Drysdale was ranked in the world Top 10 between 1965 and 1971, and rose to No. 4 in 1965. Drysdale played 49 Davis Cup matches for his native South Africa from 1962 to 1974, leading his country to the 1974 championship, though in default when India withdrew. He compiled a 32-12 record in singles and a 3-2 mark in doubles.
Drysdale was an original member of the “Handsome Eight,” a collection of players who were signed by Lamar Hunt in 1968 to play in the newly formed World Championship Tennis series. Playing amongst a group that included Nikola Pilić, Butch Buchholz, Ralston, Pierre Barthes, Roger Taylor, Newcombe, and Tony Roche, Drysdale advanced to the WCT finals in 1971, 1972, and 1977. On two occasions he advanced to the Grand Prix Championship Series final, losing in Boston to Ken Rosewall in 1971 (6-4, 6-3, 6-0) and in Las Vegas against Newcombe in 1972 (6-3, 6-4).
Drysdale has quipped that he was a “locker room politician.” As his playing career wound down, Drysdale found himself increasingly interwoven with the dynamics of professional tennis, and was instrumental along with Jack Kramer and Donald Dell in founding the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), serving as the organizations first president from 1972-1974. It was during his presidency that Drysdale led the 1973 Wimbledon boycott that saw 91 players withdraw from competing, including 13 of the top 16 seeds. The unified group was protesting the suspension of Yugoslav Nikola Pilić, who had reportedly refused to play Davis Cup. Longtime tennis journalist Bud Collins put the decision into historical perspective, writing, “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.”
There are few broadcasters who have the on-air elegance and smooth, comforting voice that Drysdale brings to ESPN’s tennis coverage. He has been the lead announcer for ESPN since the cable network broadcast its first match – a Davis Cup meeting between the United States and Argentina – on September 14, 1979. “He could talk a lion into becoming a vegetarian,” said Rod Laver when describing Drysdale’s silky smooth on-air persona.