BRIGHT SHINE ON AN OLD SHOE

Roy Emerson is regarded by many people as just folks, but he is the world's best amateur tennis player
September 06, 1964

The crown that Roy Emerson wears as the best amateur tennis player in the world becomes him and the game. It is never rakishly tilted or garishly illuminated, and it is tarnished only because, as Emerson himself frankly says, "there is no such thing as amateur tennis." No matter. What is tendered as amateur tennis is still there, an entity, and Roy Emerson is the king of it.

"There is this about Emerson first," says Pancho Contreras, the Mexico Davis Cup captain. "He is always a winner. He has won them all—Wimbledon, Forest Hills, the Davis Cup. But he wins in the Caribbean, too—Trinidad, Barranquilla. He wins in Europe. He wins the little ones. He just wins."

Emerson's consistency is amazing. At one stretch in 1961-62, he played in the finals of 19 consecutive tournaments. He won at Wimbledon last July on his ninth try, thus succeeding to virtually every title of even casual significance—singles and doubles—in the world. Today he is at his peak, and there seems little reason to doubt that he will again win the U.S. nationals, which began this week at Forest Hills.

Yet among his fellow tournament players Emerson is not viewed with abject awe. He is given hardly more than the modest commendation that is due any man who is so obviously the champion. He is regarded as sort of an old shoe who just happened into the world's championship—or, more appropriately, inherited it. No one ever dares propose that any other leading amateur—McKinley, Santana, Ralston, Osuna—is a consistent threat to Emerson, but no one will suggest, either, that Emerson is anything special, as No. 1 players go.

There are a lot of reasons for this attitude, not the least of which is that, as amateurs go, Emerson is an old shoe. Suffering from a chronic love affair with tennis and all its environs, Emerson can only plead guilty to the charge of amateur longevity and an overexposure that would ruin the best of TV comedians.

A member of the Australian Davis Cup team since he was 17, Emerson was winning big matches in the U.S. as long ago as 1954. Yet he was never terribly spectacular, and he simply emerged, moving up as the other Australians matriculated into the shadowy world of professionalism. When Rod Laver won the 1962 Grand Slam and then accepted $110,000 to turn pro, Emerson was left as the undisputed amateur king.

A notably uncomplicated person, Emerson does not delude himself. "I was lucky—all the others turning pro and all the Davis Cup play I had. But I know how good I am. You should know how good you are. There really is very little difference between No. 1 and No. 2 and even No. 20."

As a matter of fact, Emerson did a little more than fall to the top. He was ranked No. 1 ahead of Laver the year before the Grand Slam, and the first time Laver got a pro offer it was as part of a $30,000 package with Emerson. (Emerson's latest offer last winter was $50,000 for just himself.) But Emerson will never be the gate attraction pro tennis needs, for his game is not slashing and romantic but coolly efficient. He hits almost every shot hard, but his serve is only very good, compared to the serves of the other top players; he is one of the fastest players in the game, but he is so smooth and big (6 feet, 170) that he never comes off as one of the crowd-pleasing little scramblers. Often tactically naive and with no real finesse at all, Emerson wins by wearing his opponents down and leading them into mistakes.

He exudes dispatch. "Sometimes he works so fast, he looks like a blur across the net," Dennis Ralston says. "He is an IBM," adds Rafael Osuna. Emerson hardly ever changes his game and seldom even bothers with strategy. "Just play your bloody best," he says. "If you can't do it, you can't."

Not surprisingly, then, the consensus is that the only way to beat Emerson is to pressure him from the start and hope that somehow—if only mentally—he will falter. It happens rarely, but when it does it can be complete. In the French championships in May, Nicola Pietrangeli of Italy routed Emerson 6-1, 6-3, 6-3. That loss ruined Emerson's chances for a 1964 Grand Slam.

Because he is so fit—he practices incessantly—Emerson is a good bet in a long match. He is also a good advertisement for cigarette smoking, since he has been employed by Philip Morris since 1962. Well, he is just sort of a good advertisement for smoking. Although he scatters packs of Marlboros around with abandon, Emerson smokes like a kid getting the hang of it behind the woodshed. Sometimes he cannot even offer to let you have one of those Marlboros because: "Oh, I think I brought the stale pack with me." It is safe to say that Roy Emerson does not smoke alone.

He was offered the Philip Morris public-relations job mostly because Company President Joseph Cullman III of Briarcliff Manor, N.Y. is an amateur tennis enthusiast who wanted to make it easier for Emerson to reject pro temptations. There is nothing sinister about all this, but it is at least ironical that an American company will be most responsible if the Australians take the Davis Cup back from the U.S. in Cleveland two weeks from now. Emerson got a new three-year contract last winter and a raise to about $8,000, which provides enough for a financial base to insure (almost) that he will remain an amateur.

Expediency aside, Emerson also views his job as his future. There is not much work for him to do on the road except drop those Marlboro boxes and "oh, pass out a few cigarettes here and there," but when he is home in Brisbane he works in the office. His efforts have impressed his superiors. "Roy is much smarter than the other Australian players," one older foreign star says. "All of them quit school and just play tennis. They're very nice, but most of them never learn anything. Roy has. He's grown. He'll do all right when he's through playing."

Certainly Philip Morris' stab at pseudosubsidization seems to have been a break for Emerson. Mai Anderson, his brother-in-law and a pro, says, "Top amateurs nowadays make more than the average pro anyway. If Laver hadn't turned pro he could be making $600 to $800 a week in tournaments. If Roy ever decides to turn professional, it won't be just the money. It will be because he wants to prove how good he really is." It is likely, though, that he would not be an immediate pro success and, as un-colorful as he is, he would be absolutely veiled in defeat. Even with his "Rocket Rod" billing, Laver has found a swift professional obscurity.

For purposes of legitimate description and alliteration, Emerson might have been called "Rocket Roy." But the only nickname he has ever picked up embodies all the imagination of calling a champ named Jones "Jonesy." Almost everybody calls the No. 1 player "Emo." "It sounds like a detergent," Emerson says, smiling.

When Emerson smiles—which he does quite a bit—he exposes something like 400 teeth. It is a deceiving mouth, dominating his features when it is open. He is almost handsome, Roddy McDowallish, with fascinating slicked-down hair that never looks greasy and yet never, never gets mussed. Curiously, Emerson looks very much like brother-in-law Anderson, who married Roy's older sister Daphne. Playing each other, the two men have completely unnerved referees. One poor fellow, after a set or so of completely confusing the two, finally got up from his chair in the middle of a game, muttered, "I can't tell you blokes apart," and left the court. Emerson graciously accepted congratulations after Anderson won at Forest Hills in 1957. "Yes," Roy said, "I was seeing them pretty well today." He has that sort of good, dry humor, but he is quite capable of stretching it and can even pull off slick Shelley Berman-type stuff on the phone—calling up Anderson and posing as an old beau of Daphne's or calling up his father and passing himself off as a gentleman interested in promoting tennis for the blind, with bells on the net and the balls.

The Emersons are a close family. Mal and Daphne live across the street from the senior Emersons in Brisbane. Roy, his pretty wife Joy and son Anthony, 17 months, live a couple of miles away in a solid, unpretentious new brick house in Aspley, a newly fashionable Brisbane suburb for rising young executives and professional men.

The Emersons, who have been married for six years, are in Australia only four months a year, from October to February. For a celebrity of his stature, Roy lives a relatively anonymous life. He has never developed into a folk hero the way some Aussie sports stars have. Besides, tennis is not the spectator draw that it was a decade ago. Emerson describes many matches that he played down under as having been watched by "eight dogs and cats and Anthony."

Looking trim and up-and-coming in his business suit, Emerson is seldom recognized on his way to work, and even around the courts he tastes little of the adoration that American athletes receive. Indeed, when someone makes a fuss over him he gets genuinely embarrassed by the whole display. A few weeks ago two Australian tourists suddenly pulled him aside from an open door in Mexico City. "Draft," one explained. "Very bad, you know." "Yes, Emo," the other said, "can't have anything like that." Emerson, at first completely unbalanced by it all, did recover quickly enough to thank the gentlemen for their solicitations, but he never did seem to understand why he was worth all the attention.

Such natural unpretentiousness has made Emerson popular with the other players. He never alibis, seldom squawks at calls and is always particularly polite and socially alert off the court. If the false nature of "shamateurism" forces him to be particularly attracted to an available dollar, he is otherwise refined, composed, a good conversationalist, a good dresser, a good dancer.

The Emerson family is from Durham, in northern England. Roy's grandfather emigrated to Australia in the late 1800s, and Roy himself grew up on his father's 800-acre dairy farm around Black butt, Queensland. Other Australians call Queenslanders "Bananalanders." The farm had one tennis court and 160 cows, which Roy milked almost every day. "I could still do it. That is one touch," he says, baring his teeth, "that you never lose." The family moved to Brisbane in 1951 for no other reason than to promote the tennis ambitions of Roy and his older sisters, Daphne and Hazel.

"It wasn't really sacrifice," Mr. Emerson says. "It was hard leaving the district where I had lived all my life, but there was no work for the girls. We were fairly comfortable financially. We knew that we were not going to be any worse off in Brisbane. Before I made up my mind I went to Norm Brimson, the local coach who had been coaching Roy. I asked him: 'Do you think he can make it?' Norm said, 'Yes,' so we put the farm on half shares and left."

Roy attended prestige private schools in Brisbane, where he fared satisfactorily academically and exceptionally athletically. Before he was 17 his parents had made the decision to let him leave school for tennis. By the time his classmates were graduating the next year, Emerson was a dropout touring the world. He was not exactly cosmopolitan, though. In London he sent out his laundry just before he checked out. When he was told to leave a forwarding address, he got so flustered that he then left his luggage standing in the lobby.

Today this sort of Bananaland is out of the man. He stays in the hotel and reads while Joy goes and gets impressed by the sightseeing. By now the Emersons have friends in virtually every place in the world where tennis is played. And, in a sense, Emerson needs the whole tennis world for support. He naturally commands the highest "expenses" of any amateur, and it was the money more than the advertised reason—to keep in top form against the top players—that caused Emerson and several other Aussie players to buck the weak and unpopular Lawn Tennis Association of Australia this year. The LTAA ruled that no Australian players would be sanctioned to receive expenses outside of Australia until March 31. The intent was to keep the players in Australia, entertaining the natives in the hinterland. The LTAA thought the players owed this to their country. The players thought that playing lonely exhibitions in the bush when they could be in Trinidad or Monte Carlo was silly, to say the least, and expensive, to say something else again. When the players—Emerson and Ken Fletcher first—left early, the LTAA did its worst: it suspended all the happy wanderers from the Davis Cup team.

It was Emerson who eventually initiated the mediation that permitted his reinstatement. He wrote to Norman Strange, the LTAA president, from Wimbledon. He began with his typical frankness: "On behalf of all the rebels," and then he went on to suggest that if the ban were lifted this year he would promise to stay home in 1965 until February 28. The LTAA, which had been cast as villains by the press and the fans, was glad to find an opening and hurried to embrace Emerson's compromise.

For Emerson, the Davis Cup Challenge Round in Cleveland will be his sixth. Only 12 other players have ever played in so many. There is every chance that before he is through Emerson will have played in more Challenge Rounds than any other Australian. (Norman Brookes, with eight, is his only countryman to appear in more than six.) With his stamina, Emerson has an outside chance to reach Bill Tilden's record of 11 Challenge Rounds. In fact, Emerson is compiling an overall record of wins—Davis Cup and otherwise—that may eventually top that of any player since the war and all but three or four before.

"I don't think about that," he says. "I just want to play as long as I enjoy it. I have to settle down and I like Philip Morris, but I will play as long as I really like it. This is a good life."

This was said at a rooftop restaurant in Mexico City. The No. 1 player looked like the No. 1 should look—immaculately dressed, every hair and tooth in place. Pancho Contreras came over from another table and put his menu down on top of the box of Marlboros and asked if Emerson would recommend something. "The beef strips are very good," Emo said, and looked back casually over the city below and the world his ninth time around.

Roy Emerson has gotten his money's worth out of tennis, but the game has been paid back in kind. Technically he really is something of a tennis bum—27 years old and traveling all over the world with a wife and child and playing a game for "expenses"—but what Roy Emerson truly is is a tennis gentleman.

PHOTO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
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