In 1964 and ’65, tennis icon Roy Emerson played and won at Wimbledon.
His awards consisted of a handsome trophy and a gift certificate valued at 25 pounds. It would be quite an understatement to offer now that the game has changed.
“Today it’s a power game,” shared Emerson sitting for an interview with his wife, Joy, a fellow tennis star in her own right. “The game is all for television, and it’s all about the money.”
Emerson’s 25-pound certificates of Wimbledon glory translate into millions in 2017 for the stars of international tennis.
The Australian-born tennis legend attributes some of the incredible expansion of the game to technology — which has elevated the “power” aspect of tennis equipment.
“The size of the racquet heads, the materials used, the strings are all very different today contributing to the hard edge of the game, which frankly has replaced the finesse that used to be a hallmark of tennis,” said Emerson, who was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1982 after winning 12 Grand Slam men’s singles titles.
Joy Emerson, also a native Australian, said: “Tennis today is a baseline game. In other times, it was all about serve and volley and one-handed play.”
“Now it’s too much baseline,” Roy Emerson added. “I have to say that I feel the game as it was has been something of a lost art. After a while I find the power play can be deadly dull without the finesse and the sportsmanship as we both knew it.”
The Emersons are set to front the Roy Emerson Tennis Classic in Newport Beach from May 26 to 29. It is the longest running tennis event sponsored by United States Tennis Assn. on the Orange Coast, returning for 56 seasons and benefiting the Adoption Guild Auxiliary in support of Holy Family Services and Foster Care Agency (HFS). Organizers hope to attract some 400 players in various categories, ultimately raising significant dollars for HFS.
The Classic will be co-chaired by Chris Garber and Katie Richardson, who are working closely with Palisades Tennis Club owner Ken Stuart.
It’s where the finals will unfold along with a series of social events created around the game. Preliminary play will take place at venues including The Tennis Club at Newport Beach Country Club, Racquet Club of Irvine and Mesa Verde Country Club in Costa Mesa.
“We have been associated with this event for some 20 years and we are very proud to be able to help raise funds for HFS,” Emerson said. “Joy played in the tournament for years before we became the headliners and she believed in the cause, so here we are and here we shall stay as long as they need us.”
The Emersons are clearly committed to HFS.
“What’s more important than protecting kids and building strong families?” Roy Emerson asked.
“HFS does a wonderful job with very good results,” Joy Emerson said. “They are diligent in placing the newborn babies with the absolute proper family.”
The tennis couple looked back on their early years associated with the Classic.
“We would go and watch the tennis event, which formerly was played over two weekends in May. Over the years, it has grown tremendously, attracting a much larger field of players as well as spectators,” Joy Emerson said.
Roy Emerson attributes the growth of the sport on the amateur level to the celebrity status of players such as Roger Federer, one of the “power” hitters he admires greatly.
“Roger is not just a ‘power hitter,’ he is a true class-act on and off the court,” Roy Emerson said. “He has the age-old finesse I referred to along with the modern style of play. A true gentleman player.”
Roy Emerson developed a friendship with the Swiss native Federer because the Emersons run a summer tennis clinic in Gstaad, Switzerland.
The clinic is considered by experts to be a top tennis destination for players seeking professional training.
The Emersons hold camp sessions over nine weeks with the Gstaad Palace Hotel serving as their home base.
Roy Emerson cautions his students and guests: “Tennis is not an easy game. Be patient, overdo your footwork, and don’t hit the ball any harder than you can control.”
The Emersons were born and raised in Australia.
Roy’s youth was spent on a dairy farm in rural Blackbutt, Queensland, while Joy grew up in Brisbane.
Learning to play tennis was part of the culture, a national pastime. Roy Emerson recalled that his family built their own tennis court using the mounds of clay from ant hills and mixing the soil with granite to form a level surface.
“Chicken wire on stakes surrounded our transformed ant-hill tennis court,” he said.
Clearly, it was nothing elaborate, but it didn’t matter. On that ant-hill court, Roy Emerson perfected his game, sharpened his skill and eventually created a lifelong career in a sport he loved.
Arriving in the U.S., turning pro in 1968 and signing a contract with the National Tennis League, the Emersons made a home in Newport Beach, in part because other tennis greats of the day — including the likes of Pancho Gonzales and Rod Laver — had homes in O.C.
The Emersons had two young children, Antony and Heidi, and they sought a stable family community in which to raise the family.
In 1968, Newport remained largely under-developed- . Roy Emerson signed on with Wilson and remains a representative for the brand’s shoes and racquets today.
“You know, we have lived here in the O.C. most of our life, our children grew up here attending local schools — Carden Hall and Corona del Mar High School— but we still try to get home to Australia at least once a year,” Joy Emerson said. “When we moved here I figured it would be for a couple of years and now it’s 50 years later, can you believe it?”
She later confided that she has been nagging her husband ever since about going home to Australia.
“I guess my heart is just in two places!” she said.
What about advice from the Emersons on raising a child who loves tennis?
“Get a good strong education while you try to improve your game. You must have a back-up plan,” Roy Emerson said. “Not many make it, you know. It is so very competitive.”
Roy Emerson added that great tennis players were always competitive and driven, and that has not changed. It’s just that the sport is so much grander today, with more people aspiring to be champions.
He said he misses the civility and manners of the former era. He misses the emphasis on sportsmanship and camaraderie between players, regardless of winning or losing.
And he also misses the crisp, starched white uniforms that were de rigueur on court.
To learn more about the 56th annual Roy Emerson Tennis Classic, visit adoptionguild.org for ticket, entry and special event information.
B.W. COOK is editor of the Bay Window, the official publication of the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach.