On the day when it was determined that no Australian man would be playing in the second round of the 2012 All-England Championships—an historic (in the most negative sense) event and one about which the New York Times would lament, “in truth, virtually no one is still playing grass-court tennis at Wimbledon in the manner that once suited Australian champions like Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, John Newcombe, Pat Cash and, more recently, Pat Rafter,”—the aforementioned Emmo was sitting in the front seat of a Palace Hotel bus as it wound its way up a narrow Swiss road towards a rustic farm chalet at the summit of a ski area now being used as pasture for a herd of cows.
The day had begun—and continued—in brilliant and welcome sunshine, and Roy, somewhat ironically given the news from London, had begun our morning session with a discussion of the volley. “No one uses it much today,” he’d noted, “they just stand at the baseline, grip it and rip it.”
Behind him, on the red clay, his son Antony—a teaching pro in South Florida for most of the year—and Marco, whose full-time job is to manage the courts and teach tennis at the sports complex in the valley, went through a drill developed by the legendary Harry Hopman as a way to both improve his players’ volleys and their fitness. Starting halfway between the net and the service line, the two pros would volley the ball back and forth, trying to get it to each other about waist-high, without it hitting the ground. After a couple of minutes, the same ball whipping back and forth, they’d move back six or seven feet, and continue for another minute or two, and then back again, still hitting waist-high volleys, until they were almost at the opposing baselines. When we tried it, a few minutes later, it was astonishing how quickly the drill exhausted its participants. “Come on, Blue,” shouted Roy, who calls everyone by the same nickname, “show some interest!” And since he calls everyone Blue, I didn’t have to assume he was talking to me.
Although he did seem to be staring at me, along with everyone else.
The fact that Wednesday was only a half-day was a big relief. With the temps in the upper seventies, I could feel my legs, knees and ankles were at their limits after two-and-a-half hours. Our group—other than Mohammed and Amber, a petite Pakistani woman with an aching back who, I’m told by my wife and others, is a human backboard on the court—had been basically injury-free. Emmo, over the course of his career, had not been so lucky. In fact, as he recounted one evening over dinner, two injuries four years apart at Wimbledon might have kept him from a record that could have matched Pete Sampras in Grand Slam singles. Not that he would ever use those words.
“The first injury was in a doubles match in 1963,” he explained to those of us fortunate enough to be sitting at his table. “I’d won the Australian and French championships earlier that year and was seeded one at Wimbledon for the first time. Neal Fraser and I were playing an early-round doubles match, and I went chasing a drop shot and jammed my foot into a low riser. Bent my toe almost all the way back. I couldn’t continue, and began to try to figure out how to get ready for my quarterfinals singles against Marty Mulligan (a fellow countryman). There was a local doctor we’d go to, and he said he’d come to the locker room before the match and give me a shot. Also some pills. Well, he gave me the shot in front of all the other players, including Marty. So there wasn’t much of a secret about my problem. But the shot worked great, I couldn’t feel a thing. I won the first set. Then whatever it was in my toe began to wear off, probably faster than expected, because I was running so hard. I started gobbling the pills. Nothing. I tried drop-shooting Marty, thinking maybe I could get him to stub his toe too. Nothing.” Mulligan shortly thereafter had one of his greatest wins.
The next injury, Emmo continued, happened four years later in a match against one of his closest friends, Owen Davidson. Roy had won Wimbledon the previous two years, was again seeded one, and—with a third consecutive title—would make history. “The court was slippery, and I fell awkwardly, landing on and separating my shoulder. I couldn’t lift my arm above my waist. Davo could see how badly I was hurt, and I think it pained him. But not as much as it pained me. The irony is that, today, you’d call for a trainer, he’d pop it back in, and you’d continue. But back then we weren’t allowed to get any medical help … until we’d conceded. So I left the court, went down the street to the doctor’s office, and he pushed it back in.”
Had an injury-free Emmo won both those tourneys, and he was favored to do so, he like Sampras would have 14 Major singles titles. And he would have been there first.
Hearing this from Emmo, sipping champagne, on a cool summer evening in the Gstaad valley, is pretty special.
The bus trip up the mountain ended at Rudy and Helen’s summer farm. A two-room cottage with a sleeping loft, no screens, and a wood fireplace in the center of the largest room (the kitchen) where a huge copper pot hung with warm whey, used to make the cheeses that Rudy and Helen are known for. Rudy, who first serenaded us on the accordion, said they like to keep the wood doors and window shutters closed during the day because the dark discourages the flies from coming inside. Several dead horse flies floating in the whey suggested mixed results in the endeavor. But Rudy assured us this pot of whey had already ended its usefulness. He then asked if any of us wanted to taste some whey. I, for one, passed.
The picnic, a mid-week staple of a Roy Emerson Tennis Week, was fantastic. The staff of the Palace had arrived early, set up tables, grills, a salad bar, coolers with beer and wine, and even a raclette station, manned by chef Michael. Raclette, kind of a Swiss mash-up of a grilled cheese sandwich and a Welsh rarebit, was phenomenal, as—I’m told—was the shrimp scampi and grilled veal sausage. I was eating light, salads and berries (and raclette) but, given that we had the afternoon off, two glasses of a fine, dry local white.
Emmo then led us all in a rousing sing-a-long of Edelweiss, and asked if any of us wanted to walk back. I declined, got on the bus, and had a nice nap. Next: Heat Wave