Emmo: “I Had a Pathetic Serve”

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June 26 — The clouds hanging over Gstaad for the second day… what, you thought a skiers’ paradise would turn into the Gobi Desert come early summer? … brought, in the morning, perfect tennis weather. About 70 degrees F, not a breath of wind, no sun. If you can’t serve, volley. and return in that weather, well, it’s time for golf. By 2 pm, yes, the rain had returned, and we were all back indoors. But we got another five solid hours of tennis, and the chance to hear Roy Emerson—remember, he won 28 Grand Slam singles and doubles champions and even professional curmudgeon Jack Kramer conceded he was probably the greatest front-court doubles player in modern tennis history—tell us, “I had a pathetic serve. It only got better when I began to teach. I tossed the ball too low, and everything was rushed. When I tried to help others figure out their problems, it was then I began to figure out my own.”

Roy Emerson teaching serve at Gstaad, Switzerland

Emmo and the serve: Roy claims his was "pathetic", so teaching pro Michel shows us how it's done.

Today, we worked on the serve and the backhand, we once again wrestled with the Swiss ski team for the best desserts, and we wound up in a beautiful Austrian/Swiss restaurant—the Grand Chalet—on a hillside overlooking the Gstaad valley, eating veal a la Emerson, drinking champagne, and listening to Emmo and his wife of nearly 50 years, Joy, reminisce about the early tour years when they stayed in a Parisian brothel (they didn’t realize it until doors began slamming in the wee hours), played stops like Barranquilla, Colombia, and eventually befriended the movers-and-shakers who would fill their Tennis Weeks in the early years—the Shah of Iran’s wife and friends, Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson, still on the court at age 90, jet-setting socialites, captains of industry.

It’s hard to fathom what you came here for, if it wasn’t for this.

Roy Emerson giving morning peptalk

Each day begins with a pep talk. Not everyone makes it on time.

But, from the moment we stepped onto the red clay at 9:30 am, the focus was on making us better players. Emmo, who lets his five teaching pros handle most of the on-court demos while he offers commentary and constructive criticism, began by quoting Frank Sedgman—an Aussie a decade older than Emmo who, in the space of just four years, won an even more remarkable 22 Grand Slam titles—on baseline rallies. “Frank thought most players got too close to the ball, and by keeping your racquet head extended out towards the net post on your swing, you’ll create better distance. Everybody here,” he added, “gets too close.”

He showed us again how to properly prepare, not taking the racquet too far back, or too low or too high. No exaggeration, just a slight adjustment of the angle of the racquet’s face. “Same grip, same preparation, and you can hit five different shots—flat, slice, drop, topspin and the lob. Works on the forehand or the backhand, one handed or two.”

Fabienne had a question. Why would he, when he was about to serve, always make a circular motion with his racquet, as if he was mixing a cake?

“Stirring the porridge,” Emmo replied with a smile, “trying to distract them from my pathetic serve.”

***

Steffi and Fabienne, two campers at Roy Emerson Tennis Week in Gstaad, Switzerland

Steffi and Fabienne: two more happy campers, enjoying the ambience of an Alpine meadow

One of the pleasures of a week like this is getting to know the campers and the staff. Patrick, a local teaching pro, is also a musician, whose performances can be found on Youtube—search for “thesnowmountain.” Joy Emerson was a junior player in Australia, and she and Roy met at a tournament where he, instantly smitten, volunteered to ballboy her match. As far as I could tell, they’ve rarely been apart since. And several of us shared travel tales, business and otherwise. Saniya, a London banker and a member of the Queens Club there, talked about dogs in First-Class seats, specifically a doberman whose owner was an airline executive. But Steffi, a lawyer also based in London and also a member of Queens, won the prize.

American Airlines, she explained, had seated her next to an elderly gentleman who was already napping by the time she boarded. Two hours later, when he hadn’t moved a muscle, she thought through her options. She was headed to an important client meeting. He, apparently, was headed to a grave. She called the flight attendant, and politely asked for a blanket for her seat mate, which she pulled gently over his head. “Exhausted,” she explained. “Dead to the world.” Her plane landed, and as she rushed to make her appointment, she gestured to the same attendant. “I may have been mistaken,” she said. “He’s possibly dead.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, no one was eager to sit next to Steffi when we climbed into the two Palace buses that drove us to dinner. Getting to sit with Emmo and Joy, however, was a real treat, especially when Roy took us back to his childhood. “We lived on a farm,” he recounted, “where we’d get up long before dawn, milk one hundred cows, drive several hours to a tennis tournament, play, drive back, and milk the hundred cows again before going to bed. My father was a frugal man. He’d drive us in a truck whose tires were so bald that their inner tubes were showing through. Yes, this was back when tires had inner tubes. And even these were worn. So my dad would drive very carefully, and as a result, very slowly. We’d beg him to get new tires. Nope, he’d tell us, they’ve got at least another 200 miles on them.”

When we returned to the Palace a little after 10, the news was good. The sun would be out the next morning. Next: Alpine High

One Response to Emmo: “I Had a Pathetic Serve”

  1. Ray Elman says:

    You have inspired me to get out of bed and milk the Mooney’s cows. It may improve my forehand.

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