HEBER CITY — Hitting a tennis ball has always provided a refuge for legendary tennis player Cliff Drysdale.
Not only did he love competing in the sport, it also often saved him from the drudgery of homework.
"The one thing (my mom) allowed me to do was go hit tennis balls against the wall if I wanted to get out of home work for a bit," said Drysdale, who was at the Red Ledges' Cliff Drysdale Tennis School this weekend, teaching clinics at the tennis center he designed. The tennis center is part of the private recreational mountain community in the Heber Valley, which also boasts an 18-hole Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course.
In addition to teaching clinics to children and adults on Friday, Drysdale squared off against Gov. Gary Herbert Saturday afternoon as officials unveiled the state-of-the art facility.
Drysdale, who won 35 singles and 24 doubles titles in his career, started playing tennis because both of his parents played at their local club in South Africa.
He didn't know it then, but his mother's decision to allow him to take a break from his studies by hitting the tennis ball against a wall would hone his abundant natural ability.
"The best advice I can give anyone trying to learn the game is to hit the ball against a wall," he said. "The game is about ball control and the way to learn that is to hit it a lot."
It did not take him long to fall completely for the game.
"I loved it because I was really good at it," he said smiling. "It was, 'There goes Drysdale. He's the tennis player.'"
And while he loved the fact that it set him apart from other boys, he also just loved the game. He did not, however, grow up dreaming about earning a living as a tennis player.
That's because when Drysdale started playing competitively, in the early 60s, there was no professional tour or prize money.
"There were no coaches," he said. "I could tell you almost unbelievable stories from back then."
Tennis players might get financial support from tournaments or sponsors, but they didn't get prize money until 1968 with the advent of Open Tennis.
"I never thought that I was going to make a living playing tennis," he said.. "It played because I really loved it; I really wanted to win."
Even after tournaments began offering prize money, Drysdale said the players battled more for bragging rights than living expenses.
"We were all playing for the pleasure of winning," said Drysdale, who was the founder and first president of the Association of Tennis Professionals.
In the 1970s tennis enjoyed huge popularity, due in large part to Lamar Hunt, who founded the American Football league and Major League Soccer. He leveraged his relationship with NBC to get major tennis tournaments on television and the athletes did their part by playing some brilliant, thrilling matches.
Drysdale isn't sure tennis will ever be that popular again, but said, "the game is very healthy at the moment."
One of the reasons is an abundance of youth programs across the country. Not only is access to the game better, but coaches have come up with strategies to make the sport more appealing to beginners.
For instance, some introductory leagues use a soft tennis ball, which enables beginners to have more control. That means less chasing the ball and more volleying.
Drysdale's playing career ended and almost immediately he was asked to become a broadcast commentator on ESPN and ABC for the game he loved. It was a similar friendship that helped him begin developing tennis centers in Florida.
His first job was designing a tennis experience in Miami that "was something special in tennis." His design includes nets instead of chain link fences and hedges to line courts, instead of walls.
"You don't feel like you're fenced in," he said of the design.
Offering those who live and vacation on the properties that boast his tennis centers something unique is something Drysdale takes very seriously. While professionals may rave about the design of his tennis centers, they're not the people he's trying to impress.
"I'm not catering to professional touring players," he said. Instead it's the families who may develop a life-long love for tennis that he hopes to offer respite from the demands of daily life. He agreed to design the tennis center at Red Ledges because, "They're interested in a lifestyle that's not just golf. It's swimming, horseback riding and tennis. These recreational opportunities are a very attractive thing to offer."
And if some little boy develops a love for the game that has blessed his life, well, that's even more satisfying.
"Tennis, like every other sport, is really about not looking for excuses," he said. "I hope they develop a love for a sport that they can play for a lifetime. It's a healthy, active lifestyle. The best give you can give your child is an introduction to the sport."
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