While preparing to watch their scheduled match Saturday in the semifinals of the BNP Paribas tennis tournament
at Indian Wells, Southern California’s own Roy Emerson had thoughts and assessments about Roger
Federer and Rafael Nadal. In essence, it was one tennis superstar, analyzing and assessing two others.
Emerson, of course, is from a different era. He is 82. Federer is 37 and Nadal 32, still both veterans
in their own right.
Emerson’s era was mostly the 1960s, when rackets were wooden and the best players toured for
titles and trophies, not cache and cash. More of the major tournaments were played on grass in those
days—three of the four Grand Slams, as a matter of fact. Things were less corporate. The players
traveled together, ate together and pulled for each other. In those days, on the men’s tour, the Davis
Cup was pretty much a fifth major. Emerson played on eight winners for Australia in that Davis Cup era
and remains almost as proud of that as he does of the 12 singles majors and 16 doubles majors he won.
In fact, in a discussion involving Emerson, Federer and Nadal, you are talking about 49 Grand Slam
titles—Emerson with 12, Federer with a record 20 and Nadal with 17.
“The power game in today’s tennis has helped the ladies,” Emerson says, “but it has kind of spoiled
the men’s game. It took away all the finesse. Also, the kids start so early these days that they don’t have
the strength to hit a one-handed backhand, so they all have two-handers. Backhands used to be the best
shot of most players, but the two-hander takes away your reach.
“A player like Federer, who is coming in more as he gets older to shorten the points—very smart of
him—also has an advantage against most of today’s players, because they don’t pass well. They take big
swings from the baseline and are used to seeing the ball clear the net by six feet. When they see
somebody coming in, they panic.”
Emerson clearly respects and admires both Federer and Nadal, and is impressed by so many things
“Rafa is fantastic for the game,” says Emerson, who has lived in Newport Beach since 1968. “But
what he does, the way he plays, you can’t teach. Every single point he plays is like a world war. To have
the mentality to face that, and know you are going to go to war every night, it takes a special dedication
“And then, on clay, he is almost unbeatable.”
But then, we pretty much knew that. Eleven victories at the French speaks to that. But then, 20
major victories, eight more than Emerson—who held the record until 2000 and Pete Sampras–speaks to
Federer’s style and approach, as well.
“He moves so smoothly,” Emerson said. “His whole game seems to float. And when he serves well,
nobody is going to beat him.”
“I also like the way he has improved on his game over the years. The backhand used to be a place
you could attack, but you can’t get at him that way anymore. Now, his game is an all-court game, and
the more and better he learns to come in, the longer his career can last.”
Emerson’s analysis was put to proof in Friday’s quarterfinals. Federer struggled with his serve, but
mixed it up just enough to beat Polish newcomer Hubert Hurkacz, 6-4, 6-4. Nadal, needing to call for
medical attention midway through his match with hard-hitting No. 12 Karen Khachanov of Russia, still
blasted away enough to win a couple of tiebreakers. The scores were 7-6 (2), 7-6 (2).
And so, the Southern California tennis world, as well as the eminent Roy Emerson, will get what it
wanted to see: a Federer-Nadal semifinal Saturday.
USTA Southern California is honored to feature the musings of renowned sports columnist Bill Dwyre for USTAsocal.com during the BNP Paribas Open, which he has covered in depth since 1982. Be sure to connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to follow Dwyre’s reflections, as well as all things Indian Wells.