In the grand days for Australia of domination of the tennis world, nobody played as large a role as the country boy out of tiny Blackbutt in Queensland, Roy Stanley ‘Emmo’ Emerson.
Emerson, a slim, quick, athletic farm kid who strengthened his wrists for tennis by milking innumerable cows on his father’s property, played on eight winning Davis Cup teams between 1959 and 1967, a record. He won 28 of the major singles and doubles championships, a lofty male record. His dozen singles were six Australian (1961, ‘63-’64-’65-’66-’67), two each French, (1963, ‘67), Wimbledon (1964-65), U.S. (1961, ‘64).
That was a record, created over seven years that he held for 33 years, without knowing it until writers noticed that he was being stalked by Pete Sampras. Sampras broke it with a thirteenth, Wimbledon 2000, and was congratulated by Emerson, who had eclipsed Bill Tilden’s standard of 10 (set between 1920 and 1930), unaware, at winning his last Australian in 1967, that he was the new record holder. “Nobody paid attention to that sort of thing then, or kept track,” he laughs. “We just played.”
His accomplishments as a right-court doubles player who could make anybody look good amounted to 16 Big Four titles (6 French, 4 U.S., 3 each Wimbledon, Australian) with five different partners, the last in 1971 at Wimbledon with his old Queensland pal, Rod Laver. His best-known alliance was with Aussie left-hander Neale Fraser, with whom he won Wimbledon in 1959 and 1961, the U.S. title in 1959-60 and the doubles of the Davis Cup triumphs of 1959-60-61. Known as ‘Emmo’ to his wide circle of friends, he was a rollicking, gregarious six-foot right-hander with patent leather black hair and a golden smile (enhanced by dental fillings) who could lead the partying and singing without jeopardizing his high standards of play.
Fitness was his hallmark. He trained hard and was always ready for strenuous matches and tournaments. Although primarily a serve-and-volleyer, he could adapt to the rigors of slow courts. He won the French singles in 1963 over Pierre Darmon and 1967, by lifting the crown from the head of teammate Tony Roche. He also led the 3-2 Davis Cup victory over the U.S. on clay in Cleveland in 1964. That year he was unbeaten in eight Davis Cup singles as the Aussies regained the Cup. Emmo had a singles winning streak of 55 matches, during that summer and autumn, second longest in male history to Don Budge’s 92 (1937-38). Establishing himself as World No. 1, he won 17 tournaments and 109 of 115 matches. The only prize to elude him in that majestic year of triumphs in three of the majors was a Grand Slam. Fate may have intervened to cost him a third straight Wimbledon in 1966 when he was heavily favored. Winning a 4th rounder against Owen Davidson, he skidded chasing a short ball, crashed into the umpire’s stand, damaging a shoulder, and was unable to do much but finish the match.
His Australian hegemony began in 1961 when he beat Laver for the title, 1-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4. Laver took it back the following year as part of his Grand Slam, but after that for five years it was all-Emmo, for an Aussie male record six singles titles, the toughest reversing himself from two sets down to overcome Fred Stolle in the 1965 final. He beat Arthur Ashe in the last two in 1966 and in 1967. His Wimbledon wins were both over Stolle, in 1964 and in 1965. He beat Stolle again in the U.S. final of 1964. Ever high spirited and capable of firing up his teammates, Emerson also took part in two Australian victories in the World Cup, a since disbanded annual competition against the U.S. He exemplified the Aussie code of sportsmanship and competitiveness, stating it as, “You should never complain about an injury. We believe that if you play, then you aren’t injured, and that’s that.”
Emerson was born Nov. 3, 1936, in Blackbutt, a crossroads where people make a living in cattle and timber (the blackbutt is a variety of eucalyptus). His family moved to Brisbane, where he could get better competition and coaching, when his tennis talent became evident. After resisting several offers, he turned pro in 1968 just before open tennis began, and was still competing in 1978 as player-coach of the Boston Lobsters in World Team Tennis, directing them to the semi-finals of the league playoffs.
Of all Australia’s Davis Cup luminaries under Capt. Harry Hopman, Emerson made the best record, vital in winning eight Cups, high for any participant, playing the decisive match in either singles or doubles six times. He won 21 of 23 singles, but never lost when it counted, and 13 of 15 doubles. Beginning in 1959, he was in the World Top Ten 9 straight times, No. 1 in 1964-65. Also: No. 7, 1959;No. 6, 1960; No. 2, 196 1-62, ‘67; No. 3, 1964, ‘66.
Emerson was elevated to the Hall of Fame in 1982 after a career that bridged the amateur and open eras and was credited with three pro titles in singles and 30 in doubles, and $400,000 in prize money. Overall, amateur and pro, he was one of the few centurions with 106 singles titles. His son, Antony, was All-American in tennis at the University of Southern California and played the pro tour briefly. They won the U.S. Hard Court Father-and-Son title in 1978.
MAJOR TITLES (28) – Australian singles, 1961, 1963, 1964,1965, 1966, 1967; French singles, 1963, 1967; Wimbledon singles, 1964, 1965; US singles, 1961, 1964; Australian doubles, 1962, 1966,1969; French doubles, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965; Wimbledon doubles, 1959, 1961, 1971; US. doubles, 1959, 1960,1965, 1966 DAVIS CUP – 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967; record: 21-2 in singles, 13-2 in doubles. SINGLES RECORD IN THE MAJORS-Australian (47-8), French (43-10),Wimbledon (60-14), US. (59-14).
- Bio Courtesy Bud Collins