His athletic prowess may have waned with time, but Australian great Roy Emerson doesn’t miss a beat – lounging comfortably on stage on Saturday, humble amid talk of his astonishing roll of achievements, yet razor-sharp as ever with wit and charisma.
One of the best players of all time, given a handy resume stacked with 12 Grand Slam singles titles and 16 Grand Slam doubles titles, the lad from Blackbutt better known as ‘Emmo’ was honoured at the Australian Open 2013 Legends Lunch before a room boasting a glut of the game’s greats.
The men’s champion from each of the past 10 years gathered on stage to honour their peer – Ken Rosewall (1953), John Newcombe (1973), Mats Wilander (1983), Jim Courier (1993) and Andre Agassi (2003) and modest as Emerson might have been, it was an honour roll which deserved its every accolade.
As the only male player to have won singles and doubles at all four Grand Slam events, Emerson once held the record for the most men’s Grand Slam singles titles until Pete Sampras and, more recently, Roger Federer surpassed his lofty benchmark.
His name ranks alongside Fred Perry, Don Budge, Rod Laver, Agassi, Federer and Rafael Nadal as the only men to have claimed the set of four majors over their careers.
He finished with six at his home Grand Slam event and two each at the French Open, Wimbledon and US Open, becoming the first man to win each of the majors twice.
Emerson’s name is synonymous with Australia’s golden era in Davis Cup, and he remains the only player to have been part of eight winning teams in nine years, from 1959.
As compere Stephen Phillips said, Emerson’s on-court achievements and his wonderful personal characteristics qualified him in every respect as a legend.
“He played at a time when great friendships were made despite intense rivalries,” Phillips said. “Before ‘Emmo’ won his first Wimbledon title against Fred Stolle in 1964, ‘Emmo’ and Fred shared accommodation in Sloane Square in London, practised together before the final and even shared breakfast, although Fred said Roy spiked the eggs and went on to win.”
It’s an implausible scenario in the modern game but an attitude which still stands as a fine example of respect for the man across the net.
“His philosophy was simple,” Phillips said. “Train hard and never make excuses ... He had no sympathy for those who made excuses, once saying to a player he’d never lost to ‘It’s a pity I’ve never beaten you when I’ve been well’.”
When the 76-year-old took to the microphone, he had the crowd in hysterics with tales of milking goats; imitating a New Zealand opponent who once played with a cork in his mouth which was tied to his shirt; and of playing a joke on the great Pancho Gonzalez.
“I was a bit superstitious. If ever I won a match I wore the same pair of shorts the next day,” Emerson said.
Did he think to invest in a second pair of his beloved Fred Perry cotton threads?
“No ... I wore them until they fell apart.”
With the shorts surviving on borrowed time, Emerson asked his wife Joy to sew the pockets shut to prolong their life.
“One day I played against Pancho Gonzalez when he was well past his prime. He said ‘I like your shorts, you’ve sewn up the pockets’. He was always looking for another angle to get better even when he was past his prime,” he said.
“I made up a story. I said ‘The reason I do that is I perspire a lot like you Pancho, so the shorts get awfully heavy when they’re wet so I asked my wife to sew them up’ and he said ‘what a great idea’. So two days later when he came to the courts, here he was with his shorts sewn up. He thought it’d help his game.”
Emerson’s achievements were all the more impressive given he was playing at a time when Laver – a name always featured alongside Federer’s in the greatest of all time debate – was one of his compatriots and rivals.
He played Laver in five successive Grand Slam finals, winning two of them, and as Phillips pointed out, nobody had a better seat in the house for Rocket Rod’s calendar Grand Slam run.
“I know. He beat me three times that year, all finals; in the Australian, in the French – he was lucky in the French, I led two sets to love – and then he beat me in four at the US Open,” Emerson said.
“Problem with Rod, he stood on the wrong side of the ball.”
For the lad from Blackbutt who once joked that his nickname sounded like a brand of washing detergent, ‘Emmo’ isn’t one to dwell on numbers and honours, preferring instead to make light of a situation.
Not that he’s one to make excuses.