A Courtly Player

6 minute read
Daniel Williams

Much has changed in tennis in half a century. And some things haven’t. What’s the biggest change? Power. As a guest at last year’s Wimbledon Championships, Ashley Cooper noted the path of the men’s serves from his premium seat. When an ace was delivered down the middle of the court, he says, the ball would still be climbing when it crashed into the backboard. “In my time,” he says, “a serve that reached the backboard on the first bounce would draw a gasp from the crowd.” The biggest server in Cooper’s day was the American Pancho Gonzales, who was the first player to break the 100-m.p.h. barrier. These days, when racquets are made out of the same materials used for spaceships, 100 m.p.h. (160 km/h) would be a middling first serve—in the women’s.

His mind turns to the wooden frames he used to win four Grand Slam tournaments, starting with the Australian Open 50 years ago, when he beat his mate Neale Fraser on grass in the final. “I can show you,” he says, rising from his dining table and disappearing into another part of his Brisbane home. Though 70 and with two new hips, he moves lightly, returning moments later with a battered racquet. Its head is small by today’s standards, but it feels heavy and unwieldy. Cooper’s big break in the ’57 Open was Fraser upsetting Lew Hoad in a semi-final. “Lew had an off day,” says Cooper. “He could have those, but when he was on he was unbeatable. He played with such a lot of wrist. Watching [current world No. 1] Roger Federer reminds me of the way Hoad played. But Lew had such strong wrists he could do it with a wooden racquet.”

Cooper is a bridge between the old game (nice) and the present version (brutal). For nearly 30 years he was a leading figure in junior development in Queensland; he’s now on the board of Tennis Australia, which for the moment is losing the battle to make Australia a force in world tennis again. Cooper was once among a handful of local men in the world’s Top 10. At this year’s Open, starting Jan. 15 on the Rebound Ace courts of Melbourne Park, the only seeded Australian in the men’s draw is Lleyton Hewitt, who’s also the only Australian ranked in the Top 100. Cooper is cautiously enthusiastic about two or three 14-year-old prospects, “but for some time now our players have struggled to make the move from junior to senior ranks,” he says. “It’s hard to say whether that’s the fault of the coaches or something else. I think to be a real champion it needs to come from within. You have to have that absolute conviction and desire to do it.”

Cooper was like Hewitt in the sense that his game lacked weapons but he wouldn’t go away. “I made a point of being really fit,” he says. “I got a bit of ribbing from a few of the players for over-training. Frank Sedgman was my idol, and Sedg did a lot of gym work. He was pretty scrawny as a lad and built himself up into a strong physical specimen. So I sort of did what he did.” Though his name doesn’t resonate today like those of some of his contemporaries, Cooper for a time was king of the court. Triumph in the ’57 Open imbued him with a confidence that swept him to a stellar 1958, when he won three of the four Grand Slams (he missed out at the French Open), placing him in what is today just a nine-member group who’ve achieved the “small slam.” Such a feat yielded no riches in those amateur times, but that’s never bothered him. “The players then were friends,” he says. “We’d try to beat each other, but then afterward we would have a few beers with our opponent. That doesn’t happen today.”

And what hasn’t changed about tennis? For one, the top guys have always attracted beautiful women. In 1957, Cooper realized he was in a hotel room next door to a Miss Queensland finalist, Helen Wood, who would soon become Miss Australia. Pestered by Neale Fraser into knocking on her door and asking her out, Cooper thought he’d erred when she eyed him contemptuously. “I can still see her face,” he says. “But we went out and sort of clicked. I guess I wasn’t what she thought I might have been. I was pretty shy.” Their match became a marathon: they now have four daughters and 10 grandchildren.

For a journalist who is also a keen club player, the chance to hit balls with a four-time majors winner is too good to miss. Dressed in traditional white, Cooper takes his place on one side of a friend’s court in the middle of a Brisbane scorcher. Any fears for the legend’s health evaporate after 10 minutes’ rallying, when the younger man is drenched in perspiration while Cooper might have been playing checkers in the shade. “You hit a nice ball,” he flatters. “You play the modern way—topspin forehand and double-handed backhand.” Cooper’s style is an echo of a game no longer seen on the courts of elite tennis, a gentleman’s game of long, elegant strokes, a game in which the ball is caressed rather than pulverized, a game best controlled at the net. In half an hour he barely misses a shot. “I’m used to it,” he says of the heat.

Later, he strolls through half a century of great players. Hoad and Rod Laver, of course … John McEnroe possessed an unrivaled finesse, but Cooper couldn’t forgive him his antics. Pete Sampras was probably “the best grass-court player of all time.” The clear favorite to win in Melbourne is Federer, whom Cooper can see eventually passing Sampras’ record majors tally of 14: “If he maintains his motivation he could end up as the greatest player of all time . . . he hasn’t got a weakness.” With only two majors, Pat Rafter doesn’t qualify as a great, but Cooper marvels at how, as a pint-sized 13-year-old, the Queenslander tried to play a serve-volley style that was beyond him. “But all that lunging he did as a little bloke set him up,” Cooper says. “He grew into a great athlete who could reach everything.”

As for who could stop Federer this month, Cooper says world No. 2 Rafael Nadal is a chance, but only if he positions himself close to the baseline—and not 5 m behind it, as he would at Roland Garros. And Hewitt? “One of the greatest competitors I’ve ever seen,” he says—but as a father now, with a sliding ranking and little left to prove, how hot is Hewitt’s inner fire these days? If Cooper had the ear of one of these challengers, could he improve him? “Oh, probably not,” he says. “The game’s moved too much. And they wouldn’t listen, anyway.” Sadly, on both counts, he’s probably right.

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