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Game's great voice endures

Twenty-five years ago last week the fledgling network ESPN, which debuted only a few days earlier, broadcast its first tennis matches, a Davis Cup event in Memphis, Tenn., between the United States and Argentina. Cliff Drysdale, a former touring pro with minimal TV experience, was the analyst.

"One thing that stood out was that Stan Smith didn't understand what cable was," Drysdale said. "Not many people did."

The network, as you probably know, survived to become one of the country's true megastations. And Drysdale, who will work today's Davis Cup semifinal between the U.S. and Belarus, has been there every step of the way, from his early days as No. 2 man to his current role as lead announcer.

Known for his low-key but graceful manner, his voice is one of the most distinguishable in sports. Of Drysdale, legend Rod Laver once said, he "could talk a lion into becoming a vegetarian."

The 63-year-old Drysdale, who lives in Key Biscayne, was more than an average player. In a consistent career that stretched from the early 1960s to the late '70s, he claimed 35 singles and 24 doubles titles and was a Davis Cup force for South Africa. He was ranked as high as No. 4 in the world and was in the top 10 six times.

In 1965, he was runner-up to Manuel Santana in the U.S. Open (then known as the U.S. Championships). In 1965 and 1966, he reached the semifinals at both Wimbledon and the French Open. An innovator, he was one of the first stars to use the two-handed backhand.

Drysdale's respect followed him off the court. He was instrumental in founding the ATP Tour (serving as its first president from 1972-74) and led the successful 1973 Wimbledon boycott, which included 13 of the top 16 seeds, to protest the suspension of Yugoslav Nikki Pilic, who refused to play Davis Cup.

Famed tennis columnist Bud Collins wrote, "The boycott made the ATP."

Drysdale's transition from the courts to the booth began in the 1970s at the height of the tennis boom when he was hired by sports owner/organizer Lamar Hunt to work syndicated shows for World Championship Tennis. Soon after, Drysdale was part of ESPN'S crew. By the mid '80s, he had achieved the rare accomplishment of advancing from analyst to host.

The gig has taken Drysdale across the globe and he's on the air about 600 hours a year.

"It has been a great relationship for me," Drysdale said. "They keep throwing me into this lions' den and I've survived all these years. I love it, I love the game. I love the people in it. Plus, I work with some really interesting and great people. I think the fact I was in the middle of it, and I understand the nuances and the mental anguish these players go through, is a big help."

Though he has worked the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon, Drysdale has particular fondness for the Davis Cup. Among his favorite battles was a John McEnroe-Mats Wilander classic 22 years ago in St. Louis, a 6{-hour match.

"That lasted forever," Drysdale said. So too, it seems, has the TV life of Drysdale, who has no plans of slowing down.

"It's boggles my mind," Drysdale said. "Twenty-five years ago I didn't think it was going to be the huge success that it was."

Keith Niebuhr can be reached at 226-3368 or online at niebuhrsptimes.com.

UNITED STATES VS. BELARUS

WHAT: Davis Cup semifinal

SCHEDULE: Today _ Andy Roddick vs. Vladimir Voltchkov, Mardy Fish vs. Max Mirnyi; Saturday _ Mike Bryan and Bob Bryan vs. Mirnyi and Alexander Skrypko; Sunday _ Roddick vs. Mirnyi; Fish vs. Voltchkov.

WHERE: Family Circle Tennis Center, Charleston, S.C.

SURFACE: Hardcourt (outdoors).

WINNER PLAYS: Dec. 3-5 vs. France or Spain in World Group final.

OUTLOOK: The United States is trying to reach its first final since 1997, and on paper this is a mismatch. Roddick is ranked No. 2 in the world, Tampa's Fish, who won silver at the Olympics, is No. 28 and the Bryan brothers form one of the sport's best doubles teams. Belarus didn't get here by mistake. Mirnyi, who lives in Bradenton, is capable of beating anybody on a given day. He's 0-3 against Roddick and 0-1 against Fish, however. "This is an event that I grew up personally watching on TV and thinking about playing," Fish said. "And to be a part of it with the whole team atmosphere is totally how I anticipated it being. When you play for your country it is always different. You play for the USA and you play for your teammates."

KEITH NIEBUHR, Times staff writer

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