The South African’s best performance as a player was to reach the final of the 1965 US Open but he was at the centre of the formation of the Association of Tennis Professionals that revolutionised the sport, boycotting Wimbledon en route.
He has remained in the game as one of the most perceptive commentators talking ESPN viewers through some of the most dramatic moments in the sport. Drysdale has a fluency of speech. Rod Laver once described him as a man who could persuade a lion to become a vegetarian. However, he answers a question honestly and without any need for obfuscation.
His view on the US Open, which begins on Monday, is straightforward. Novak Djokovic will win and Andy Murray will not. This, of course, is an over-simplification but it testifies to the directness of Drysdale.
He views Djokovic as a phenomenon, perhaps the greatest one to have struck the game. The 24-year-old Serb has lost only twice this year: to Roger Federer in the semi-finals of the French Open and to Andy Murray at Cincinnati on Sunday when the world No.1 retired with a shoulder injury when 6-4, 3-0 down.
“I feel very strongly that this is an historic year,” said Drysdale, who has spent more than 30 years in the commentary box and before that was a player who reached No.4 in the world. “I’ve got to make this point about what Djokovic has done so far. You win five of these Masters 1000 tournaments that he has -- five in a row -- and you’ve got two grand slams under your belt. It’s really important to put in perspective the fact that he has had to play against the top players in the world week-in, week-out.
“That to me is the most significant thing when you compare the year that he’s had with, for example, [John] McEnroe’s year when he lost only three. In those years, every year, the players could, and did, duck each other, so you’d have [Jimmy] Connors in one tournament, McEnroe in another, [Ivan] Lendl in another, and they’d get together in the slams.
“In this modern game, you cannot duck the best players. And he has had to beat Nadal five times and he’s had to beat Federer four times.”
Drysdale, one of the first high-profile players to use the double-handed backhand, has always been a thinker about tennis and he is convinced that Djokovic has now a significant advantage over Nadal because his flat-hitting game neutralises the spin of the Spaniard.
The Serb has also changed the sport because he has destroyed the pre-eminence of Nadal and Federer. “It has an effect in the locker room because the rest of the field now takes a look at Federer and Nadal and they see them in a different light, and they see they’re beatable.”
Of Nadal, he said: “He solved Federer. He clearly has not solved Djokovic. Is it simply he’s butted his head against a guy he just can’t figure out?”
Djokovic had added two elements to his game, said Drysdale, that had made him the world No.1 this season. “His serve, if not better than anyone’s, is at least equal to the best in the business,” he said. “His forehand is now unmissable, which didn’t used to be the case.”
It is the latter stroke that he feels diminishes the prospects of Murray winning a major. “I was very disappointed with him in the semi-final of Wimbledon because he looked, relatively speaking, like a second-class player,” said Drysdale of the Scot’s four-set loss to Nadal. “In his game, there are some mechanical things that need addressing. His forehand side is a very big weakness.”
Drysdale pointed out the strengths in Murray’s game. “He’s got a great serve. He’s got a great backhand. He moves as well as, and maybe better than, any one of his competitors.”
He comes back to that perceived flaw. “He hits a forehand a little bit like Stefan Edberg used to. It’s a little late. He does not drop the racket head just before he makes contact; he’s a little tight.”
Murray is now working with Darren Cahill, Drysdale’s friend and fellow commentator. “Could you change the forehand? Yes. It would take some work, though,” said Drysdale, who would not be drawn on Cahill’s role with the world No.4.
However, he has words of support for Murray. “If he makes that adjustment, he’s certainly going to win at least some slams. But even if he doesn’t, he’s still going to win a couple of slams before he retires.”
Murray defeated Djokovic on Sunday week and Drysdale said: “He matches up well with Novak. But Novak, in the big matches, in best-of-five, is going to take him out. And I think that’s true of Federer and Rafa, as well. That’s his problem. That said, if the draw opens up for him . . . ”