Frew McMillan Interview

Five Grand Slam Men’s Doubles titles, five Grand Slam Mixed Doubles titles and membership in the International Tennis Hall of Fame – Frew McMillan is one of the most successful players to have ever picked up a tennis racket.

From winning championships in spectacular fashion on Centre Court to becoming a highly respected commentator for British Eurosport and BBC Radio Five Live, the South African’s tennis experience both on and off the court is unrivalled.

Born in Springs, South Africa, as a youngster McMillan was blessed with supreme talent in both tennis and cricket. Although he pursued the former as a career, he had several contract offers to play county cricket, which he turned down. He turned professional in 1969 and he immediately became recognisable for his distinctive two-handed backhand and forehand.

This unusual but effective style of play, which has rarely been displayed in the modern era since (Frenchman, Fabrice Santoro apart), meant McMillan was able to thrive in the doubles arena. His poise at the net, quick hands and ability to volley as well as anyone soon became known to the grass of Wimbledon.

Having struck a great partnership with Australian Bob Hewitt, the pair clinched the first of their three men’s doubles SW19 victories in 1967 against legendary Australian stroke maker Roy Emerson and his partner Ken Fletcher. Incidentally, McMillan never lost a single service game during the tournament and the pair did not drop a set on their way to a maiden Wimbledon title. Successes at Roland Garros and the US Open followed for the duo, in between two more Centre Court triumphs in 1972 and 1978. In mixed doubles, before McMillan added two more Wimbledon titles (1978 and 1981) to his name alongside Dutch player Betty Stove, he won the 1966 French Open title with Annette Van Zyl. But it was his collaboration with Stove which proved the more enduring. Together, they went on to triumph at Flushing Meadows twice (1977 and 1978), however they finished runners up as a pair in five major mixed doubles finals overall.

Statistically speaking, McMillan’s achievements stand toe to toe with the best in the game. In total he claimed 63 men’s doubles titles, five mixed doubles wins, rose to a career high 31 in the doubles rankings and reached the quarter-final of the 1972 US Open in singles. Since retiring in 1983, McMillan has made the transition effortlessly from professional sportsman to the commentary box.

After Frew and his colleague Simon Reed, Head of Commentators for British Eurosport covered Rafael Nadal’s third-round clash with Luxembourg player Gilles Muller at the 2011 US Open, Stuart Appleby spoke to the 69-year-old about his fascinating career, the changes in tennis throughout the last four decades and what it felt like to be victorious on Centre Court.

Q) Frew, as a youngster you had the option to play either tennis or cricket at the top level. You chose the tennis route – what was your early tennis career like and how did it all start for you?

“I obviously had the talent and so having made the decision with parental backing, my father’s backing particularly, I decided against university. After finishing my schooling, the equivalent of A-levels here in South Africa, I spent a year really catching up with other people of my age because my talent would show itself but it would only show itself from time to time. When I was away in boarding school I played a lot of cricket, I played a lot of other sport and I needed to catch up with the other players of my age. I spent a year concentrating on tennis, working out with a coach and after a year of doing that I decided to travel.

“My first couple of years were spent mainly in England, playing small tournaments, playing Wimbledon – generally having to qualify for Wimbledon but that was fairly common. Firstly, I wasn’t good enough to get straight in and secondly, even players like (Rod) Laver before me had to qualify at times to get into Wimbledon. It was just a matter of serving an apprenticeship and going around playing as many tournaments as I possibly could in the European summer. Then I went back to South Africa in the South African summer and played tournaments down there. For about the first 9-10 years of my life, I had no winter but came over to Britain to stay and play. The first two or three years were mainly in Britain and after that it was a combination of British and European tournaments from the continent. Then going back to South Africa, where South Africa had a thriving tennis circuit of its own.”

Q) When and where did your big break come in tennis? Was there a match or moment which kick started it all for you?

“Yes, well it’s interesting to even dwell back on why I might have chosen tennis rather than cricket and even there, there was sort of a breakthrough. Just out of the blue I won the South African Junior Doubles title and that perhaps gave me an even greater incentive than I had in cricket. So later on, when it reached a stage, having been on the circuit for four or five years, doing my apprenticeship, one of my goals was to represent South Africa in Davis Cup and I achieved what I thought was necessary to play Davis Cup. I’d won two South African titles and yet they still kept me out of the team so I needed a break and the break came in the form of a South African Davis Cup team that was doing alright, but found that by overlooking me they were short of a really good doubles player.

“I was co-opted not by the national selectors but by our Davis Cup manager and also by other members of the South Africa team who virtually insisted they were short of somebody like me and they had me join the Davis Cup team in the middle of a campaign over in Europe. At that stage South Africa played all its Davis Cup matches away from home in Europe and they co-opted me to the team. My first match was against the French at Roland Garros, it was very successful and from then on my thoughts of giving up tennis because I didn’t seem to be getting anywhere had gone. Remember this was in the amateur days and there wasn’t a great amount of money in the game. Now suddenly, I was in the team, I was successful and then I decided to stick at tennis rather than go back, go to university or something like that.”

Note: McMillan played Davis Cup tennis for South Africa between 1965 and 1978, and had a 22-5 doubles record in the competition.  

Q) One thing that fascinates me about you as a player is the style that you played. Obviously off both wings you were double-handed. Rarely in the game you see that now. Maybe the one exception would be Fabrice Santoro who has now retired. How did you come to be a player using that technique off both wings and could you see a player using that technique thriving now?

“Well the reason I think I stuck to two hands on both sides was because I played a lot of cricket and a lot of other sports, but mainly cricket. Tennis for me was almost a seasonal game. Had I’d been in a situation where I was exposed to coaches and advice from people, other than say my father, I would of probably switched to a single-handed game. As it was, even when I left school, at 17 or 18, my father and I did try and see whether a single-handed game was going to be me. I quite successfully for a couple of months played single-handed tennis but no tournaments. I was just practising it, working on the single-handed game.

“In the end I decided at the age of 18, even though I hadn’t played tennis day in and day out, somehow a single-handed game just wasn’t me. It didn’t befit my nature so I turfed that in and continued to play the two-handed game. The reason of course for two hands is that I was probably three or four when I first picked up a racket. I was the youngest of three sons, my older brothers played, both my parents played, so it was natural that I picked up a racket and I inevitably picked up their racket. But of course it was heavy so I just played with two hands on both sides as a result. Can a player do it today, yes they can.

“They can never be ultra successful at singles though because it is a fact, I reached a major quarter-final at the US Open and a number of other double-handed players on both sides reached quarter-finals but nobody in the men’s game has ever got beyond the quarter-final of a major event. And there are two reasons for this, firstly two hands on both sides restrict your reach tremendously. Secondly, it would probably be that much more difficult for somebody today, other than perhaps somebody of (Juan Martin) Del Potro’s size or (John) Isner’s size to play two hands on both sides because they would at least have a fair amount of reach. But with all the power that there is in the game, I think it’s becoming more and more difficult for people with two hands on both sides to thrive because of that disadvantage. Of course, it was possible in the women’s game and the greatest exponent of it was (Monica) Seles, who won majors, but she’s the only double-handed player on both sides to ever win majors. It’s not likely to happen in the women’s game now either because of the power.”

Q) As a player you had a lot of success in both men’s and mixed doubles. Let’s talk about the Wimbledon wins. You won the men’s doubles title in 1967, 1972, and in 1978. Arguably to win a Wimbledon title is the pinnacle for any tennis player, what did it feel like?

“That’s the dream particularly from anyone from the commonwealth countries, South Africa, Australia, particularly. We produced a lot of players at that stage, we don’t do so now but the dream for us all was to succeed at Wimbledon because it was what came through to us on the radio. We had no television in those days and as a result players performing in South Africa who succeeded and did well at Wimbledon were really looked up to. Therefore it became our ambition really to succeed at Wimbledon. So consequently as the first South African to win a men’s doubles title at Wimbledon it was a real feather in my cap and something of which I was immensely proud then and something of which I am pretty proud now. There were South African players who had won mixed doubles titles, Eric Sturgess, who was probably the greatest South African player of all time and one of my childhood heroes. Another incidentally was Dennis Compton. But yes winning Wimbledon was a dream and doing it I suppose so many years apart in some ways it was terrific but I would of loved there to have been many more successes between 1967 and 1978.”

Q) Can you tell me a little bit about the partnership you had with Bob Hewitt and what it was that made it work for you? Was it a click between you on the court or was it something off the court?

“In our case, Bob Hewitt was an Australian who married a South African and came to be based in South Africa. National Association’s get a lot of stick as a rule and the South African Association at times were to be blamed as well but the one very good thing they did as far as I was concerned was asking Hewitt and me to get together. The chap I’d been playing with before was beginning to fade as a talent. Hewitt had already succeeded and the first time we played together we clicked.

“We won our first 45 straight matches without being beaten. We won Wimbledon the first year we played together and it was obviously a partnership made in heaven. It was just a good blend of people who understand the doubles game and could read the doubles game very well. I suppose I had to slightly adjust my game to his because Bob was chiefly a touch player but had power. Had he had more power he would have probably been a great success in singles as well because he was multi-talented. I probably had to develop a little bit more power to make the partnership successful. In some ways, where before I’d been much more of the sort of player that he was, using a lot more touch, angles and subtleties, I had to develop a slightly more powerful game which I think I did. As a result the blend of power and terrific touch, subtlety and delicacy made us into a pretty formidable combination.”

Q) Taking things on, arguably Grand Slams weren’t as big a fixture in the calendar back when you played. For example, people rarely played the Australian Open. What was it like to participate in the four majors then?

“Well we didn’t play the Australian, we never played there. So it’s obviously lacking in my records and the reasons being as your suggesting, the majors were important, but it was really Wimbledon that was ultra important to us. A lot of people didn’t even go to the US Open, the US Championships as they were originally called. After 1973, I didn’t play the French again even though my career extended to the 1980s where I played Wimbledon every year. Consequently some of the records of some of the earlier players, including ourselves, in terms of the accumulation of major titles would have been far greater had we played many more of them.

“Even people like (Jimmy) Connors and (Bjorn) Borg didn’t play the Australian much at all. One year (1974) Connors won three majors but didn’t play the French so in fact he might have actually won the Grand Slam. The majors then began to become much more important to the players, particularly the Australian, which many of us overlooked. Now, of course, it’s a much stronger test. If you look at the early records of the Australian, it was dominated by Australian players. Some Davis Cup matches were played in Australia too because it was the challenge round of the Davis Cup and the Australians and Americans tended to dominate the earlier years. So with the challenge round everybody played through to challenge the team that had won the previous year. The Americans would reach the final so a few American players might play in the Australian championships but no more than that. Now it’s become a much more solid and international field.”

Q) You mentioned the Australian players there, players like Rod Laver and Roy Emerson are legends of the sport. Who is the best player you have played against or seen? In addition, how would you compare them to the players of today, such as Roger Federer?

“I think the best player I have seen and played against, and I played against him and with him in the latter part of his career was Lew Hoad. To my mind Hoad at his best would be the best player I have seen. Followed not far behind by the likes of Laver, Federer and co. Obviously if you took them as they played then and put them up against the top players of today, today’s players would win handily because the game has come on like any other sport. It’s much more powerful, the players are faster. The same applies to athletics whether it’s the 100 metres, the high jump or the long jump – the sport has grown. It’s a combination of professionalism, looking after your body, looking after what you eat and the equipment that you use. So that would be a very unfair thing to do, to sort of look at films of how Hoad played when he won Wimbledon a couple of times and how Federer played when he won his Wimbledons. You could say there would be no contest and it wouldn’t.

“It’s just that I know if Hoad, Laver and co grew up in today’s environment with all the advantages that is given to players today, they would be the equal if not the better of today’s players. One of the great differences between players then and the players today is that many more of the surfaces then were on grass and therefore much faster. People played a lot of the serve-volley type game, the players of my generation and before were far better volleyers than the players today. The players today are far better off the ground but lack the competency on the volley that players of our generation had.”

Q) As we have just discussed, tennis has changed an awful lot through the years. For you, what has been the pivotal moment of change in the game?

“Firstly when the Open Era began in 1968 anyone could then play, so the winning was by the best in the world and that was important. Then once professionalism took over and once television caught on to the possible greater exposure of tennis it made a huge difference particularly in the states where we sought of played intermittently and at times didn’t even bother to play the US Championships for years. But they made a determined effort to attract players. They chartered planes and flew people over just to play the American championships to encourage people to go over. Once tennis became professional, who would put the money into the game but the Americans and it was there really that the game began to change in the 1970s even prior to Connors and (John) McEnroe.

“But of course with those two and players of that era the game got maximum exposure because it was then beginning to gather interest and appeal. Prize money increased, more and more players came to the game, made it therefore that much more competitive and as a result the quality of the best players began to improve as they were pushed to the fore and challenged to become even better players by the professional players around them. The formation of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), I was involved with that, at its outset in the early 1970s helped. The running of a professional tour, the consideration of players at tournaments – where in the early days we were barely looked after at all. We had to fend for ourselves. With the establishment of the ATP the players were far better looked after so all those factors I think helped to raise the profile and standard of the sport.”

Q) What was it like to play on Centre Court?

“It’s changed and yet I’m just busy reading as I do from time to time a tennis book written by Helen Jacobs describing the top woman of her era. People going back to Suzanne Lenglen and the feeling she describes of walking on to Wimbledon Centre Court or the US Championships which were then played at Forest Hills is much the same I’m sure as it is today. It’s nerve wracking. It’s your great ambition to go on there but it’s the big stage. And I’m sure it’s like an actor on Broadway or in the West End in London taking to the stage. It’s a nerve wracking experience and it’s a matter of how you deal with those nerves. Sometimes they unsettle you, sometimes the opponent deals with it better or sometimes you’re up against a better player. You just never know but the fact that you’ve overcome those nerves and that as a result in my case, being successful at times on the Centre Court, I’ve also lost on Centre Court, is very meaningful and a source of great pride.”

Q) After a long and successful career in tennis, do you still keep in touch with players you used to play with and against?

“I’m still in touch at times with Bob Hewitt, my former partner. People like Tom Okker, the Hollander who was called the flying Dutchman. Terrific player, he played on the same team tennis as I did in America, San Francisco. I played five years of team tennis which during those five years kept us out of tournaments, other than Wimbledon, from April to virtually after the US Open. So we missed a whole lot of tournaments. When he first came to South Africa, in many ways I looked after him, befriended him and it’s an enduring friendship.

“Cliff Richey, a former American number one is another friend, who brought out a book last year talking about his depression. He comes from a great tennis family, his sister Nancy is a member of the International Hall of Fame and former American number one. Yet Cliff as successful as he was had not only these very depressing moments but months of chronic depression. His book talks about his battles with depression both as a player and after he retired. He, I’m still in touch with. The establishment of The Last Eight Club which Wimbledon started 25 years ago helps me keep in touch with people. In other words, anybody getting to the last eight of the singles, the semi-finals of the doubles or finals of the mixed, you then become a member of the club. I work at Wimbledon during the Championships but even if I didn’t work there I could go and as a member of The Last Eight Club I would meet up with old friends. Even though I played with him, he’s really before my time, people like Neale Fraser – the former Wimbledon and US champion. I often see him and members from really all over the world.”

Q) Looking at the men’s game now which of course you regularly commentate on, can you see Roger Federer winning any more Grand Slam titles? Secondly, what do you think of the rise of Novak Djokovic in 2011?

“I was wrong about (Roger) Federer because judging from past experience and seeing players like McEnroe win two majors in one year and then never win another major, I felt Federer could go the same way. Laver won his Grand Slam in 1969 and never won another major, and based on that, even though I recognise Federer’s talent, I thought he could go the same way. I’m pleased to say I was probably one of the first to recognise Federer’s talent because we used to commentate in Basel. We went to do the tournament and Federer was a youngster when he started playing there. I could see the possibility in him and declared it and believe I am responsible for calling him the Federer Express, as opposed to Federal Express!

“I thought that he would not win another major, he confounded me by winning the Australian (in 2010) so he has already contradicted me by winning a major and he’s amazed me because he has just maintained this ambition to continue to do well. Where in the past, it’s not for a lack of youth, it’s not for a lack of talent that prevented McEnroe, Laver and so many others from winning further majors – it’s just something at the back of the mind that tells the player he’s just done so remarkably well, he may still be supremely fit but just lacks that slight little bit of ambition which they had before which prevents them from going that extra yard which is necessary always to beat opponents who are out there to beat you and to win majors for themselves.

“Federer’s confounded me. I still don’t think he’s going to win yet another major but I would be very pleased if he did because he is that talented and he keeps reminding us of just how amazingly ambitious he is. As for (Novak) Djokovic, he astounded me this year with his progress. It just seemed to stem from Serbia’s Davis Cup win and the rediscovery of his serve because he had lost his serve. After he had won the Australian Open in 2008 he switched rackets and it seemed to me that the new racket didn’t suit him. He changed his service action, where in the past his best serve to save important points was a big serve out wide to the back hand – he lost that serve all together. He couldn’t serve it. I even said to his coach Marian Vajda that until he rediscovered it he wouldn’t win another major. He did rediscover it. I didn’t see the Davis Cup final but he must of used it then but certainly during the Australian Open at the beginning of this year he used it and from there he has just gone from strength to amazing strength. Not with anything particularly new other than desire, ambition and keeping his head down. Where in the past perhaps he has lacked that extra bit of courage, strength and ambition to find excuses to drop out of matches, now he’s far less inclined to do that and it’s just been an amazing run.”

Q) And finally Frew, as you are now a tennis commentator, do you have a favourite commentary moment?

“You know, I feel blessed to continue and to keep at it as long as I have. But I think experience and the fact that I can relate to players going back to (Pancho) Gonzales, Hoad, (Ken) Rosewell and all these people – I think in many ways adds a little bit to a commentators repertoire. As for supreme moments in my commentating career, I suppose the early days of (Boris) Becker winning Wimbledon at 17 and seeing this young guy coming through. He played fellow South African Kevin Curran in the final who I’d obviously knew and played against, so they stand out.

“Working with people like (William) Maxwell Robertson at Wimbledon who I used to listen to as a kid alongside Fred Perry. Moments like that and then to Federer’s rise having seen him as a youngster, knowing his mother particularly well because she is a South African as I am, knowing his father meeting them in Basel and getting to know the family. Federer’s first success at Wimbledon to me was a real treat, so much so the notes that I made whilst commentating on Federer’s final, I had framed in Wimbledon colours and gave them to the Federer family so that was very special for me.”

Stuart would like to take this opportunity to thank Frew for kindly taking the time to speak to him. Frew can be listened to on British Eurosport and BBC Radio 5 Live during Wimbledon.

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