Oct/19

31

Colin Dibley Recalls His Career

Yesterday I called Colin Dibley and left a message asking about his memories of facing Guillermo Vilas. Dibley was a top 30 Aussie with the world’s fastest serve, with wins against Rod Laver, Stan Smith, Vijay Amritraj, Lew Hoad, John Newcombe, Ilie Nastase, etc. He called me back in the afternoon from his home in Jacksonville, Florida and though he did not have many memories of playing Vilas five official times in singles and in a doubles final in South Orange, he did share with me a nice review of his unique professional career.

“I didn’t play Vilas as much as he played Connors, McEnroe, Borg. Or as much as I played Laver, Rosewall, Newcombe. Those matches I remember more. I don’t recall any matches with Vilas. Vilas did come and play in Australia. He was certainly a tough player. He was a great competitor especially on the clay court. He played very hard all the time. In Australia, he’d come down there and play, it was weaker, not as many of the top players came down there. It gave him a chance to win on grass. Back then I played about 40 tournaments a year, two or three matches on average at a tournament. That’s a lot of matches. Arthur Ashe wrote about playing me in his diary. He beat me in four sets early in my career. Then he said he played me indoors in Spain. Ashe wrote, ‘Colin Dibley and all these Aussies play so hard. Colin went home after playing knowing he left everything on the court…” That’s what Vilas did too. Some Europeans – if you got on top of them early – they could give it away.'”

“I know I played Vilas in an exhibition and I bageled him one set. It’s funny what you remember, some I remember the scores, some I don’t. I see some former players and they tell me about our match someplace and I don’t remember it.”

My question seemed to open Dibley’s memory trunk of treasured experiences.

“Connors was a tough player, he just hung in there and made you play. I was a set all and defaulted in the third with Connors in Cincinnati or Indianapolis with cramps. I was seldom injured. I only defaulted two times in my career with cramps. There’s no way you’re gonna beat Connors in a third set with cramps. I suffered with cramps for an hour and a half after the match even though I defaulted. It was 90 degrees with humidity on hard court, very very hot.”

“My career is all a blur. I wish I could help you. I just don’t remember much about my matches with Vilas. He was very quiet off the court. Just very, very quiet. Didn’t really associate with the guys much. The Aussies stuck together, we practiced together and went out to dinner together. McEnroe and Connors didn’t really associate with other players.”

“You just played so many matches. I played eleven years, that’s a lot of matches (1,164 in total). I remember playing Borg at Wimbledon. In the third round, the year he won his first Wimbledon. I played Rosewall at Wimbledon when he was no. 2 in the world.”

“I played tennis since I was ten but I didn’t make it to the pros until I was 26. When I was 19-20, the Aussies dominated tennis. I wasn’t good enough to get in. My serve and volley got better as I went.”

I offered that Dibley’s career path reminded of the other Aussie with a big serve who finally made it in his mid 20s after failing in over ten Grand Slam qualifying attempts – Wayne Arthurs. Dibley agreed.

“I turned pro, played in Miami in 1973. Laver was no. 3 in the world, Smith was no. 1. I lost first round to Bob Lutz but I got to the doubles final (with Terry Addison) and we lost to Emerson and Laver (64 64). After the match Laver said, ‘Why don’t you come to stay with me in La Costa?’ So I did. We practiced together there. My second tournament as a pro was La Costa. I won three rounds there and got to the semi. I had to play Rod Laver. I beat him in three sets. The aura had worn off from practicing with him all week. Then I beat Stan Smith in the final (63 76). He was no. 1.”

“When I was 35 I went to Wimbledon and beat Lendl. I beat Nastase in Israel. I had my share of wins and losses. I got to 28 (actually 26) in the world. It was all between (age) 26 to 36. I had the world’s fastest serve for about 25 years (clocked at 148 mph). Hard courts suited me, grass suited me. I won three titles – one on clay in Kitzbuhel (vs Dick Crealy), hard courts in La Costa and grass at Orange Lawn (NJ vs Vijay Amritraj) (Dibley also won Perth in 1980 vs Chris Delaney.).”

Listening to this legend of another age was captivating, I couldn’t stop, couldn’t pull myself away from the conversation I did not expect to hear. As the rain fell outside of my apartment, the journey to another era continued. The details got even better.

“I’d sit with Laver and Emerson. I asked, How should I play Smith? Or Nastase? It was really nice. I found that all the top players who I knew, if you talked with them – not being a big shot – just trying to get information, they will help you. They didn’t think of me as, He might beat me someday, if I give him information. They were helpful.”

“Ken Rosewall asked me to practice in Australia. At the time I was working in customs and had to work until about 2 or 3, then we would practice. He played in practice like he played in a Wimbledon final. No matter how tired I was I would keep practicing with him as long as he wanted. Sometimes after I would be so tired, I would just sit in my car and sleep. I was so grateful for the chance to practice with Ken Rosewall.”

“I played Hoad in his comeback in Nottingham, it was about ten years after he stopped. It was special to play him, even though it was long after his best years. I got to see how good he was, even after he stopped for ten years. I could imagine how good he was at his best. I got to two Wimbledon quarterfinals in 1971, 1972. I played Borg at Wimbledon and lost in three close sets. He just didn’t miss. On clay he had me side to side, he could beat me love, love and love. He didn’t miss.”

“I beat Vilas on a hard court, it was an exhibition in New York state, a 35s. It was a fast court. I was just off the tour, he was getting near the end. He was 35, eight years younger. I don’t count that as a win. It was only an exhibition tournament. I appreciate playing those guys, it was really fun. On grass, if they’re just a little bit off, I can beat them. No one plays great all the time. I just serve and volleyed and come in. (Vilas) was pretty upset. When I would serve well against Connors, we would have patches in the match where he was just guessing on the returns. I would serve wood racquet 140 miles an hour. I beat Lendl in four sets. I would serve and volley every point, make him try to pass. On return, block the ball back and if he gave me a short ball, come in. I don’t think Lendl liked to serve and volley.”

“The thinking is make the opponent have to pass me a hundred times to win the match. As you go in more, you start to see where they’re gonna hit the ball. That’s one reason why I think Federer stays around now. Federer goes in a lot. He used to serve and volley a lot, then he stayed back. When he keeps going in, it puts a lot of pressure on the player.”

The name-dropping of legends and time capsule moments of history extended like a Borg vs Vilas rally at Roland Garros… “Frew McMillan told me, one of the things, when you get up to serve, I like to return. There’s nothing worse than not being able to make returns. I expect to make returns. You take time off me.”

“In 1972, Pancho Gonzalez said to me in Las Vegas – I got to semis, I beat Newk in quarterfinals, lost to Gottfried – Pancho says to me, ‘Colin, get up there and hit your serve 95%, once you break, start hitting it at 100%.'”

Dibley says he doesn’t play now, he’s 75 and his shoulder hurts, though his wife, who brought him a beer during our interview, plays three or four times a week and he hand feeds her balls sometimes. He hasn’t fallen hard for pickleball, calling it “a Mickey Mouse game of tennis. You don’t have to cover the court.”

He mentioned Bill Cosby and said he was an okay guy. When I said my friend played Cosby and Sidney Poitier in Bahamas and they were trying to hit them, Dibley remembered that Poitier “saw me beat Smith in La Costa. He used to come see me play. Lloyd Bridges saw me play in LA, he said come to dinner with us. I went with my wife and him and his wife and two sons, Jeff and Beau.”

“Elton John was another big fan of tennis. He’s an okay player. He invited Evonne Goolagong and I to come to his concert at Sydney Cricket Ground. A hundred thousand people can go there for a concert. That was great.”

When I asked who was the best celebrity player, Dibley thought for a few seconds and answered by naming a rock and roller, “Ricky Nelson. He played pretty well. Vince Van Patten was a good player.”

Dibley’s final singles record was 291-287, in doubles, he won 17 titles and compiled a 339-247 record.

7 comments

  • Bergie · October 31, 2019 at 4:06 pm

    Memory trunk of treasured experiences… Great read and stories Scoop!

  • catherine · October 31, 2019 at 4:34 pm

    Nothing particular to say except I remember Dibley quite well – as he says, he worked in customs for a while before he turned pro. That was newsworthy. He was of a generation with Crealy, Carmichael, others I can’t recall now. I might have seen Dibley play in Hobart once. All you could see then was serve and volley, wherever you looked – I’m amazed Dibley got that speed off a wooden racquet.

    Mention of Hoad reminds me that he had to retire early through injury – back I think. Great lefthander – not that I ever saw him play – bit before my time.

  • Hartt · October 31, 2019 at 5:16 pm

    Scoop, what a great piece, thoroughly enjoyable!

  • Scoop Malinowski · October 31, 2019 at 5:34 pm

    Catherine, Colin Dibley said he never lost to Roscoe Tanner in the serve speed contests they had. BTW, I’m working on doing a Biofile and Facing Vilas with Roscoe Tanner next.

  • Scoop Malinowski · October 31, 2019 at 5:35 pm

    Thanks Hartt, glad you liked it. One of those stories that hits you unexpectedly, I only intended to ask him about Facing Vilas, which he had barely any memory of. Thankfully Colin Dibley was happy to talk about some of the things he does remember.

  • jg · November 1, 2019 at 3:45 pm

    Dibley should watch Cressy play, would be curious what he thinks–sounds like he would tell him to stick with it and come in on every opportunity.

  • Scoop Malinowski · November 1, 2019 at 3:57 pm

    Cressy just learned a lesson in Germany Challenger, losing to fellow serve and volleyer Sergey Stakhovsky 76 in the third. That’s a good learning experience. Cressy just won a doubles challenger with James Cerretani and is winning singles matches too. Cressy’s game will come together like Dibley’s.

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