May 14, 2022 4 min read
Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.___For years there was somebody named Drilling who was welcomed through the White House gates. Usually, anything or anyone associated with drilling is best disguised as a ghost when coming to the White House. Drilling riles environmentalists. Drilling has been political quicksand for the ruling party the last 25 years because Drilling may want the oil on public lands.
But this Drilling was a pal to White House staff and was even invited to Camp David, the presidential retreat.
His name was Fred Drilling. He wasn't a lobbyist sent to manipulate opinion about fracking. He was, more or less, the White House tennis pro for 27 years.
Drilling's tennis shop was on 17th Street, an eight-minute walk from the White House and it was the only golf and tennis shop in D.C. Fred showed President George H. Bush a thing or two with the racquet, and was the tennis tutor for Senator Lloyd Bentsen, who became Secretary of the Treasury.
Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense, would also come into the shop. Senator John Warner had to be lassoed by his staff and dragged back to the Senate chambers for votes. He just wanted to hang out and talk tennis.
Drilling is 79 now, but because he turns 80 this year, Fred is considered 80 for the international tennis rankings.
The White House gang would be proud of their Drilling.
Fred is ranked No. 1 in the world in his age bracket by the International Tennis Federation. Earlier this month, Drilling won four titles at the ITF world championships: the men’s singles, the mixed doubles, men’s doubles, and the team title.
Then he showed up on a pickleball courts here at the National Senior Games.
It wasn’t fair.
Pickleball can be a game of dinks and dunks, but not when Drilling plays. He sends screamers down the lines and whistles winners up the middle. When he has to, Drilling is a lobmeister. Too many of his lobs splash down just inside the back line for it to be considered luck.
“He never hesitates,” said Alice Tym, a national champion for years, a former tennis pro, and Drilling’s partner in pickleball mixed doubles. They smoked the field to win the 80-84 title at the National Senior Games.
Drilling is a profile we need to study, not because he is almost 80, and still dominant with the racquet of either sport, but because of the schema he follows to play and win matches.
Tennis is Scrabble to Drilling. One point at a time, one letter at a time.
He learned this at 16 years old. 16! His family had just moved from Dearborn, Michigan to southern California, a tennis hotbed and he entered a tournament with the best teenagers in the city. Drilling fought off 13 match points in the quarterfinals and won. He fought off 11 match points in the semifinals and won.
It wasn’t just refusing to quit. It was playing one point at a time, not trying to hurry the comeback, just making sure he came back.
“My father taught me never to give up,” Fred said. “The other thing is I move on to the next point and forget about the last point.”
UCLA took notice and he received a scholarship to the most dominant college program in the country. The legendary Arthur Ashe was a teammate.
For Pickleball players, here is another strand from a master.
Drilling sneaks a peak at the competition in warm-ups. He looks at how they draw back the racquet, how they move side to side, or from the kitchen to the back line. Fred can scheme to attack weaknesses. The key is showing respect for the opponent, not contempt.
Aggressive play in Pickleball can come at a cost, but Drilling always managed to make his zesty shots pay off. He never meandered between aggressive and just settling to get the ball back over the net here Thursday. He charged throughout the three matches.
Drilling’s emotions never went swinging one way or the other based on the scoreboard. He and Tym were roasted 11-3 in the first set of the gold medal match and Tym came to the sideline and said, “What should I do?” Even for a veteran, there was a sense of trouble.
“Keep doing what you’re doing,” Drilling said. “We’re fine.”
Poise can you make you the master of dire situations and Drilling has that. It is not Wimbledon, but plenty of players admitted to nervousness here at the National Games so there is a fair amount of poise lost. Tym kept serving her wicked underhand serve and covering the backline while Drilling charged, and they breezed to the gold.
Fred does not fret over diminishing skills. Everyone else gets gray, too, he said. He has learned to adjust.
“I have lost speed, but I’m still quick and have quick hands,” Drilling said. “Lobbing is much more important because nobody is strong enough to put away overheads very much. You learn more to not hit through them but hit around them.”
In ITF tennis, Drilling has won three men’s doubles world titles with two different partners, three world mixed titles with two different partners, and two world singles titles, but what he seems most proud of is shepherding his friends one-by-one into the cardiologist.
He was 77 when he started to feel a burning across his chest. Drilling thought it was Covid. He went for an exam and expected the doctor to tell him, “You have one of the strongest hearts I’ve seen.”
Not even close. The doc told him he needed a triple bypass. When they took a closer look during the operation, Drilling got a quadruple bypass.
He rounded up his friends, five or six of them. Fred was a terrific lobbyist after all. He persuaded them they needed a cardiac catheter done, no matter how well they felt. Several of the men discovered they had blockages and had either bypasses or stents.
The White House would be proud of their Drilling.
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