San Diego 1989.  With my mother, Erna, at the first Davis Cup tie I covered.

In an essay titled “The Crack Up,” the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

One day in 2010, this was the case for my tennis zealot of a mother, Erna Drucker. She was playing a doubles match, aware of the value of a team moving to the middle of the court. She was also 81 years old, well aware of a guideline given to the aging: Don’t fall.

But at this moment, body won over mind—a mid-court collision with her partner. Mom fell to the ground. Instantly bruised, she limped back up, drove home, saw her doctor, used her time away from tennis to read a biography of actress Barbara Stanwyck, and was back on the court within two months. As Boris Becker once said about Monica Seles, my mother was one tough cookie.


If you don’t laugh, you cry. Erna Drucker

Erna Drucker died on January 28, 2024. She was 94 and had been gradually declining from dementia for several years. Fortunately, all at the end went reasonably swiftly and relatively pain-free.

Perhaps because she had been born five months before the Great Depression of 1929, resilience had long been my mother’s watchword. In fact, the very need for it was what had brought her to the tennis courts in the first place. In the fall of 1970, at the age of 41, mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Back then, very little was known about how to effectively treat this disease. Upon receiving treatment, the patient was told to cross her fingers for five years and hope for the best. Soon after diagnosis and surgery, we moved from St. Louis to Los Angeles. Mom’s new doctor advised her that a good way to recover was to get more exercise.

Now based in a city where it was sunny year-round, she figured it would be a good idea to start playing tennis. Off mom went to the closest public facility, a venue known as Stoner Park, for group lessons. Rapidly, she began to play every day. Soon enough, our entire family—father Alan, older brother Ken and myself—began to play too. For my 11th birthday, mom gave me a red-and-white Spalding Pancho Gonzales Autograph racquet.


Drucker family at Stoner Park in Los Angeles on Thanksgiving 1972.  From left to right: mother Erna, sons Joel and Ken, father Alan.

Drucker family at Stoner Park in Los Angeles on Thanksgiving 1972. From left to right: mother Erna, sons Joel and Ken, father Alan.

She soon enough began to follow the pro game too. These were the tennis boom years of the early 1970s, a time when TV coverage took off. In 1971, the year my mom first picked up a racquet, seven events had aired on American television. By 1976, just about the same time she and my dad joined a cozy club, that figure had grown to 70. Years later, mom had Tennis Channel on virtually round-the-clock, thrilling most of all to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. More recently, she was quite pleased when I told her that Tennis Channel’s headquarters was located just over a mile from Stoner Park.

Even better for our family’s journey was that Los Angeles had long been a tennis mecca. Well into the ‘70s, just after the US Open, the Los Angeles Tennis Club hosted what was then considered the second-most important tournament in the country, the Pacific Southwest Championships. Trekking 12 miles east of our home in West Los Angeles, Mom went there with one of her tennis buddies in September 1972. That night at dinner, she regaled us with tales of seeing the aging Pancho Gonzalez, the precocious Tracy Austin and, mom’s favorite at the time, the regal Arthur Ashe. “He had this silver racquet that looked like a rug-beater,” she said. That was the ultra-cool Head Competition, a frame my parents bought me the next year for Hannukah.

A few years later, just prior to the “Southwest,” mom and I drove to The Broadway, a department store in nearby Century City mall. Ashe by this time had earned his breakthrough triumph at Wimbledon. To celebrate it, mom bought me a poster of him for my bedroom wall with the words “King Arthur” on it. A makeshift court had been placed in front of The Broadway, so mom made sure I got in line to hit a few balls with Ashe. After shanking the first forehand, I made reasonable contact with a backhand. “Not bad,” said Ashe. Mom was happy to see that, and off we went back home.


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But don’t think for a minute that my mom had any desire to push me deeply into tennis. When I was 14, for approximately a year, every Monday at 3:30 she’d drop me off at a private court in Bel Air for an hour-long lesson with an instructor named Sean Harrington. Sean would then teach another lesson until 5:30 and afterwards drive me home. “Perfect,” mom said. “You can read while you’re waiting for Sean.”

For while tennis racquets were nice presents, far more important in my household were books, ideas, stories, authors. Around the same time I was working with Sean, mom had given me The Glory & The Dream, a fast-paced narrative history of America covering the years 1932-’75. While Sean gave that final lesson each Monday, I trekked across the New Deal and into the New Frontier.

“Oh, we don’t call them matches,” mom said about her tennis. “We call them games. It’s only a game, just a way to have fun and get exercise.”

Given the hand she’d been dealt on the health front, this attitude made sense. Good news was that five years after the cancer, all was clear, and tennis was on mom’s schedule at least four days a week.


Used the sport as a way to recover from cancer. Enjoyed her time on the court. Played frequently into her 80s. That to me is a great player. Longstanding WTA coach on Erna Drucker

But there came a morning when mom’s tennis game didn’t happen. As I left our apartment building one spring day in 1977, I was jarred to see my mother coming back home, carrying a pair of slacks, a shirt, and other items in her hands. These belonged to my older brother, Ken. Eight months prior, at the age of 20, he’d suffered his first schizophrenic break. Though eventually he recovered, what next might happen? On this most recent occasion, Ken had likely taken LSD and was with some friends, freaking out in a Westwood hotel room. At 5:00 a.m., they’d called Erna, asking her to come there and help. She arrived to see him with no clothes on, shaking under the covers. As mom attempted to talk down her oldest child, he suddenly bolted out of the bed, opened the door, and ran nude, into the streets of Los Angeles.

When I saw mom that morning, she had no idea where Ken was. Fortunately, a few hours later, an off-duty policeman would see Ken running through Santa Monica, roughly five miles from the hotel. Ken soon went to what was then called a sanitorium. Within three years of this episode, Ken would occupy mental health facilities for the remaining 42 years of his life.

As with the breast cancer, here too, mom embodied Fitzgerald’s premise. She and my father, Alan, took every step possible to ensure Ken’s health and safety. But they wouldn’t be defeated by it. Mom continued to enjoy her tennis, mostly as a player, frequently as a viewer, occasionally as a spectator. Beginning in the ‘80s and into the ’90s, she and dad made an annual ritual of driving 120 miles east one Friday a year to watch the men’s quarterfinal matches at the ATP-WTA event in Indian Wells.


1992: My parents, Alan and Erna Drucker, on their last of many annual trips to the Hyatt Grand Champions Resort to attend the ATP-WTA event held in Indian Wells, Calif.

1992: My parents, Alan and Erna Drucker, on their last of many annual trips to the Hyatt Grand Champions Resort to attend the ATP-WTA event held in Indian Wells, Calif.

It was also nice that by the ‘80s, the tournament once held at the LA Tennis Club had relocated itself to the UCLA campus two miles away from our home. Naturally, my parents enjoyed attending that too, including those times when my press credential helped us get better parking. When dad died in 1992 of a sudden heart attack at the age of 66, it only made sense that mom would opt to hold the memorial reception for him at their tennis club.

Upon my mother’s death, well aware of her tennis zeal, several friends asked me how good she was as a player. I won’t lie to you and say she had a mantel of gold balls. Instead, I’ll cite a comment made to me by a longstanding WTA coach: “Used the sport as a way to recover from cancer. Enjoyed her time on the court. Played frequently into her 80s. That to me is a great player.” That is a darn good guideline for any of us.

In addition to a passion for tennis and books, my mother was a lifelong movie watcher, likely seeing at least one a week from childhood into her 90s. One of her favorite directors was Billy Wilder, a storyteller renowned for a quality mom highly valued: sharp wit as portal into the human condition. “If you don’t laugh,” she said following the deaths of both my father and brother, “you cry.”


Mom particularly liked Wilder’s The Apartment, a 1960 film that included a scene of actor Jack Lemmon straining pasta through a tennis racquet. I know mom enjoyed that moment. But even more, she savored the film’s final scene. Lemmon’s character, C.C. “Bud” Baxter, is playing gin rummy with Fran Kubelik, played by crisp-talking Shirley MacLaine.

“I love you, Miss Kubelik, says Baxter. “Did you hear what I said, Miss Kubelik? I absolutely love you.”

Her reply: “Shut up and deal.”

And for 94 years, on and off the court, through the loss of a child to the death of a husband to her own health struggles, that is what Erna Drucker did.

Happy Mother’s Day, mom. I love you.