This sketch is for those of you who are interested in what some of the legendary players of the 1950’s and 1960’s were like, both as players and people. I played against them and knew them as well as someone who was not one of them could. It is the first of a few such possible sketches. If you like it, let me know and I’ll do more.
Pancho Segura, born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, was deceptive in every way – little and unimpressive to look at, but smart, tricky, and a tennis genius. Just looking at him you would never imagine he could be a great tennis player. Pancho was about 5’6” or 5’7” tall, had severely bowed legs (the result, so it was said, of childhood rickets), was severely pigeon-toed, and had a massive, oversized, handsome head with a luxuriant growth of dark hair. You soon learned why he had such a substantial head – to house a huge brain that was one of the brightest, most calculating, cunning and diabolical that I ever encountered in tennis. Because of this the other pros gave him the appropriate nickname, “Sneaky.”
He sort of shuffled from side to side as he walked, giving you the impression that he was apt to stumble at any moment. Yet when the match started Pancho’s legs seemed to magically straighten out and he moved with incredible grace and speed. His court coverage was astounding and his balance exceptional as his scrawny little legs churned away under an erect and unhurried upper body. He always seemed to be in the right place with plenty of time to handle his opponent’s most powerful shots.
Pancho’s career peaked late. His earliest success came as a student at the University of Miami, where he won the NCAA singles championships three times in a row (from 1943 to 1945), a feat not matched in this century. As an amateur he was good but not great. Pancho reached the semi-finals of the US National Championships at Forest Hills in the years 1942 to 1945, won the US Clay Court title in 1944 and the US Indoor Championship in 1946. After turning professional in 1947 he had the misfortune to play in the shadows of two of the greatest players of all time, Jack Kramer and Pancho Gonzales, so he never received sufficient recognition for his greatness as a player.
But he hit his stride as a player at the age of 29 by winning the US Professional Championship for the first time in 1950 and repeating his victory in 1951 and 1952, both times over the great Pancho Gonzales in the finals. He was arguably the number two player in the world during the 1950’s because he reached the finals of the US Professional Championship in 1955, 1956 and 1957, losing each time to Pancho Gonzales. He even reached the finals of this tournament one more time in 1962 at the age of 41, losing to Butch Buchholz. It was at about this time (the early 1960’s) that I used to practice with him at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club and got first-hand experience with his devastating game.
Pancho hit the ball two-handed on both the forehand and backhand, but released one hand on the backhand follow-through. (Starting out small and weak as he did, two hands would have been helpful.) At the net, Pancho volleyed with one hand and, when extending to reach wide balls, he could hit groundstrokes with one hand on either side too. His service motion was bizarre but effective. He would rock back and forth before serving as if he were pumping himself up for the delivery. Then up would go the toss and the ball was smacked deep and with excellent direction. Pancho hit few aces but placed his serves deep and deceptively enough to keep opponents off balance.
Pancho’s big weapon was his two-handed forehand. He hit it flat, and the shot was poetry to behold – smooth, effortless, and projected with incredible and depth and deception. The power came from a compact swing that was moved almost entirely by body rotation and forward leg drive. Pancho stayed low as he hit and turned forward forcefully like a little, dark pinwheel. The shot was so solid that Pancho virtually never missed, even though shot after shot was driven within inches of the net and the lines. Moreover, Pancho could do anything with the ball on this side. He could drive it flat and hard, angle it off, dropshot or lob, all with the same motion.
His strategy on the baseline was similar to most players who have big forehands and weaker backhands. He stood near the backhand sideline and hit every ball he could with his forehand. He liked to open up on you with a flat or inside-out sidespin forehand deep into your backhand. The pace and depth of the shot and the little room he left you made it very difficult for you to hit your backhand back into his backhand. So Pancho usually got additional forehands which he used to put you into more and more trouble. He might take you still wider on your backhand, he might ram it down the line into your forehand, or he might dropshot you. Of course he did leave you some extra room on his forehand side, but to exploit it you had to virtually half-volley one of his nasty, deep forehands up the line with your backhand – not an easy play. And Heaven help you if you tried it and did not hit a great shot. Your court was open and Pancho would murder you. Only one thing was sure – once he got you on the trolley with his forehand, you were going to do a lot of running.
Pancho’s backhand, by contrast, was sliced. This shot was smooth, deep, consistent and well-controlled, but not big. It was a definite weakness but only the greatest players in the world could take advantage of it. And this had to be done at the net. If you stayed on the baseline with Pancho his backhand was deep enough to keep you from hurting him. Eventually he would get a forehand and your troubles would begin. But if you got to the net on Pancho’s backhand he would have difficulty passing you. He would dink the ball crosscourt, lob it or hit it relatively flat up the line. If you were quick, didn’t miss volleys and had a good overhead you could be effective at the net, but you had to keep the ball on Pancho’s backhand side. If you hit into his forehand you had to hit an awfully good shot or you would be hurt.
I used to play Pancho on fast concrete courts with light balls, so I served and volleyed all the time. This was effective if I got my first serve in, but he was murder when I missed it. I had a good, deep, accurate second serve, (in fact it was one of my better shots), but I simply could not get it to his backhand. He was the quickest guy I ever played at running around his backhand on the serve return. If I missed my first serve Pancho was almost sure to ram a forehand down my throat. And trying to fool Pancho by serving wide on his forehand didn’t work well either. He was awfully good at seeing it coming. I found that my best play against Pancho was to take a little off my first serve, make sure to get it in on his backhand, and try to win with my volley. Pancho Gonzales was one of the few guys that could beat little Pancho consistently and did so because he had such a great second serve that he could get it in to little Pancho’s backhand.
In addition to his incredible forehand, Pancho’s other immense strength was in his court savvy. He knew where you were going to hit every ball before you did and knew where you would be least happy to have him hit the ball. He understood every angle, ploy and percentage down to the last decimal point. If you were ever off balance or out of position you could be sure he would move forward, pick off your next ball in the air, and volley it for a winner before you could recover. He could jerk you around like few others. (I made the mistake of playing Pancho once when I was out of shape and not hitting the ball sharply. He ran me so brutally that at 2 – 4 down in the first set I was so too winded to take another step. With apologies I had to pack up and stagger off.)
Pancho was a very clever and comical guy. He had a way of talking out of the side of his mouth with his heavy Ecuadorian accent and infectious laugh that naturally brought a smile to your face. He was charming and people liked him. He specialized in amusing sexual innuendoes which he could make up for every occasion. He liked women and had a unique knack for saying things that would get the ordinary person slapped in the face and getting away with it. Pancho was lewd, but awfully funny.
He liked to play personal games with people for amusement. For example, he might be hitting with someone and carrying on a line of patter such as, “Great shot! You have a backhand like Budge. The strokes of a champion!” and then turn to a friend watching from behind the fence and whisper out of the side of his mouth, “F…ing donkey. Can’t hit a ball!” He often told people they played like “champions” and, when their egos tempted them to believe him, got a secret laugh out of it. Once we were sitting on the bench after tough practice match and Pancho began telling me how great I was. “Keed, you should be #1 in the world. With your great hands, speed, court sense, no one should beat you. Laver, he quick. He volley well. But he don’t have your talent!” (At the time Laver had won the Grand Slam and was #1 in the world, and I was ranked #8 in the United States. Forgetting about Laver, there was the small matter of the seven guys in the US ranked ahead of me, the other twenty players in the world that regularly beat me, and a few pros that could play a little, like Pancho Gonzales and Ken Rosewall.) I had seen him do it to too many others to fall for it myself. “Oh sure, Pancho,” I said sarcastically. Had I agreed with him I could just picture Pancho walking off chuckling to himself, “What a donkey! Fat ass, no serve, and he thinks he can beat Laver!”