The Sunday lineup of matches at the BNP Paribas Open is a grand feast. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Garbine Muguruza and Karolina Pliskova are just a few of the notables on the menu. Sadly, there’s a man missing from Indian Wells this year who would understand all of these players with a brilliance unlike anyone on the planet.
Pancho Segura, now 95 years old, is living proof of a high compliment tennis folk pay to a select few: He lived his life in the game. Arriving in the US from Ecuador in 1939, Segura became a top amateur in the ’40 and was even better as a barnstorming pro from the ‘50s into the ‘60s, where his first-rate tactical sense earned him the nickname, “Sneaky.” Later, Segura became a coach, most notably to Jimmy Connors. In 1984, he was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
For decades, Segura’s brown skin and white hair made him a magnet for the camera and a frequent, kindly presence at many tournaments. With his distinct, pigeon-toed walk, he’d shuffle onto courts near and far. If there was someone on the field courts that interested him, he’d turn to his mates and say, “Got see if this kid is any good. Got to see if he knows the game. Quick, let’s go.”
To sit within ten feet of Segura during a match was to enter a doctorate-level course in tennis. “Hey,” he’d say to a nearby youngster, or a man wearing a tennis hat, or a flock of league team players, “check out this guy’s grips. That forehand – no way can he hit the ball down the line well with that one.”
From there, Segura was off to the races.
“Why isn’t he running around second serves and punishing ball?”
“Chip charge? You serve more to the forehand, since people don’t do that as well off that side.”
“Move over to return that lefty serve. Make him try and hit it down the T.”
“When you open up the court that way, you should occasionally drop shot the approach.”
“Love the backhand – all day, baby, all day. Pretty good forehand, maybe not too flexible. Serve – questionable.”
And Segura’s eye wasn’t strictly focused on the micro. Frequently, he could spot potential in players that others couldn’t see. In the ‘60s, working with Connors, Segura helped take a scrawny teenaged baseliner, underestimated by many, right to the top. At the 2000 US Open, as he watched Juan Carlos Ferrero beat Roger Federer, Segura turned to a friend and said, “This kid Ferrero is steady, sort of like a Borg. Maybe he’ll win a French Open or two. But this Federer – I could eventually see him having a Pete Sampras-like career.” Ferrero would win the 2003 French Open – his only major. Federer’s epic Slam run commenced a month later at Wimbledon. And even then, as Federer racked up majors, Segura would inquire. Why not come to net more? Go after the returns? Use that drop shot. Come on, practice it baby, right now.
Beyond tactics, Segura’s big picture concepts were powerful: Build as many skills as possible. Always keep the score in mind, for surely you should play differently at 40-love than 15-30. Or at least you darn well better so that you can plant as much doubt in your opponent’s head as possible, doubt as one way to execute another major Segura concept: Tennis is all about applying pressure.
Though not physically present at Indian Wells, Segura’s fingerprints can be seen at this year’s tournament. Guy Fritz is the father of young pro Taylor Fritz – and also, the man who was Taylor’s teacher and coach throughout his development from boy to man. Guy Fritz also worked extensively with Coco Vandeweghe as she came of age. Guy trained and studied with Segura for years. Though he prides himself on his ability to teach the serve – Taylor and Coco both have superb motions that he significantly shaped – he’s lately realized that when it comes to important shots, Segura eventually taught him a major lesson.
Said Guy, “Pancho made it so clear to me. When you’re deep in the third set and each player’s been holding, it’s all going to turn on the return. Who’s going to dig deep at 3-all, 30-all and make a good return?” Segura, long a fan of the penetrating returns struck by Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, was no doubt pleased to see Federer crack bold returns on his way to winning this year’s Australian Open.
Years ago, Segura’s son Spencer told me, “Not everyone has the guts to try all of my dad’s ideas. But for those who do, great things will happen. It’s really so simple with my dad: Work your butt off and pay attention to what’s going on out there.”
Not bad advice inside and outside the lines. That was the kind of advice that took a poor boy from Ecuador and brought him to the pinnacle of a sport Segura loved to refer to as “pure democracy. Doesn’t matter in tennis who your dad is, or how much money you have, or if you went to Harvard or Yale. Doesn’t matter at all – just me and you, baby, in the arena. Just me and you.”
Pancho Segura, you are missed. But you will never be forgotten.