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Joel Drucker: Once an Outsider, Pancho Segura Moved with Tennis and into Our Hearts

If you start with the premise that the chance to live a life is a miracle, then you’ll understand why Pancho Segura conducted himself with such passion and generosity. This was a man of relentless engagement, for 96 years dedicated to showing anyone he met that the cost of the miracle was nothing more and nothing less than a heartfelt commitment of body, mind and soul.

Born in Ecuador, sick with such diseases as rickets and malaria, raised in a loving but impoverished family, Segura had willed himself to greatness, by the early 1950s becoming the No. 1 player in the world. There followed more than 50 years of life as a player, coach, presence. No one in tennis had run and walked, driven and flown, more miles.

On Sunday afternoon, more than 200 of Segura's friends honored this man who died on November 18. The setting was the Beverly Hills Tennis Club (BHTC), the place where Segura had been the head pro from 1962-1970—the place also where he made a critical choice that changed the course of tennis history.

Beverly Hills Tennis Club. Pause a moment before you conjure up a lush, country club-like setting, of tuxedo-clad valet parking attendants and dozens of courts layered across lawns. Not quite. The BHTC is a cozy five-court club, tucked into a residential area, scarcely visible from the street, its back alleys adjacent to two rather utilitarian apartment buildings. Though the BHTC lineage included past ownership by Hall of Famers Fred Perry and Ellsworth Vines, and its members were unquestionably affluent, they were also, like Segura, historically outsiders—Jews, entertainment industry people like Groucho Marx, Charlie Chaplin, Neil Simon and others from the parvenu-like west side of Los Angeles who had once been unable to join Southern California’s most significant tennis venue, the Los Angeles Tennis Club (LATC).

“There are always two parties,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson. "The establishment and the movement.” The BHTC and Segura were in lockstep on which party they had come from. Movement had taken Segura from poverty to the top. Movement had defined his entire existence—from those small and painful steps he’d taken as a child, to the off-the-charts footwork he’d studied, honed, practiced, refined, inflicted, taught. Movement: to better oneself. Movement: to bring oneself to others.

On this crisp December afternoon, as the sun made its curl west 72 hours prior to the shortest day of the year, Hall of Famers such as Charlie Pasarell, Tracy Austin and Rod Laver spoke about this man who had so uniquely moved them. As a student at UCLA, two miles west of the BHTC, a teary-eyed Pasarell recalled how he and his closest friend, Arthur Ashe, had frequently played with Segura, absorbing his unsurpassed insights into tactics. Austin in her teens had joined her older brother John one Wednesday afternoon a month to work with Segura at the club he’d relocated to in the early ‘70s, La Costa Resort & Spa. She also recalled his charisma, the audience nodding in appreciation of a charming, impish youth who’d aged into a striking, camera-magnetic blend of dark skin and silver hair. Laver had played Segura as a pro and over the last decade, lived near him in the San Diego area.

“I always wanted to sit next to Pancho,” said Laver, “and always listen to what he had to say. I was guaranteed to learn something.”

Others spoke too—rivals, students, family, all enriched by Segura’s kindness, humor and, most of all, heightened awareness of what it took to succeed at tennis and, by extension, life itself. The court was his classroom, the cocktail napkin his chalkboard, Segura unrivaled at drawing point patterns on small, folded pieces of cotton. A big Segura premise: play to the score. Try that big serve at 40-love. Batten down the hatches at 15-30. Even more critical was to know the score not just in tennis. Certainly Pancho always had.

“People don’t get it,” Segura told me more than 20 years ago. “They think that because tennis is played at these clubs that it’s a rich man’s sport. But it doesn’t take more than a racquet and a heart to play this game. That’s the great thing about a sport like tennis. It’s a great test of democracy in action. Me and you, man, in the arena. Just me and you, baby. Doesn’t matter how much money you have, or who your dad is, or if you went to Harvard, Yale, or whatever. Just me and you.”

The tete a tete was Segura’s oxygen. Everyone gathered at the BHTC knew that merely a minute with Segura was 60 seconds they would never forget. Spend time around tennis with Segura—across the net, as his partner, student, or seatmate—and you would engage in scintillating two-way traffic. But when it came to tennis, around Segura, as even the great Laver knew, it was best to take it all in from the master.

Spotting a player—any player, be it beginner or Wimbledon champion—Segura would ask: “What do you make of this guy?” The inspection would happen at warp speed: grips, movement, balance, shot selection, body, mind, fitness. If a stroke didn’t measure up, a frequent Segura verdict: “Questionable.”

At the 2000 US Open, the 79-year-old Segura witnessed a match between two young Europeans. “This kid from Spain,” Segura had said of Juan Carlos Ferrero, “he’s steady, reminds me of Borg. Maybe he’ll win the French.” Spot on, in 2003.

“But this guy from Switzerland. If he gets it together, he’ll have a career like Pete Sampras.” Roger Federer was 19 that afternoon.

Talk, though, was one thing. Action was another. There had been the action of life as a pro, Segura savoring spicy adventures on and off the court at hundreds of venues small and big, be it on cow dung in India, inside a dimly lit Oklahoma arena or in front of royalty. At places like the BHTC and La Costa, there had been the action of lessons for the rich and famous, matches among friends and rivals, a sparkling mixture of competition and banter. Armed with a quick and twinkly wit, Segura kept his students laughing and learning “Why don’t you just take two weeks off,” went a common joke he made, “and then quit?” Then would come the smile and the lesson would continue. These were the lines such past students and Pro-Am partners as singer-songwriter Burt Bacharach fondly recalled at Sunday’s memorial.

But action mattered most to Segura when it was wed to ambition. And never in his near-century on earth did those two forces collaborate more powerfully than in the late summer of 1968, when Segura began to work with a 15-year-old boy who bore a striking resemblance to himself.

Let it be noted that this was also the first year of Open tennis, the game at last unified just enough to finally trigger the bubbling spring of opportunity that Segura and such fellow barnstormers as Laver, Ken Rosewall, Pancho Gonzalez, Jack Kramer and Tony Trabert had long pursued.

No one knew what shape tennis was about to take, but clearly, as one of history’s most lively decades neared its end, as media and money began to take all of sports Technicolor, tennis too was poised to go from acoustic to electric. There was the old money from places like the LATC and the West Side Tennis Club. But there was also now the new money, of ascendant hot spots such as the BHTC, La Costa, Caesars Palace; money from Hollywood, money from Madison Avenue, money—yes, also—from unsavory sources too.

Wise elders such as Segura had the skills, passion and charisma to bring tennis out from the patrician, establishment shadows into the dazzling spotlight. The movement had arrived. Who would lead the revolution?

Like Segura, the boy hit a bold, two-handed shot from the right side of his body. Like Segura, the boy hailed from an area off the traditional tennis path. Like Segura, the boy was hungry, an eager, restless and relentless competitor, keen to soak up every possible insight about a sport he loved with his heart and soul. Like Segura, the boy was undersized and therefore underestimated by the establishment, a perception he would use to fuel himself and light that fire right under his feet every time he stepped on a court and shuffled to one ball after another.

The boy’s name was Jimmy Connors. Within 30 minutes of their first session, on the BHTC back court where Segura gave his lessons, Pancho proclaimed to his son, Spencer: I’ve just seen a future world number one.

What had Segura seen? Beyond solid grips and strokes, techniques Connors had been taught by his mother (a Segura friend back in those adventurous 1940s), Segura spotted in Connors signs of what he himself had possessed. The young boy was a movement player, everything from his feet to sensibility—ravenous ambition and competitive willpower—trademark signs of a kindred soul.

“Jimbo, Jimbo,” Segura once said. “Jimbo I knew would do whatever it took to be the best. He had the guts. I could see it. No one else could. But I could. He wanted to make himself better.”

As Connors stepped to the podium, he too was aware of all Segura had given him. “Pay your respects,” said Connors.

There came a pause.

Had the pause lasted even merely another five seconds, Connors might well have burst into tears.

But Connors and Segura had always kept the plot moving. And so it was that Connors spoke most of all of what Segura had taught him, of how Segura had changed his life forever. Connors’ mother Gloria and grandmother Bertha had done much to propel his tennis journey. Shortly before he relocated to Beverly Hills to work with Segura, Connors had won the national boys 16s title. But now, in that summer of ’68, it was time for the boy to become a man, for Segura to give Connors lessons in tennis and, also, in life.

“Oh, what an influence he was,” said Connors, a smile coming across his face as he recalled many a conversation on the court, over meals and in the BHTC steam room about the topics men talk about in steam rooms. Said Connors, “his mind was always working.” And as everyone at the BHTC Sunday afternoon knew, the mind was powered most of all by the heart. No one had benefitted from all of this more than Connors.

Segura and Connors had conspired in the alchemy of competition, in the transformation of a spindly teenager from a boy who could keep points going into a man who could end them—a fire-breathing dragon.

“There was a special closeness we had in those days,” Segura told me about Connors 25 years after they’d done most of their work together. “Before matches, he used to say, ‘Coach, do you believe in me?’ I said, ‘Jimbo, look, what does that guy do better than you? Does he move better than you? Does he hit the ball harder than you? Does he volley better than you? Then he’d say, ‘No, coach, we’re better.’ I got Jimmy in a state of hypnosis. He was spellbound.”

Soon enough, the whole world would come under that spell. Connors in 1974 became the first man who’d turned pro in the Open era to reach the No. 1 ranking. In large part, the BHTC had served as the Los Alamos testing ground for tennis’ atomic age. Everything contemporary tennis wants its stars to be—shot-makers, personalities, icons, warriors—was commenced on those BHTC days Segura and Connors had spent together. Through ball after ball, drill after drill, point to game to set to match to title to throne, Segura and Connors had not just rode the wave, they’d created it.

“He would tell me that I was the player he would have been,” said Connors.

Another pause.

Again, close enough, but no tears.

Instead, from the man who had repeatedly delivered the emphatic counterpunch—the inspired riposte that would flip the tables—Connors’ closing words: “I am the player that he made.”

There it was, Jimmy Connors, tennis’ resolute lone wolf, well aware of the others—grandmother, mother, Segura—who had taken him from East St. Louis to the pinnacle. Like Segura, Connors saw tennis as a democracy. For Connors, though, that democratic sensibility had often been so pure and raw, so sharply tuned in crisp strokes and competitive fury, that it had frequently come with a painful price tag. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America, “Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.”

But Segura’s life and death had helped even Connors come in from the cold. Beneath the earth was the river. As Segura had demonstrated so vividly, tennis wasn’t an individual sport. It was a relationship sport, its competitors—or, in movement parlance, players—deeply connected to one another in war and love. Segura respected you and the game so much that he would try to beat your brains out. Then, treating you to dinner, he would tell you how he’d done it and what you needed to do to beat him and anyone else along the path of pursuit. If you didn’t, you were wasting the miracle. Isn’t that how life should be, two people, urging one another on inside the arena? Just me and you.

Read more articles by Joel Drucker


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