Just over a week ago, tennis lost a man of unimpeachable stature who loved the game as unabashedly as anyone I have ever known. Pancho Segura believed that nothing mattered more in life than tennis. It was the driving force of his existence, capturing both his heart and imagination fully, becoming a source of endless fascination throughout his productive lifetime. In many ways, tennis and Segura were synonymous; they were inextricably intertwined. The sport has celebrated a diverse cast of exemplary champions across its rich history, and Segura stands tall among the luminaries. But those who knew him well—and I include myself in that category—always understood that what separated Segura from all of the other towering figures was how unconditionally he cared about both the welfare of the game, and the methodologies of those who played it at the highest level.
The only reason Segura is not a household name among most young American sports fans today is because he came to the forefront of the game long before the emergence of Open Tennis in 1968. Only tennis diehards appreciated what an enterprising and prodigious player he was. The cognoscenti knew full well that Segura was a player of extraordinary virtues, a ball striker of the highest order, and a masterful tactician who envisioned patterns and possibilities that other leading players perhaps never imagined. His two-handed forehand was the centerpiece of his game, one of the single greatest shots the game has ever witnessed, and the stroke that turned Segura into a player who not only shined in his era but one who emerged for the ages.
Consider the fundamental facts surrounding Segura's enviable career. Here was a fellow who grew up in Ecuador, and from the very beginning he was up against almost insurmountable odds in his quest to establish himself as a formidable tennis player. As Jack Kramer wrote in his compelling 1979 book "The Game", "He almost died at premature birth, and [later] he had rickets and malaria."
Segura moved past those daunting obstacles and made himself into the champion he would be. He came to the United States, attended the University of Miami, and collected three consecutive NCAA singles titles from 1943-45. Success on that lofty level in the college game set the stage for larger triumphs ahead. Segura made himself a mainstay among the best in the amateur game, finishing no fewer than six seasons among the top ten in the United States, rising to No. 3 in the nation from 1943-45. He captured the U.S. National Clay Court Championships in 1944, won the U.S. National Indoor crown in 1946, and bid farewell to amateur tennis in 1947, moving on deservedly to the professional tour at the suitable age of 26.
In that forum, Segura flourished. In 1950, he toppled the redoubtable Kramer in the semifinals of the U.S. Pro Championships, and then cut down Frank Kovacs in the final. In the 1951 and 1952 finals of that prestigious tournament, Segura eclipsed none other than Pancho Gonzalez, taking the former contest in straight sets, claiming the latter in five. He took those titles on three different surfaces, affirming with that feat his versatility as a player. Having moved into his thirties, Segura was peaking propitiously, but he remained in the forefront of the pro game. From 1955-57, Segura was the runner-up every year at the U.S. Pro Championships, losing all three times to a top of the line Gonzalez, who was then beginning to explore his zenith as a competitor. Meanwhile, at the highly coveted indoor tournament at Wembley in Great Britain, Segura was also a three-time finalist between 1957 and 1960. As late as 1962, when he was 41, Segura made it to the final of the U.S. Pro for the last time, falling against Butch Buchholz.
Segura played on casually early in the Open Era, which commenced in 1968. But by then he was well past his prime, and no longer capable of competing against the sport's upper crust in singles. What a shame that was. If the Open Era had started a decade or so earlier, Segura would have shown the sporting public the full range of his brilliance, and his singular capacity to control the climate of matches with his strategic acumen.
Be that as it may, Segura could be proud of his productivity in professional tennis during those years in the wilderness, when competitors of his ilk were barred from the four major championships that comprised the Grand Slam.
As Kramer recounted in "The Game" on the Segura pro career, "He probably played more matches against top players than anyone in history. Besides my couple hundred, he must have played Gonzalez a hundred and fifty [times], and Budge, Sedgman, Riggs, Hoad and Rosewall fifty apiece. I beat him about 80% of the time [Kramer won a head-to-head pro tour over Segura 64-28 [in 1950-51] and Gonzalez held an edge over him. He was close with Budge. Dinny Pails beat him 41-31 on the Kramer-Riggs Pro Tour, but that was when Segoo was learning how to play on fast surfaces. With everyone else, Segura had the edge against Sedgman, Rosewall, Hoad, Trabert, and McGregor."
More than holding his own against so many accomplished adversaries was immensely significant in many ways, and it was reflective of an outstanding individual who imposed himself every chance he got against estimable opponents. But Segura's contribution to the game transcended his achievements. He was enormously popular everywhere he went, a beguiling figure who represented tennis honorably, and a man who believed wholeheartedly in his profession. As Kramer said in his book, "Not one of the heroes I could mention—not Tilden, Vines, Budge, Riggs; not Kramer—not one of those big shots ever contributed as much to professional tennis as Segura.”
As Segura headed through his forties and on into his fifties, he devoted himself to teaching the game in California, and to coaching. In that capacity, the agility of his mind and the remarkable knack he had for figuring out what it would take for one player to intellectually surpass another on the court, came fully into play. In the late sixties, he started lending his know-how to the teenaged Jimmy Connors, when the young whiz kid of American tennis moved with his mother from Illinois to California.
Pancho Gonzalez was also helpful in sharing his wisdom with the young Connors, but Segura would take on the much more prominent role. In the early years of Connors' pro career—which commenced in 1972—Segura was indispensable. In Connors, Segura saw, to a large degree, the very image of himself. The Connors left-handed, two-handed backhand reminded Segura strikingly of his own right-handed, two-handed forehand.
Although Gloria Connors remained officially and unrelentingly a coach for her son—she had raised Connors on the courts in Illinois from the start, along with his grandmother, "Two-Mom"—Segura instilled more in the young, insatiable player than anyone. When Connors celebrated the banner year of his career in 1974—securing 14 tournament titles, winning 99 of 103 matches, taking three of the four major titles across the season—Segura was front and center as an invaluable ally for Connors.
The following year, when Connors bested Rod Laver and John Newcombe in "Winner Take All" Challenge matches, shown live on CBS television and held fittingly in Las Vegas, Segura sat at court side to coach and confer with his young charge. But Gloria Connors then decided she wanted to let Segura go, much to the chagrin of many in the tennis community. For the rest of Connors' career, Segura steadfastly supported Connors and counseled him informally during tournaments, but he no longer had the same authority. In my view, it was the single biggest mistake Connors made in his entire career, and it may have cost him three or four more major titles. Rather than conclude his career with eight Grand Slam championships, he might well have finished with eleven or twelve had Segura remained the voice he heard above all others.
In his memoir entitled The Outsider, Connors acknowledged that he had shied away from taking a stand when his mother decided she wanted to keep Segura at a distance, and not pay him what he deserved as one of the great strategic gurus the game has ever known. Connors writes in the book, "I don't really know the full details of what went down, other than the fact that Pancho wanted to formalize our association now that there was big money to be made from the Challenge Matches. Pancho felt that he deserved recognition and compensation above the loose arrangements that we always had, and I couldn't fault him for that."
Gloria Connors did not see it that way. As Jimmy Connors explains in The Outsider, "Mom had her doubts about the direction Pancho was taking my tennis. He wanted to work more on my short game, but Mom was convinced my serve and overhead were what needed improving. Whether this was a smoke screen, I can't say for sure, but when the issue of a formal contract with Pancho came up, Mom told him that it was time for a break, and that maybe we could revisit his arrangement after the summer [of 1975].
"Pancho says he didn't take Mom's decision personally, that he was more disappointed than hurt. He compared it to a tennis match, with points won and lost. I hope that's true. After everything that Pancho and I had been through, it must have been hard for him not to see it as a slap in the face. I should have stood up to Mom on that one, but that was easier said than done. I wish I had made it clear that they were equally responsible for whatever success came my way, that they were both geniuses in their own right. Instead, I withdrew and let Mom decide how things were going to be, because that's pretty much how it always went. For a guy who excelled at confrontation on the court, I ran from it elsewhere."
Concluding his thoughts on the matter, and clarifying how the situation with Segura changed over the years, Connors wrote in the book, "There was no one dramatic moment where he picked up his rackets and stormed out; he simply stopped traveling with me. I wanted to think that things were going so well in my career that maybe his absence wouldn't be a big deal. Deep down, though, I knew it mattered."
It mattered monumentally. The fact that Segura stayed on good terms with Connors, and offered his inimitable insights whenever possible before critical contests, was a testament to Segura's character. He would have been justified to walk away, and harbor a lifelong grudge against Connors, but that was not how he operated. I always admired the depth of his loyalty and the decency he exhibited, not only towards Connors, but all of the people who crossed his path in the game of life.
For a brief stretch in 1993, Segura was hired to work with Andre Agassi, but the timing was off. At the end of that year, Agassi would have wrist surgery. He was not in the best of shape, physically or mentally, when Segura was in his corner. They parted ways amicably. Had Segura been able to assist a more mature Agassi five or six years later, the partnership could have been very rewarding for both men on numerous levels. But, in 1993, Agassi was floundering after a breakup with Nick Bollettieri, and Segura never really had a chance to get his message across to a young man with a muddled mind.
Segura, however, kept sharing his wisdom with anyone who would listen, teaching the game, showing up at majors, overflowing with passion whenever he talked about tennis. I met him in 1968 at the Queen's Club in London. It was the day of the final at the pre-Wimbledon tournament, and it was raining. Clark Graebner was scheduled to meet Tom Okker in the men's final. Segura sat down with me in the player lounge and proceeded to fall into his familiar routine.
He grabbed a napkin and started drawing diagrams to show me what Graebner needed to do if he wanted to stop the fleet-footed Okker, and how Okker could counter. I was 16, and yet he treated me like an adult. This was my first of many tactical lessons from Segura that enhanced my knowledge of the game so significantly over the years.
If Segura's primary gift was his towering tennis intellect, his sense of humor was not secondary. I interviewed Pancho for World Tennis Magazine in 1976 out at the La Costa Resort in Carlsbad, California, where he was the head pro. At one point while we sat in the pro shop, I asked him, "Pancho, how would you envision a Connors-Gonzalez match with both in their primes on a hard court?" As I said that, I looked over and suddenly noticed Connors sitting on the opposite side of the pro shop. He interjected, "That's Mr. Connors!"
I was slightly embarrassed, not knowing for certain if Connors was being playful, serious or a mixture of the two. I did not know how to respond, but Segura affably jumped in to ease the tension, smiling widely as he said, "That's right! James Scott Connors!" We all laughed, and I deeply appreciated the way Segura defused a potentially awkward situation with his amusing and generous personality.
Two other memories of Segura from the 1990's spring swiftly to mind. I ran into Pancho at the airport in Paris after the 1997 French Open. We had a nice visit in the American Airlines lounge. He spoke effusively about Guga Kuerten, who had won his first of three crowns at Roland Garros the day before.
And then, out of nowhere, he said, "Steve, you look pretty good for 45!"
I replied, "Pancho, how did you know I was 45?"
He answered, "Because my son Spencer is 45. That’s how I can tell! And you know how old I am? I'm a tiebreaker! [meaning he was 76]."
The last time I saw Pancho Segura was at the 2013 U.S. Open. Rafael Nadal had just ousted Novak Djokovic in the final to claim the title for the second time. As I walked out of the press section to head back downstairs and start writing, I ran into Segura, who was in a wheelchair.
He said, "Steve, Nadal is the best left-hander ever. The best."
That was high praise indeed for the Spaniard. Segura was placing Nadal on a plateau above Rod Laver, Connors and John McEnroe, among others. I spoke briefly with Segura about how much he had enjoyed that tournament, who had impressed him other than Nadal, and how he was doing. Then we said goodbye. I am glad I got that last opportunity to reap the rewards of his wisdom, to drink from the fountain of his knowledge, to share in his unbridled enthusiasm of the game.
He passed away on November 18, at 96. Jack Kramer wrote in his book nearly forty years ago, "There is no one who ever loved the game of tennis as much as Segura." That holds true to this day. I will miss this singularly appealing fellow immensely.