Art Larsen: Tennis player whose prodigious talents were matched by his eccentricities

 

Long before Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe set foot on a tennis court, Art “Tappy” Larsen created the mould for fiery and successful American left-handers.

In the early 1950s the Californian was one of the game’s best players and most colourful characters. Whether he was winning titles with his inventive game, upsetting crowds with his behaviour or clashing with officialdom, Larsen could never be ignored.

He won the 1950 US National Championships (which later became the US Open) and reached the final of the French Championships (later the French Open) four years later. He was the American No 1 and was ranked in the world’s top 10 several times before a motor accident ended his career.

For all his achievements, Larsen owed much of his fame to his eccentricities, some of which derived from his horrific experiences in the Second World War. His nickname came from the fact that he was forever tapping objects for good luck and he would conduct conversations with an imaginary bird on his shoulder. He also liked beer and cigarettes.

Born of Danish stock, Larsen grew up in a sporting family, his father having been a boxer and his grandfather a baseball player. He started tennis at 11 and at 14 won the first tournament he entered. However, after joining the US Army at 18 he did not pick up a racket for three years.

Larsen took part in the Normandy landings at Omaha Beach, where most of his unit were killed. The young soldier witnessed more horrors during the battle for Brest when half his company died after a strafing and bombing raid. He was awarded four campaign stars and upon his death at 87 he was honoured with a military burial service in California.

Although Larsen survived the war without physical injury, his mental scars ran deep. Wracked with nerves, he was told by a doctor that playing tennis would do him good. At the University of San Francisco his talent quickly became evident. He enjoyed his biggest victory the following year, beating Herbie Flam to win the US National title on the lawns at Forest Hills.

He went on to become the first American man to win national competitions on four surfaces, adding titles on clay, hard courts and indoors. He played in the Davis Cup and lost to Tony Trabert in the French Championships final in 1954. He was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1969.

Larsen relied on skill and invention rather than power. “Larsen will be remembered for a long time for the remarkable control, finesse and touch he brings,” the tennis correspondent of The West Australian wrote. “He has no apparent weakness in any department and makes great use of changes of pace and spin. He appears to know just where to put the ball at any stage and scores many points with soft and drop shots.”

Many players are superstitious, but few had as many quirks as Larsen, who once described himself as “a year-round nervous wreck”, a legacy of his wartime experiences. “All my buddies got killed around me in Europe and you don’t forget things like that,” he said. “It’s a change-over from the fear of getting killed to the fear of losing.”

Whenever Larsen went through a doorway he would tap it with his toe – one tap for Monday, two for Tuesday and so on – and on court he would tap the floor with his foot and racket before serving. He tapped the net, the umpire’s chair, the baseline and even opponents. He chose a lucky number each day and changed his clothes that number of times.

Larsen rarely trained, was a smoker and was once reported to have said that his pre-match diet sometimes consisted of “six or eight beers, two or three hot dogs and pie à la mode”. His on-court behaviour was unpredictable. Having objected to one linesman’s decisions in Melbourne, he hit balls into the crowd, served underarm and eventually walked off court before officials and former players persuaded him to return.

He was the player some fans liked to hate. “At least half the spectators who watch tennis don’t know anything about the game,” he said when asked about Australian crowds. “They just sit and tear you to bits.” He once told reporters in Sydney: “I think your crowd stinks. Print that.”

Larsen upset a crowd in Paris by complaining about a baby’s crying and was suspended by the American authorities after hitting a ball at a ballboy in Genoa. He was such a crowd-puller, however, that the Italians censured the ball boy instead and got Larsen’s suspension lifted. When Larsen was not selected for a Davis Cup tie in Louisville a local official admitted: “If Larsen had been present, we wouldn’t have allowed our kids to be ballboys. It’s no use getting them insulted by a screwball Californian.”

His eccentricities, however, were often tolerated by those aware of his past. If officials became impatient, one of his oldest tennis friends, a committee man on the American governing body, would ask them: “Where the hell were you guys on D-Day Plus-2?” Larsen himself admitted: “Yes, I do get hot under the collar, but I don’t mean to be a bad boy. I’m just human, that’s all.”

His career ended after an accident while riding a motor scooter in 1956. His right leg and hands were badly damaged and he lost sight in an eye and hearing in an ear. His playing days were over, though in his later years he went on to teach tennis.

Although he had a reputation as a womaniser and often attracted a strong following of female fans, Larsen never married or had children. When he died, however, he left behind a companion of more than 30 years, Aline Mestas.

Arthur David Larsen, tennis player: born Hayward, California, 17 April 1925; partner to Aline Mestas; died San Leandro, California 7 December 2012.

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