LEW HOAD was the greatest amateur tennis player of the 1950s. Some who recall the Australian's brilliant repertoire of shots, his speed around the court and his courage believe that at his best he may have been unequalled in the history of the game. Hoad, however, was rarely motivated enough to produce his best except on the biggest occasions.
He won the Wimbledon singles in 1956 and 1957. He also won in 1956 the Australian and French singles. Thus, he was in line to achieve the Grand Slam at the United States championships that year, but was thwarted in the final by his friend, compatriot and frequent doubles partner Ken Rosewall.
Although there is no doubt Rosewall outplayed him that day, Hoad's disarming nonchalance, which proved to be both a strength and at times a weakness in his champion's make-up, may have contributed to his defeat. He once said that doing the Grand Slam never entered his mind. 'I certainly didn't talk about it to anybody before I went to New York,' he once told me. 'In fact, I wasn't even conscious of the Grand Slam. I remember picking up an American sports magazine with my picture on the cover and the words 'Grand Slammer from Down Under', and not knowing what they were bloody on about.'
The late Ted Tinling gave another example of Hoad's laid-back manner. He recalled visiting him at his London hotel the morning after Hoad had devastated Ashley Cooper 6-2, 6-1, 6-2 in the 1957 Wimbledon final. The champion, who had been roistering the previous night, wore only a towel round his waist as Tinling informed him that the press was raving over his performance. 'They say you were magnificent,' Tinling began before Hoad cut him short. 'What's Peanuts doing today?' he asked, taking one of Tinling's papers and turning to the comic strip.
Retaining the Wimbledon title is the mark of a great champion. In the Open era, which began in 1968, the men who have matched Hoad's feat are Rod Laver, John Newcombe, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Boris Becker, and, the day before yesterday, Pete Sampras.
Hoad was born in 1934, in the working-class Sydney inner suburb of Glebe, the son of a tramwayman. Rosewall, the son of a shopkeeper, was born three weeks earlier. They grew up in tennis together and became known as the Sydney 'twins', though they were very different in physique, personality and style of play. Hoad built up enormous physical strength, especially in his hands and arms, by training at a police boys' club, where he made a name as a boxer. After losing his initial tennis encounters with the more slightly built, more methodical Rosewall, Hoad usually overpowered him.
Hoad was only about 12 when introduced to Adrian Quist, a former Australian champion and then general manager of the Dunlop sports goods company. Quist played a couple of sets with the boy and was impressed by his natural ability. When Hoad was 14 he left school and joined the Dunlop payroll, following the pattern of that 'shamateur' era when most of Australia's brightest tennis prospects were employed by sporting goods companies.
Quist described Hoad as a genius on a tennis court:
He simply hit the ball from any position, any shot, naturally, the way it came to him. He didn't worry about footwork - I don't think he worried about anything much. When the ball came to him he hit it and he hit it hard and well.
Hoad developed into a handsome young man of medium height, blond and blue-eyed. He had steel-like wrists, perfect balance, lightning reflexes and a calm temperament. His serve was deceptive and powerful; he could turn an opponent's splendid return to his feet into a winner of his own with a deft and deep half-volley that he made look simple; and he was able to launch a barrage of winners from groundstrokes and volleys. Rosewall, who lost the 1956 Wimbledon final to him, said: 'A match could suddenly be all over and you were not quite sure what had happened.'
With Rosewall, he first made his mark internationally in 1953; the 18-year-olds won the Australian, French and Wimbledon doubles crowns, capturing the public imagination with their youthful zest and remarkable artistry. In December that year they were involved in one of the most exciting challenge rounds in Davis Cup history, defeating the United States 3-2 at Kooyong. Hoad beat Vic Seixas, the reigning Wimbledon champion, in the first singles. Rosewall then lost to the US titleholder Tony Trabert, and Hoad and Rex Hartwig went down in the doubles to Seixas and Trabert. In a titanic struggle on the third day, in which both players donned spiked shoes to assist their footing as light rain made the grass court slippery, Hoad overcame Trabert 13-11, 6-3, 3-6, 2-6, 7-5. Rosewall completed the triumph with a four-set win over Seixas. Trabert said the Americans had been beaten by 'two babes and a fox', a reference to the wily captaincy of Harry Hopman.
Although the US regained the cup in 1954, Hoad and Rosewall were largely instrumental in Australia's winning it back in 1955 and successfully defending it in 1956. In all, Hoad won 13 major titles in singles and doubles, dominating the game especially in 1956, when he won a total of 15 singles and 17 doubles titles. Yet even in 1956 he never shook off his easy-going ways and sometimes gave the impression that winning wasn't always as enjoyable as quaffing a few beers with his mates. More than one Aussie battler owed a win over the ever-popular Hoad to his opponent feeling bored, distracted - or just sympathetic. Jack Kramer, who recruited Hoad to his professional troupe in 1957, saw him as lazy and half-interested. 'He might have been the best,' Kramer said, 'but day-to-day, week- to-week, he was the most inconsistent of all the top players.'
It was the custom in the Fifties for the top amateur players eventually to turn pro and take on Pancho Gonzalez in a head-to- head tour. Gonzalez defeated them all decisively, except Hoad. In 1958 they were just about even when Hoad's recurring back trouble became more severe, and Gonzalez went on to win the series 51-36. 'When Lew's game was at its peak,' Gonzalez said, 'nobody could touch him.'
In 1955 Hoad had secretly married at St Mary's Church, Wimbledon, Jennifer Staley, a leading Australian player. The ceremony was held a few hours before he played (and lost) the Queen's Club final to Rosewall. There was a furore in Australian tennis when the news broke a few days later. Hoad was in an LTAA team managed by Hopman, while Jenny Staley was a member of the first Australian women's team to be sent abroad for many years; it was managed by Hoad's old mentor Quist. Jenny ended her tour prematurely to return to Melbourne, where she gave birth to the couple's first child, a daughter, later in the year. They subsequently had a son and another daughter.
Hoad's back problems effectively brought his career to an end while he was still under 30, whereas the apparently less robust Rosewall continued to star for many years after the advent of Open tennis and was still playing in a veterans' event at Wimbledon last week. Hoad played sporadically up to the early Seventies, never attaining anything near the heights he had scaled as an amateur. In 1968 he and Jenny established a tennis resort at Fuengirola, Spain, and Lew coached privately and at one time for the Spanish tennis federation. He remained a quintessential Aussie: good-natured but laconic, a man's man, and a friendly host to the thousands of fans and friends who visited his Campo de Tennis to pay homage to a living legend.
Hoad had bouts of ill-health. He was a regular visitor to Roland Garros, though not often seen at the other Grand Slam venues. For a few years he served on an International Tennis Federation panel that chose the official world champion, but otherwise his links with the world of tennis he once graced were minimal.