In a world of muscle bound male tennis players who attack like hammerhead sharks and snarling, equally aggressive women, the following fact might elicit some surprise among younger generations.
Tennis was once played chiefly for fun.
And, as Winston Churchill might almost have said, never was so much fun perpetrated by so few for the enjoyment of so many.
Chief among these pranksters and humorists whose only weapons of engagement were old wooden racquets, were a legendary pair of South Africans, Gordon Forbes and Abe Segal. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, on the clay courts of Rome, Monte Carlo and Roland Garros, not to mention the grass courts of Wimbledon, where strawberries and cream were served as often as tennis balls, these two cavorted and performed.
In Davis Cups of the era, they represented their country with pride and pleasure. They could play, of course; boy, could they play. But they never forgot the fun.
In comedy terms, these two were the Laurel & Hardy of world tennis. Big Abe Segal, as subtle as a sledgehammer, and Forbes, detached, remote, a wry observer of the scene. And the scenes of mayhem and chaos when these two were around, were legendary. Many were chronicled in Forbes’ two brilliant books, ‘A Handful of Summers’ and ‘Too Soon to Panic’. The former, especially, remains a classic of sporting literature.
It all seems so long ago that these two, and their like, were on the rampage in the world’s tennis spots. Like London of the 1960s, when Segal, wearing pink velvet trousers, once picked up an astonished Forbes at the airport in a Rolls Royce he’d borrowed from a British comedy actor of the time. That was the way it was; as they say, if you were there, you can’t remember it.
Johannesburg airport and a hotel lunch table is the veritable world away from all that fun and frivolity. And here’s the next shock – the impish young South African duo from the pages of Forbes’ books, turn up as septuagenarians.
When creaking joints (and a few sore limbs) finally called ‘Game, Set and Match’ on their careers, they threw themselves into other activities with as much gusto as they’d shown at the Foro Italico or Roland Garros. Forbes, now 74, knocked out the odd book before a gentle, social knock-up that preceded lunch; Segal, now 78, plunged into painting.
“Forbsey didn’t take books seriously, either; just like my painting” complained Segal. “I didn’t take my painting seriously, either; I thought it was a big bloody joke. But funnily enough, when I was in the south of France, I walked across to a shop window and there were all these paintings and some guy I was walking with said ‘Christ, these blokes paint the way you’ve been painting, with the same colours’. Only difference was, they were charging $100,000 or more. I said, ‘I should have come to see this guy before’.
“When Forbsey started to do the book, he was just writing down notes in the trains and luckily for us, it was raining all the time. Unusual in England for rain, you know….”
Humour. It’s not just a career-long exposure to the sun that has put creases on the faces of these two. But what of the modern, sour faced lot who dominate world tennis? Big Abe lunges towards that one like it’s a juicy lob that’s fallen short near the net. He hammers it away.
“Now listen, I just think once in a while if they crack a smile it would be good. But the problem is, they’ve got a manager, hairdresser, masseur and secretary and the secretary’s got a secretary. How the hell can they ever smile; they’ve got to worry about paying all the ****ing bills!!
“When we used to play, he was my manager and I was his manager and all we had to do was just get on the court and play and stretch.”
As ever, Forbes offers a delicate, unhurried backstroke to Big Abie’s punchy lunge. “Is it wrong that they don’t smile, don’t have fun today? I think that’s the key question isn’t it” he muses. “Because originally, sport was all fun and now it almost isn’t at all. The one thing that has changed it all is the quantity of money. Once there’s a lot of that you get all this professionalism. If you take tennis as one sport, the variety has gone out of the game. In our day, the top 50 players…..every single one of them played differently and every game was a kind of art form and there was also a great deal of fun, laughter and chatter on the court. Now out of the top 50, 40 play identically when you watch them. There’s no question, the quality of the tennis they play is very good, but it’s all the same.”
Isn’t there a long term price to be paid for that in terms of spectator interest? Forbes thinks so. (Big Abie may or may not agree but he’s working hard giving a steak a good hammering at the time) “You are already seeing it in the fact that there are far fewer people playing tennis for fun. One of the things is the way they play tennis now, with these very exaggerated grips. But it’s almost impossible for the average person to play that way for fun. You could almost say that now tennis is mass produced whereas in those days, it used to be hand crafted.”
Big Abie’s take on the syndrome is, as ever, brutal. “Tennis today is not played by the majority of people because number one, it’s too difficult. And unless you have somebody of the same standard, you can’t enjoy it. That’s why we’re all playing golf; we have more fun out there, even if we’re not as good as our playing partner.
“I try to come along on a Sunday morning and play with these old fogeys…..”
Forbes interjects “We’re all old.”
Big Abie ignores him.
“….and the next day I needed a ****ing crane to get me out of bed, I was so stiff. I couldn’t walk, I must have pulled my groin. I thought I was in good shape. At Sun City (where Segal used to be the resident professional) you gotta see these guys. The Americans….they’d come with six racquets, the best clothing you’d seen in your life and I’d think well, maybe I’ll have a good hit here. You’d say to them, do you play pretty well? And he’d say, well, I’m a 4-8 in America. I don’t know what it means so I’d think well, 4-8, it must be quite good. So I go out there with his six ****ing fancy racquets and everything and the bugger can’t hit the ball over the net. Then he’s complaining that it’s the altitude, or he’s not used to the courts. What do you say?”
Big Abie returns to attacking the steak. But the consequences for the sport could be quite significant?
Forbes thinks so. “It’s already changed a great deal. They’ve mainly separated men and women and reduced doubles to virtually nothing which is a very bad thing. Doubles used to be one of the most popular things in all tournaments. If you could watch Andy Roddick and Leighton Hewitt playing against Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal you’d get the whole stadium packed out. They’ve actually dismembered tennis in that way, they’ve taken it apart. Now you watch men’s singles after men’s singles and they all look the same.
“A large part of the game now is based just on power. Coaches only teach one way of playing and that’s these very heavily top spun shots which you really can’t use in doubles.
“But the fact remains, any of the top 50 players today would have won titles like the French Open in our day. They are just better. There’s no doubt the equipment helps a lot but it’s not only that.”
Segal is scornful. “These people play like robots. They stand so far behind the base line, if they were still playing at Forest Hills (the old US Open venue) they could be eating a hot dog out there, they’re so far back. A guy like Lew Hoad used to stand three feet inside the base line.”
Where also, you might muse, are the South African modern day equivalents of Forbes, Segal, Cliff Drysdale and Frew McMillan? Hard to discern, it seems. “We’re at a bit of a low ebb” admits Forbes. “But it’s a complete mystery why this is. Maybe it’s because there are less tennis clubs and those used to be the breeding grounds for all the young kids.”
The best they knew? Hoad, says Forbes. Better than Rod Laver? “Hoad was much stronger, bigger. They were both magicians but Hoad was the best.”
Segal goes further. “He’s the one player today who you could see beating Nadal or Federer. God, he was strong. To me, Federer and Nadal are two of the only ones worth watching today because they’re so different, so good. If you take them out of the game, you’ve got nothing.”
Well, not strictly true. You’ve still got the characters and the memories. They’re priceless.