The man who won Wimbledon 50 years ago is coming back to the shrine of tennis this week to celebrate his most memorable triumph. Now a bartender living in California, Vic Seixas is fast approaching his 80th birthday. He looks lean and much younger than his years. His mind is sharp, his outlook positive, his sense of self remarkably good. This congenial American is looking forward to visiting old friends and former colleagues at the All England Club in the coming days.
As he muses: "This is a big year for me with the 50th anniversary. I keep telling everybody that this is a great coronation year for the Queen and me! To me, Wimbledon will always be the crowning jewel in tennis, the one tournament every player would most like to win. It was also the first major that I won so it's really important for me to be there this year."
Recollecting his hard-earned championship run in 1953, Seixas speaks of that occasion with not only pride but also an unfailing memory. An unrelenting serve-and-volley practitioner who was a first-rate grass-court player, Seixas was seeded second that year. The 29-year-old American survived a pair of strenuous five set collisions against Australians on his way to the final, ousting the dynamic No 6 seed, Lew Hoad, in the quarter-finals and overcoming the No 3 seed, Mervyn Rose, after trailing two sets to one against the tough left-hander in the penultimate round. That set the stages for his anticlimactic, straight-sets win over Denmark's Kurt Nielsen.
Seixas asserts: "If Lew Hoad had a great day he could blow you off the court, and he did that to me a couple of times. But I beat him more often than I lost to him just by hanging in and waiting for him to play a bad game. At Wimbledon, I was down 0-40 on my serve at 6-6 in the fifth but I somehow pulled that game out. Then, when he served at 7-8, he was down 0-40, won the next point on a questionable call, and then served two aces in a row to make it back to deuce. But he missed an easy overhead and then double-faulted at match point down and I won 9-7 in the fifth set."
His meeting with Rose was nearly as tumultuous. As Seixas remembers: "Rose was a tough player with his aggressive lefty game. He had me down two sets to one and 3-4 in the fourth. He could exploit me on my backhand side, and I could do the same to him. But in the long run I had an edge on him because my backhand was slightly better than his. Nielsen stood way behind the baseline to receive serve in the final and I just felt there was no way I could lose to this guy because I could always get to the net in plenty of time and he would have a hard time passing me. And that is exactly what happened. But I was lucky in a way because Nielsen had beaten Ken Rosewall, who made me work hard for every point and gave me so many problems over the years."
Buoyed by his breakthrough at the 1953 Wimbledon, Seixas took his considerable match playing skills and inexhaustible competitive drive to other destinations, and came away with worthy honours. In 1954, he captured the US National Championships at Forest Hills with a comeback four-sets win over Australia's Rex Hartwig in the final, he led the US to victory in the Davis Cup alongside the estimable Tony Trabert in Sydney.
Recalling his Forest Hills win, Seixas is typically humble. "Hartwig did me a favour," he points out. "Rex put out both Tony Trabert and Rosewall, and either one of those guys would have been a lot tougher for me to beat than Rex was in the final. In turn, Ham Richardson beat Lew Hoad, and Ham was not as difficult for me to play as Hoad would have been at his best. I got the right draw, but I am not belittling what I did to win the tournament."
Speaking of the Davis Cup triumph - when he achieved a rare win over Rosewall - Seixas said: "Ken had beaten me eight times in a row. At a tournament right before we played that Challenge Round, I said in jest, 'Watch out, Ken, because nobody has ever beaten me nine times in a row.'"
All in all, Seixas was a resourceful and unrelenting competitor, a champion who carried himself across the years with extraordinary grace and durability. From 1940 to 1969, he appeared in his country's National Championships an astonishing 28 times, realizing his full potential over that span, wearing success well, finding it often. Even in his twilight during his 40s when he was a part-time player, Seixas remained formidable.
He explains: "I was physically fit enough to play three or four more years after I stopped competing full-time in 1957, [he narrowly lost to Rosewall 7-5 in the fifth set of the Wimbledon semi-finals that year] but the mental part was getting tougher. But I kept playing some tournaments and I had the sharpness to give good players trouble. I don't think I was ever out of shape and I was very careful to always watch my weight."
In 1966, he toppled the emerging Stan Smith [1972 Wimbledon champion] in a five-set, first-round meeting in New York. "At 43, I was the oldest guy in the tournament that year," remembers Seixas, "and Stan was 19 and had not yet reached his peak. But Stan got cramps in the final set and I was able to beat him. We still joke about that."
Seixas became a stockbroker from the late 1950s until the early 1970s, when he went to work for a resort as director of tennis in West Virginia. He left for New Orleans to take charge of tennis at the Hilton Hotel, then moved to California in 1989. For a few years, he was pivotal in establishing a tennis programme at the Harbor Point Racquet and Beach Club where he makes his home.
As Seixas moved into his seventies, he needed to find an alternative vocation. His knees had become increasingly problematic, forcing him to cease playing even casual tennis in 1998. By then, he had found his new niche as a bartender. "I was probably a frustrated bartender my whole life," says the American.
"It keeps me out of trouble, and it is very convenient," he said. "It is not my profession by choice but I enjoy it because I am just another bump on the log. The people who come in all know me, and I am not looking for the limelight. It is a nice cozy spot for me to be."
Be that as it may, Vic Seixas will reverse roles for a while in London this week. Many of his fellow champions and some that competed against him in his heyday will surely raise their glasses and toast Seixas. They will drink to his elegance and his class, salute him for his stature as one of the élite men who have ruled the lawns of the All England Club, celebrate the man a half-century after his most cherished moment.
"I can't tell you," Seixas says earnestly, "just how great a feeling I had when I won Wimbledon... I had an awful lot of highs as a player, but Wimbledon was the single greatest highlight. If you ask the best players today, they would still say Wimbledon is the one they would most like to have in their bank."
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