Copy Editor’s Note: This tribute has been a labor of love for Mark. Tony was truly his dear friend, and his passing left an empty place in Mark’s being. He knows how important that friendship was and how it accompanied him throughout his long association with tennis and all that still goes with it. I saw him struggle with emotions that bubbled through those reminiscences that accompanied a real look back at more than fifty years.
I learned to play tennis in 1957 using an old Spalding racquet that my father gave me. My first new one was a Tony Trabert Wilson racquet. I was thrilled. He was my hero. I never dreamed of meeting him one day. Of course, I did – more than once. He was a dear, dear man. He wasn’t aloof. He wasn’t pretentious. He was merely Tony Trabert from Cincinnati, Ohio who had happened on a career that allowed him to be who he was. Mark’s words paint a picture that is an awful lot like a photograph. There is nothing hidden anywhere. It is all about Tony Trabert who was an exemplary human being. And it’s all the truth. – Cheryl Jones, tennis journalist and Mark’s wife.
In 50 years as a tennis journalist, this has been one of the most difficult stories I have ever attempted to write. The reasons are fairly simple. I had to sort through a wide collection of memories going back many years, along with many accompanying emotions.
When I learned that Tony Trabert had passed away at his home in Ponte Vedra, Florida on February 3rd this year, I realized the curtain had closed for the final time with my “Big Three”. They were the most significant people I spent time with during my tennis career. Tennis legend Jack Kramer was the first to depart on September 12, 2009. The Honorable Robert Kelleher, the eternal advocate for Open Tennis, was called away on June 20, 2012. During the first week of this year’s second month, Trabert, at the age of 90, made it a trio.
The group had a brotherly relationship. I became part of the family via good fortune that may have begun, quite simply, as blind luck. I first met Kramer in the 1960s. That led to an introduction to Trabert. I met Kelleher when the US played Mexico in 1963 in a spring Davis Cup tie at the Los Angeles Tennis Club. He was captain of the team and the US won the revered trophy that year. Because of his relationship with Kramer and Trabert, he became a member of a unique group of tennis leaders that, over time, became my cherished friends.
(Some readers may be aware of the career details that follow, but my heart tells me I must include them to sort through the myriad of Trabert recollections, even if they are merely satisfying my own need for continuity.)
Marion Anthony Trabert, the youngest of three sons, was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on August 16, 1930, to Arch and Bea Trabert. The family lived in a home in the Bond Hill section of the city that was a short distance from a park that sported four clay tennis courts. Tony’s brothers, Marc and Douglas, played on the courts there. He tagged along and started playing when he was six.
(In his youth, he was a fan of the local baseball team the Cincinnati Reds. He thought about pursuing a baseball career because he believed he was better in the sport. But tennis, because of the chess-like quality of the competition, proved to be more appealing.)
Records show that local teaching professionals, Earl Bossang and Howard Zaeh, provided the direction that led to Trabert’s solid stroke development. In 1942, at the Tri-State Tennis Championships, the 12-year-old began what would become a life-long friendship with Bill Talbert, who was also from Cincinnati. At that time, Talbert was ranked in the US Top 10, a position he would maintain for 13 straight years. Later that same year (1942), Talbert would team with Gardnar Mulloy to win the first of four US National Doubles Championships at Forest Hills, New York.
Talbert and Mulloy, who are both members of the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, are often included when talk turns to the game’s best doubles tandems. Because of his skill as a volleyer, Talbert helped Trabert improve his net play. It has been said that he felt Trabert was his “tennis doppelganger”, meaning that he was a youngster who was devoted to working hard to become a better player. (Trabert was dedicated to improving and becoming a better athlete. He attended Walnut Hills High School in Cincinnati and played on the basketball team because he believed it would make him more fit and quicker. His commitment led to his winning the Ohio interscholastic singles title three consecutive years.)
Fast forward eight years to 1950. Talbert was the No. 3 player in the US. Trabert, whose game was progressing was No. 12 in the rankings (and, interestingly, he would become No. 3 in 1951). Talbert told the United States Lawn Tennis Association, (the precursor of the USTA), that he and his wife, Nancy, were going to Europe to play the 1950 spring tournaments and he wanted Trabert to accompany them. He went further and asked for “travel expenses” pointing out that Trabert, a sophomore at the University of Cincinnati, in his eyes, was a future star and he wanted Trabert to be his doubles partner. The USLTA turned down the “financial assistance” request. Nonetheless, Trabert traveled with the Talberts and benefitted immeasurably.
(It is hardly a surprise when a tennis association or a federation “misses” a player with potential. But to have been blatantly “off” in the case of an individual, who had the support of Talbert, one of the game’s best at the time and who would go on to have a Hall of Fame career lends credence to a comment made by Kelleher, “It has been true for many, many years that you can’t get to be President of the USTA if you have a track record anywhere else. I have used the harsh expression that the USTA has been dominated by shoe clerks”.)
Kelleher, USTA President in 1967-68, teamed with British tennis officials Herman David and Derek Hardwick to help bring about Open Tennis in the last year of his term. In real life, he wasn’t involved in the shoe business, he was a US District Court Judge, thus his nickname “The Judge”.
(Years later, when asked about the USLTA’s lack of belief in his potential Trabert paused a moment, then after flashing his magical “toothpaste” perfect smile, shrugged his shoulders in “Que Sera, Sera” fashion.)
They – Bill and Nancy, along with Tony – flew to Nice in April. Monte Carlo was the first tournament they played, and they won the doubles. They added to their trophy collections with doubles triumphs at Nice, Internazionali d’Italia, Paris City Championships, Roland Garros and Queen’s Club.
In those days, tournaments offered travel expenses, along with a daily per diem which meant their continued winning minimized their out of pocket expenses. (At Wimbledon, Talbert was loyal and played with his long-time partner Mulloy. They lost in the third round to the Australian duo Ken McGregor and Frank Sedgman 8-6, 8-6, 8-10, 10-8. Trabert teamed with Budge Patty, the American who ended up living in Switzerland and was the 1950 Roland Garros and Wimbledon singles winner. They defeated McGregor and Sedgman in the quarterfinals, 6-4, 31-29, 7-9, 6-2. Geoff Brown and Bill Sidwell, another Australian tandem, were 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 better than Patty and Trabert in the semifinals, and went on to win the doubles title.)
Gianni Clerici, also a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, competed during the time Trabert and Talbert were in Italy, France and Great Britain. Clerici was a top Italian junior and after his days on the circuit became an award-winning journalist, television tennis commentator and playwright.
He has written a library’s worth of books on a variety of topics, but his “The Ultimate Tennis Book” (500 Anni di Tennis), is matchless when it comes to detailing the history of the game and supporting the discussion are many rare photos. In the tome, he wrote, “…But when Talbert arrived in Europe with a new doubles partner and told us that he was the “Lord’s appointed one”. We had no trouble agreeing with him.
Clerici went on to say, “Tony Trabert was the most American-looking individual that one could possibly imagine: hair close cropped like that of a Marine, a handsome, open face sprinkled with freckles, two enormous shoulders and legs thick as pillars. The only hope that we smaller players had was that he might be slow, but once we saw him in action on the court, we gave up the illusion and began to admire the man’s great ability. Like his Australian adversaries, Tony seemed to never get off the courts. One evening after three matches, I saw him politely ask a flabbergasted manager for some new balls in order to review a technical problem once more with Talbert.”
Prior to leaving on his three-month European excursion, Trabert had asked his parents, along with the president of the University of Cincinnati for advice about taking the trip. The educator told the sophomore that he would learn more abroad than he would in school. Upon his return, Trabert admitted that the jaunt was positively eye opening and helped him realize what it took to become an international standout.
Returning to the university in the fall, he juggled his tennis with his schoolwork. He majored in political science. He was also a starting guard on the Cincinnati basketball team. (He was a “playmaker”, not a scorer and good on defense. For him, the highlight of playing basketball was being a member of the team.)
The 1951 squad played in the National Invitation Tournament, (which, in those days, was more highly regarded than the NCAA Championship). On the tennis court in the spring, he won the NCAA singles, was a doubles finalist along with Bob Molt and led the school to second place in the Team Championship. (The University of Southern California finished with nine points to Cincinnati’s seven points.)
He won the 1951 National Clay Court Championships, 6-8, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3, 8-6, defeating Art Larsen. He teamed with Ham Richardson for the doubles title at tournament that was staged in River Forest, Illinois. He was also named to the Davis Cup team for the first time. July 9, 1951, was even more monumental.
In the Tri-State Tennis Tournament (now the Western & Southern Open) final he defeated his mentor Talbert for the first time. The score was 5-7, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4. Later that afternoon, the Cincinnati duo disposed of Grant Golden and Hugh Stewart, 6-4, 6-1 in the doubles final.
Because the US was involved in the Korean War, Trabert was drafted in September 1951. He spent nearly two years in the US Navy, most of it on the Coral Sea, an aircraft carrier that cruised the Mediterranean for six months during his time with the Navy. He worked as a Captain’s Talker on the bridge (relaying orders) but was given liberty to compete at Roland Garros in 1952. (Though he hadn’t been playing, he was the No. 5 seed.) In the fourth round, he faced Felicisimo Ampon, who supposedly was 5 feet 3 inches tall, but in reality, was barely five feet. Nonetheless, the No. 12 seed from the Philippines was a dogged competitor and rarely missed. That day, he didn’t, and he won, 7-5, 6-1, 6-1.
In late June, Trabert had hoped to play The Championships in London. The Naval Department gave him permission, but the captain wouldn’t grant him liberty. Trabert later said that the Coral Sea captain wanted to make sure it was known who was in charge of the ship. (During his time in the Navy, Trabert missed nine of the 11 Grand Slam tournaments that were played.)
He was granted a 30-day furlough during the winter of 1952 to play Davis Cup. In the Inter-Zonal final, played on the grass at White City Stadium in Sydney, December 18-20, Trabert, along with Vic Seixas and Richardson, defeated Italy, 5-0. In the Challenge Round against Australia, it was a completely different story. At Memorial Drive Park, December 29-31, at the grass court complex in Adelaide, the Australian standouts Ken McGregor and Frank Sedgman throttled Trabert and Seixas, 4-1.
This past April, Fred Stolle talked with me from his home in Florida about Trabert, his close friend. “I first met him when I was 13 at the Davis Cup,” he said. “I was one of the ball boys and was small, barely came up to the top of the Davis Cup (when the trophy was on its plinth). He always had a kind word for us. He took care of us and even hit a few balls with the kids.” (Stolle turned 13 on October 8th that year.)
(At the time, the youngster who went on be nicknamed “Fiery Fred” or simply “Fiery”, by his Aussie mates because of his outspoken competitiveness, had no idea that he would have a superlative career that would earn him International Tennis Hall of Fame recognition in 1985.)
In the spring of 1953, Trabert was waiting anxiously to be discharged from the Navy. While “counting down the days…” he focused on doing everything possible to prepare for his return to tennis. Since he was based in San Diego, he was able to garner leave to play “The Ojai” tournament, the oldest tennis competition to take place in one location in the US. It has been staged since 1896 in a picturesque valley filled with orange and avocado groves. The city (Ojai) is north of Los Angeles and inland from the coastal town of Ventura.
Trabert added his name to an illustrious list of Men’s Open Invitational Singles winners that included Bill Tilden, Ellsworth Vines, Jack Kramer and Richard “Pancho” Gonzalez. He defeated Herb Flam then teamed with Bill Crosby to down a brothers’ tandem, Clyde and Glenn Hippenstiel in the Men’s Open Invitational Doubles final. (In 1971, he staged a “home coming” of sorts when he established the Tony Trabert Tennis Camp at The Thacher School in Ojai.)
Two months later, he was granted leave to participate in the USLTA National Men’s Hard Court Championships, June 7-13, at the Salt Lake Tennis Club. Unranked in 1952 because his military obligation didn’t allow him to play many tournaments, Trabert defeated US No. 8, Tom Brown in the singles final, 6-4, 11-9, 6-4. The two then teamed up to win the doubles.
Not only was he a winner on court, he enjoyed more success off it. As a long-time friend of mine explained, “I was running the tournament for David Freed. We had asked girls from the University of Utah, such as Sweethearts of Sigma Chi, etc. to be hostesses and ushers. Shauna (Wood), whom I only knew to say ‘hi’ to at the University, had just become Miss Utah. (She would go on to represent the state in the Miss Universe contest.) I seized the opportunity to get a publicity picture and arranged for a photo of Tony and Shauna, which I still have, with the caption ‘Mr. International Tennis player meets Miss Utah’. It was love at first sight.”
She continued, “There were rain delays during play, so they had time to visit and talk. After the tournament (and dates with Tony over that weekend), she began calling me asking what I knew about Tony and about tennis.
“They saw each other again in Long Beach (California) where the Miss Universe contest was held. Shauna talked her chaperon into letting her eat alone with Tony. Their telephone calls started.
The next time I saw Tony, after he had been discharged, was in Chicago at the 1953 USLTA National Clay Courts Championships in August. That was when I learned he had invited her to come to the tournament (in New York). Her father said she could go, but only if I went with her. I did not know Shauna that well until that time.”
(The USLTA National Championships was played at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, New York from August 29th until September 7th. Trabert realized his “release from the Navy goal” by being ready for the nationals. In the men’s final, he defeated Seixas, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 for his first Grand Slam singles trophy.)
My friend added, “Their telephone courtship started at the end of July. They got engaged at the Nationals in New York and were married October 26th at the Salt Lake Country Club. The reason for the quick wedding was because Tony was going to Australia for the Australian Championships (January 22–February 1) and if they were not married, they would have been apart for months.”
The fact he finished the year No. 1 in the Men’s US rankings made 1953 even more special and established a high level of expectation for the coming season.
Unfortunately, things didn’t get off to a great start. Trabert was seeded No. 2 at the 1954 Australian Championships but he lost to the tricky No. 13 seed, John Bromwich in the second round. After dropping the first two sets, 1-6, 1-6, the Australian, buoyed by the home-crowd’s loud support, used his creative shot making that was bolstered by a telling two-hand backhand to dice through his opponent taking the next three sets, 6-2, 6-3, 6-1. (Years later, Trabert admitted the crowd’s bias bothered him.)
Roland Garros was an altogether different matter. Seeded No. 2 he was too strong for Art Larsen, defeating the No. 12 seed, 6-4, 7-5, 6-l in the singles final to earn the La Coupe des Mousquetaires. He added the Jacques Brugnon Cup to his Paris trophy collection when he and Seixas swept past Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall, 6-4, 6-2, 6-1.
In London, No. 3 seed Rosewall toughed out a 3-6, 6-3, 4-6, 6-1, 6-1 win over Wimbledon top seed Trabert in the semifinals. In a No. 1 Australia versus No. 2 US doubles final, Rex Hartwig and Mervyn Rose downed Trabert and Seixas, 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4.
The defending singles champion and No. 1 seed, Trabert was surprised in the US National quarterfinals by Hartwig, the No. 8 seed, 6-2, 8-6, 2-6, 6-2. In a duplicate of the Paris outcome (with a different score), he and Seixas again defeated Hoad and Rosewall, 3-6, 6-4, 8-6, 6-3 in the doubles final.
The highlight in what had been an ordinary year for Trabert took place in the Challenge Round on the grass courts of White City Stadium in Sydney on December 27-29. (Years later he admitted that, on and off, during the season he had problems with a blister on his right [racquet] hand and on both feet.) Prior to the start of the competition, celebrated Australian Davis Cup captain Harry Hopman told United Press, on December 20, 1954, that Trabert was the No. 1 threat to Australia holding on to the Davis Cup, adding, “While I stick by my predictions that Australia will beat America, 4-1…I cannot overlook the menace this boy poses”.
The outcome was more than menacing. The tie was over in two days. Trabert kicked off play, downing Hoad, 6-4, 2-6, 12-10, 6-3. Seixas duplicated his teammate’s four-set success defeating Rosewall, 8-6, 6-8, 6-4, 6-3. In keeping with the “Four-Set” tie theme, the US duo brought the Cup home with a 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 10-8 victory over the Australian tandem.
Australia made the score appear closer winning both of the “dead matches” as Rosewall defeated Trabert in three sets while Hartwig triumphed over Seixas in four to make the final score 3-2.
(On the first day, a record of 25,578 spectators attended the matches. John Barrett, a former Great Britain player, Davis Cup captain and the long-time dignified BBC voice of Wimbledon, who became a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2014, was in Australia to compete in the upcoming Australian National Championships. He remembered that temporary seats were added to the corners of the White City Stadium Court that “towered up to a terrific height…it was an amazing sight”.
The US – Australia Davis Cup Final crowd record stood for 50 years until the last day of Spain’s 3-2 victory over the US in 2004, when there were 27, 200 on hand at Estadio Olimpico in Seville. Ten years later that total was surpassed at Stade Pierre-Mauroy, Villeneuve-d’Ascq, France. On the first day of the final between Switzerland and France, 27,488 watched. Switzerland ended up winning 3-1. The record was equaled on the final day of the 2017 Davis Cup when France edged Belgium, 3-2 at the same facility.)
The 1955 Australian National Championships began on January 21st and concluded January 31st. Though it was long after the fact, Trabert explained that of all his on-court successes, the White City victory was the most meaningful. He candidly added that the US players were “drained” and [he] wished that they weren’t competing in the first major of the New Year, 23 days after winning the Davis Cup Challenge Round.
“Being weary” (physically and more telling, emotionally) makes even more sense because of the regularly overlooked fact that the US had to contest the Inter-Zonal Final at the Milton Courts (grass) in Brisbane, December 16th-18th. Trabert, Seixas and Richardson whitewashed Sweden (Lennart Bergelin and Sven Davidson), 5-0.
Playing top tennis, after traveling to Australia, was always testing and taxing; particularly, considering that it took the US squad 50 hours (five 10-hour hops) to arrive there. (They ended up spending so much time in the country that had they wanted to, they could have looked into qualifying for citizenship.)
Since readers have been flooded with “Trabert Facts”, I will not go into great detail concerning the Australian National Championships singles outcome at the Memorial Drive courts in Adelaide. Rosewall, the No. 1 seed, defeated Trabert, the No. 4, seed, 8-6, 6-3, 6-3 in the semifinals. Having been the 1953 tournament winner, he picked up his second “home” victory stopping Hoad, the No. 5 seed, 9-7, 6-4, 6-4, in the singles final. Trabert and Seixas outlasted the “Aussie twins – Hoad and Rosewall”, as they were sometimes called, 6-3, 6-2, 2-6, 3-6, 6-1 for doubles honors.
From that point on, the 24-year-old (who would turn 25 on August 16th) had one of the best competitive years ever. In Paris, the top seed defended the title he won the year before downing the No. 11 seed Sven Davidson of Sweden, 2-6, 6-1, 6-4, 6-2. He and Seixas again won Roland Garros doubles, this time subduing the Italian tandem, Nicola Pietrangeli and Orlando Sirola, 6-1, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4.
The Championships in London was the next major and Trabert lived up to being the No. 1 seed. In the singles final, he defeated tournament surprise, the unseeded Dane, Kurt Nielsen, 6-3, 7-5, 6-1.
In his must read “Tony Trabert Obituary” in The Guardian on February 7, 2021, Richard Evans, said of the match, “In his widely acclaimed memoir ‘A Handful of Summers’, the South African player Gordon Forbes describes Trabert’s year. ‘He was unbelievably all-American. Open faced, smiling wide, freckles and a brush-cut. And [he had] massive groundstrokes that came at you like hurled medicine balls. He’d beaten Kurt Nielsen in the Wimbledon final that year. ‘It was like a tank moving infantry, Forbesey,’ said Abe Segal [Forbes’s doubles partner].
‘Trabert was driving the tank. Nielsen machine-gunned him but the bullets just bounced off!”
Neale Fraser and Rosewall, the No. 3 seeded Australian duo, downed the top seeds, Trabert and Seixas, 6-2, 1-6, 6-1, 4-6, 6-3 in the doubles semifinals. (Fraser and Rosewall lost in straight sets to Hartwig and Hoad in the final.)
Prior to the US National Championships, September 2nd-11th, Trabert was on the August 29, 1955, cover of Sports Illustrated. The caption read, “Tony Trabert – The Man To Beat”. The revealing feature was written by Whitney Tower. In the piece, Trabert talked about being proud of the hard work he had done to become a champion, quickly adding that he was grateful for the help his dad (Arch) and Talbert had given him over the years. He candidly remembered the only time he ever thought about quitting tennis was on his 18th birthday (August 16, 1948) when he played his first grass court match at the Newport Casino Invitational, in Newport, Rhode Island and lost to Chauncey Steele of Cambridge, Massachusetts and thought he would never be able to play on the surface.
Because of the success he was having in 1955, there was talk that Trabert had become overconfident, but before the Nationals he explained to Tower that he had “constructive confidence” and was well aware of his capabilities and limitations. He added that his winning didn’t make him lackadaisical and a prime candidate to be upset. “…I approach each tournament and each individual match as though it was the last and most important one, I’m going to play.”
That’s the way he played at Forest Hills. In a No. 1 seed against No. 2 seed final, Trabert closed out a magnificent year by disposing of Rosewall, who had been the one who besmirched his Grand Slam hopes that past January in Australia, 9-7, 6-3, 6-3.
Ordinally, Google is a handy validation tool. In the case of Trabert’s 106-7 singles match record in 1955 being the best in the game’s history, the Internet giant didn’t answer the question. Nonetheless, Trabert put up unrivaled numbers including 18 singles and 12 doubles titles: a 38 match, along with a 10 straight tournament win streak.
At both Wimbledon and the US Nationals he was impeccable, not losing a set in either tournament. (To better understand what Trabert accomplished in better perspective it must be noted that matches for the most part in those days, were the best three out of five sets in both singles and doubles which speaks to his physical and mental prowess.)
Before social media drove tennis acclaim and fame, respect was earned on the court. Gardnar Mulloy, who was lauded after having been ranked in the US Top Ten for 15 years (beginning in 1939), wrote in the October 1955 issue of World Tennis Magazine, that Trabert was “sounder than Hoad and more dominating than Rosewall. He has had a completely astonishing record this year, losing only one big match and two lesser ones”.
In his Sports Illustrated article, Tower asked if Trabert was giving thought to leaving the amateur ranks and playing for money. He honestly explained that he hadn’t received an offer. He added that in the fall he was planning to live in Los Angeles and become a Security Banknote Company representative. He emphasized that he didn’t want to turn pro, then fade away and become a club teaching professional.
Everything changed after he won the Nationals, along with two follow-up tournaments in California – the Pacific Southwest Tennis Championships at the Los Angeles Tennis Club and the Pacific Coast Championships (for the third straight year) at the Berkeley Tennis Club.
Though Trabert possessed “Gentleman’s Quarterly” good looks, which were appropriately augmented by a charming personality, he didn’t act like an entitled elitist. He was humble and enjoyed tremendous popularity, which extended beyond the world of sports. But, with a wife, trying to live on “travel expenses” and “per diem” wasn’t a promising way to establish a solid future. So, he signed for a guarantee of $75,000 and joined the Kramer Pro Tour.
Jack Kramer was a slashing serve and volleyer who tempered his aggressive play with savvy tactics. These traits carried over to his professional tennis promotion efforts. Though I never spoke with Jack or Tony directly about this, it seems that the appeal of the Trabert-Gonzalez tour was “The Golden Boy Versus Mr. Sullen”. Richard, in turn, always felt that Jack “low-balled” him financially when he was the best player in tennis and hated Trabert because he was always portrayed in exemplary fashion and also happened to be Kramer’s good friend.
The Trabert-Gonzalez Tour began December 9, 1955, at Madison Square Garden in New York, and supposedly ended June 3, 1956. Yet, a number of stories have Trabert remembering, “I made $125,000 to play 101 matches on five continents over 14 months…”
Gonzalez won the series 74-27. Most of the matches were played indoors on a quick canvas court that traveled with the players and had to be laid-out on different surfaces from city to city. A closer look at the numbers is revealing. In outdoor play, Trabert led 15-11. The breakdown: five wins each on hard courts; on grass, it was one-one; and Trabert was nine-five better on clay.
Gonzalez, having proved once again that he was the best in the pro game meant another “amateur” was needed to provide a challenge. Rosewall followed Trabert taking on “the champ”, who was 50-26 better than the Australian on the 1956 tour. Hoad was next up in 1957 and finished on the short end of the tour, 51-36. As Gertrude “Gussy” Moran, who was better known for the Teddy Tingling designed lacy panties that she stunned Wimbledon by wearing in 1949 than her playing ability and her intelligence, said that playing Gonzalez on the pro tour was like facing, “A God patrolling his personal heaven”.
With Open Tennis a dream that was still 10 years away, Kramer was forced to recruit top amateur player(s) at the end of each season to maintain interest in the pro tour. Because Trabert was still charismatic, in 1958, he faced the entertaining Pancho Segura (“Segoo”), the banty-legged Ecuadorian, who hit an almost mythical two-hand forehand. (Kramer called it “the single greatest shot in the history of tennis”.)
Gonzalez and Hoad were part of that tour. Trabert defeated Segura, 34-31. Over the next few years, playing a limited schedule, he enjoyed moderate success. After having defeated Gonzalez in 1956, 6-3, 4-6, 5-7, 8-6, 6-2 to win the French Pro Championship at Roland Garros, he claimed the title again in 1959 downing Australian, Frank Sedgman, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.
Trabert, along with Shauna and their two children, Mike, born in 1956, and Brooke, born in 1958, moved to Paris in 1960. In a story I wrote in September 2001, he explained, “When I came to Europe with Bill (Talbert) for the first time in 1950, I played Philippe (Chatrier) at Monte Carlo. I was 19 and he was 21. I won in straight sets, but he always told everyone that I won 10-8 in the fifth set. By his own admission, Chatrier did not have the greatest nerves for competition and that was the reason he moved into the administration of the game.
“When I moved to Paris to run the Kramer Tour in Europe, Chatrier found us an apartment near the Arc (de Triomphe) and gave me an office at Tennis de France (the publication Chatrier began). He also forced me to learn to speak French. He would call up and say he wanted to have lunch and that a friend would join us. I would show up, the friend, who spoke no English, would be there and Phillipe wouldn’t show up.”
Chatrier, a 1992 International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee, passed away June 22, 2000. On Friday, May 25, 2001, prior to the beginning of Roland Garros, Court Central was renamed Court Philippe Chatrier. Reflecting on the honor, Trabert told me, “Philippe, Jack (Kramer) and Donald Dell helped grow the game. They were pioneers in expanding tennis. I remember how he spoke in the late ‘80s about buying additional land around the facility so Stade Roland Garros could expand.
At the time, the tournament had become a second-class status event. But he brought about the changes that have made Roland Garros a fabulous success. Philippe didn’t think about check presentations and sponsor signage. He was a big thinker who saw the big picture. He worked for what was best for tennis.”
Trabert added, “All that Philippe did for the Fédération Française de Tennis (FFT) and the International Tennis Federation (ITF) was done gratis. His long-time assistant Regine Torres told me that he would not be happy with his name on the stadium. He felt that an honor like this should go to people like the legendary Musketeers (Les Quatre Mousquetaires – Jean Borotra, Jacques Brugnon, Henri Cochet and Rene Lacoste) but I don’t agree. I think Philippe Chatrier deserves the recognition.”
(As Shauna’s friend pointed out, “She adored Philippe and since Tony was his close friend, they saw Philippe and his wife, Suzanne Partridge, who had been a British tennis player, a lot during their time in Paris”.)
While in the “City of Lights”, Trabert expanded the Kramer Tour to Africa and Asia, as well as in Europe. In addition, he worked with Lacoste, who following his successful playing career, became even more famous as an inventor and a businessman. Thanks to Trabert’s suggestions, Lacoste’s steel-tube creation, which Wilson named the T2000, became a better playing tennis racquet. Known as “The Crocodile” when he was a competitor, Lacoste designed the popular polo shirt (with that alligator logo) bearing his name. With his GQ good looks, Trabert was an ideal promoter of the fashion trendsetter.
Tall and vivacious, Shauna Trabert found a way to maximize living in Paris. She was one of Coco Chanel’s house models (“mannequins”). The iconic French couturier developed fashion collections specifically for Shauna. Because of her striking appearance, she regularly appeared in Vogue and Elle magazines.
(The early ’60s was an exciting and stimulating time in Paris and the Traberts were the “Golden Couple”. They had pizazz and enjoyed everything the city had to offer. After all, it was Paris.)
The Independent Tennis Players’ Association (a precursor of the Association of Tennis Professionals) was launched in 1962 and Trabert was named the Executive Director. A year later, he signed Rod Laver, who had just become the first player since J. Donald Budge in 1938 to win the four majors in a single season. He then spent six months traveling, (the family remained in Paris), with Laver on his first US tour.
In a September 16, 1963, New York Times story by Robert Daley, Trabert said that he was retiring from the pro tour and as the head of the players group on November 1st. He added that the family was moving back to the US (initially to Cincinnati then Los Angeles) and he would become the regional sales manager for the Adler Company, which made men’s and women’s stockings. The transition was made easier because a close Cincinnati friend was an executive at Adler which was owned by Burlington Industries.
Though he was no longer competing, he remained involved in the game. Having always played with a Wilson tennis racquet (the company began producing an autograph model after he turned pro), and the fact that his friend, Jack Kramer was “Mr. Wilson”, it made perfect sense that Trabert became a member of the company’s tennis promoted team. He had also played an advisory role when Kramer and Chatrier began seriously discussing Open Tennis in 1962.
Kramer told me, “Initially, Philippe thought pro tennis was a circus. Then he came and saw us play in the south of France. Segoo (Pancho Segura) and (Ken) Rosewall went three. Hoadie (Lew Hoad) and I were involved in a deuce set. Segoo and I outlasted the kids 10-8 in the doubles. That night we all went to dinner and Philippe was in the same restaurant. He came over and said ‘I had no idea you cared so much and tried so hard. You opened my eyes’”.
Kelleher, along with David and Hardwick, (the British administrative duo), brought pressure to bear. Finally, the continued effort, almost a “Pay for Play” Crusade, realized success, bringing about Open Tennis in 1968.
(Kelleher, who was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2000, was truly insightful as Stolle brought out. “I should have played doubles with Bob Hewitt. We had defeated Chuck McKinley and Dennis Ralston four times that year but ‘Hop’ [Australian captain Harry Hopman] on the day they were making the team selections told me I didn’t have to be there. ‘Take Pat (his wife) to the beach…’ Roy [Emerson] and Neale [Fraser] played the doubles and lost in four sets to Chuck and Dennis. We lost the cup 3-2. I heard that I hadn’t proved my toughness. It was tough to get on it [the Davis Cup team], but once you did, it was tough to get off the team. Kelleher knew I should have played, and he gave me a pin that members of the winning team receive.) [The tie was played at Memorial Drive Park in Adelaide, on grass, December 26-28, 1963]
Though he hadn’t played a competitive match in five years, Trabert focused on preparing for a return. At 38, after all he had accomplished, he still had the drive. He wanted to have his name in the record book as a participant in the first US Open.
At Forest Hills in 1968, he teamed with Seixas. In the first round they received a walkover against John de Zeeuw of South Africa and Roberto Marcher of Brazil. In their second match, versus Tom Okker of the Netherlands and Marty Riessen, the No. 5 seeds won 3-6, 6-1, 8-6.
In 1970, Trabert received the ultimate recognition – He became a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. At the time, only 64 of the game’s most significant individuals had been so honored. In his case, there was more to his selection than his superlative 1955 showing. Always thoughtful and always well-spoken, interviews from the 1950s make it very clear what made him so exceptional. Here are a few Trabert Truisms:
– He wasn’t the most talented or quickest player, but he focused on making all of his strokes sound so that he didn’t have a weakness. He could consistently compete at a high level and maintain it. He didn’t have ups and downs.
– He was not boastful. He was confident and proud of the commitment he made to become a champion. At the same time, he was keenly aware, when competing, of the importance of balancing strengths and weaknesses.
– His mantra was – Win quickly – nothing bad can happen to you in the locker room.
– He didn’t count wins. All that was important were championships.
– Of all his strengths one that wasn’t regularly touted was his mental strength. Insiders admitted that his mind was his greatest asset.
(The year he was honored at the Hall in ’70, Trabert played the US Open with Dick Savitt. They defeated Sutarjo Sugiarto and Atet Wijono of Indonesia, 3-6, 7-6, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 in the first round and received a second round walkover from the Brazilian duo Thomaz Koch and Marcher. Charlie Pasarell and Erik van Dillen defeated them in the third round, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4.)
As good as the previous year was, 1971 was more fulfilling for Trabert. He embarked on a career as a CBS tennis and golf analysist. For 30 years, most of which he teamed with Pat Summerall, the former New York Giants football player, he was the voice of US Open television broadcasts. In addition, for over 20 years he was a member of the Australian Channel 9 team at Roland Garros and Wimbledon.
The “Tennis Boom” in the US originated in the 1970s. Trabert took advantage of the trend and launched the Tony Trabert Tennis Camp at The Thacher School, (whose most worthy alumnus then was Howard Hughes) in Ojai, California. It was located at the base of the Los Padres National Forest. At the time, it was a private boys boarding school. More important, it had dormitories and 10 tennis courts. (As an aside, Ojai means “Moon” which comes from the Chumash Tribe’s language.)
At the time, I was a fledgling journalist who was freelancing tennis along with wine and travel stories, as well as coaching. (Basically, I was deciding what I was going to be when I grew up.) As mentioned, I had met Trabert in the ’60s. Our paths had crossed from time to time until the spring of 1971 when he offered me a position at the camp.
Annually for many years, thereafter, I lived, for 10 weeks in the early summer, when the weather was very warm, at Thacher. A week was spent getting to know the staff and going over the Trabert way of teaching. Three three-week camp sessions followed that and were open to youngsters from ages nine to 18.
Because of his presence and his easygoing manner, Trabert was an icon, (and that was the reason students came from across the US as well as around the world). Unlike many “name camps” where the “name” was rarely on hand, Tony was always there. What’s more, his approach to teaching didn’t require instructors or students to understand the complexity of the inverse angle of a hypotenuse or for that matter any mathematical gradients. He believed – The simpler, the better. It was all a matter of getting the racquet head (and hand) behind and below the ball and lifting it over the net. The more movement and flourishes that were added, the more errors could result.
In his dealings with the campers and parents (and the staff, too), he was honest, sincere and had a wicked sense of humor. Trabert dealt with people with big money, who sent their children to camp, the same way he did with those who just wanted their youngster to develop a fundamental foundation for his/her game, with concern and care. It was almost as if he was a favorite uncle when it came to his manner of communicating. What he said didn’t require an interpreter. His words had meaning. Yet, thinking back – I still marvel. He was completely egoless. I really believe that those who attended the camps, along with many on the staff, didn’t fully comprehend how great a player he was…To everyone, he was “Tone” or “T2” and he was perfectly comfortable with that.
I, in turn, was “Marko” and looking at mental photos from those days always results in good feelings. The second Sunday of every camp session was “Parents Day” when fathers and mothers would visit. Some had significant celebrity or business status. Many were just “folks”. Most everyone wanted to play doubles with or against Trabert. Occasionally, recent college graduates, who had a brother or sister attending the session and seemed to have majored in “tennis”, would appear. They would strut around the doubles court anxious to take on “The Master” and to prove they were, indeed, players.
It was a foolish move. I never, in all the years that I played with him in these matches, understood why “ego overwhelmed sensibility”. Trabert was so comfortable with who he was, and his game was so complete, he would simply enjoyed the moment…then hit another winner.
On one occasion, we were warming up and I had been attempting to “lift” the ball, so I didn’t drive a barrage of pre-match shots into the net. I had been accomplishing the task, carrying many groundstrokes a foot or so over the baseline.
After we had taken our warm-up serves, Tone turned to me and with a sly grin said, “Marko, you have been getting good depth on your groundies. But, when we play, it is okay to hit them inside the white lines…” I guess I had been tight because I didn’t want to embarrass him by knocking down the net as we got loose. His comment, though, cracked me up and I had a relaxing laugh. (As, it turned out, we won handily no thanks to me. What’s more, he could still “play”. In fact, at the 1972 US Open, he and Seixas lost a tough 6-4, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 contest to Savitt and Sammy Giammalva, Sr. at Forest Hills and this was after preparing by playing doubles every day, during the campers rest period, with one of the counselors against me and another instructor.)
When talk turns to the best backhand of all-time, many purists continue to claim that Don Budge’s was the best. Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland and Richard Gasquet of France have also been recognized. But, for me Trabert’s was top of the line. I wasn’t bad at doubles primarily because off the ad side of the court I could crease cross-court backhand serve returns. Nonetheless, before playing camp visitors, we had a regular routine. (I smile as I write this.) Tone would say, “You know, Marko you have a great forehand so I think you should play the deuce side against these guys…and the first time they serve to your backhand hit it down-the-line at the net man…that will send a message. Then I will see what I can do…” (Of course, he kindly overlooked the fact that my going inside out on a backhand return from that side of the court was something that I had to pray to accomplish…while his play off the ad side of the court was unmatched.)
The Thacher campus is 427 acres in a rustic area covered in trees, grass and wild plants. There was plenty of “territory” for youngsters to explore during their three-week visits. They were warned the first evening at Introductory Night about curfew, daily rest hour and mealtimes. There were a few other rules, foremost of which was staying out of the forest that surrounded the camp because the poison oak and nettles were hazardous. This was stressed again and again.
Yet, for countless campers, the forest became an “it will not happen to me challenge”. On one occasion, a teenage boy and girl were immediately smitten when they checked into camp. They became inseparable, so it was hardly a surprise that they went exploring. The boy ended up with poison oak all over his body and spent the entire three weeks in the infirmary. She didn’t get a case as serious, so her tennis was only somewhat limited. It was hardly a surprise that when Trabert learned about the result of the “hike” in tennis shorts, he told the youngster he could attend the second session at no cost so he could actually play some tennis (and stop being slathered in Calamine lotion).
As my tennis writing assignments increased, I regularly attended the US Open. Whether it was at Forest Hills or at the National Tennis Center (before Billie Jean King’s name was attached) in Flushing Meadow – Corona Park, I was able to spend time with Trabert and Summerall. The last year the tournament was played at the Westside Tennis Club in 1977 offer some wonderful recollections.
Tony and Pat’s friendship went beyond their time in the broadcast booth. On an afternoon during the first week of the tournament, I caught up with them just after they finished broadcasting a match, played on the 14,000 seat-center court. I had been watching the contest and Tony caught my eye as they were signing-off and signaled to meet them at the bottom of the stairs behind the booth.
As they came down from their perch, four boys, who appeared to be between 10 and 12-years-old, came running up. Being true to their youth, they bounced around anxiously waiting for their heroes. Clutching their autograph books and ballpoint pens, they jockeyed for position. Their leader, speaking in a loud voice that was a cross between Vinnie Barbarino’s “Welcome Back, Kotter” character and Barbra Streisand’s Brooklynese, began yelling, “Toe-nee, Toe-nee, ma matha luvs yuh…Pa’t, Pa’t yuh wer’ah dah best kick-a dah Ji’ants (He played football for the New York Giants) eva hadt…” Trabert signed for the first boy who moved to Summerall while boy number two attacked Tony.
We had been planning to get a quick snack because they had matches to call later in the day. Watching the autograph interaction, I started to back away. As I did, the leader of the boys spotted me and figured since I was with Tony and Pat, I must be somebody. Realizing that he was coming toward me I began to backup more quickly. Either I was slow, or he was very anxious to add another autograph to his collection. All of sudden he was on top of me thrusting his autograph book in my face. I told him he didn’t want my autograph. I wasn’t anyone of importance…and continued to backpedal. I glanced at Tony who was signing for the third boy, and he looked over at me, smiled and gave me a – Go ahead – nod.
Embarrassed, I took the book and ballpoint and signed my name. By that time, the second boy was on top of me, and I began to sign again. In the meantime, the kid who had Tony and Pat’s autographs on separate pages in his book turned to mine, looked at it and bellowed – “Mak Win’tah, Hay, Who Dah Hell Ah Yuh?” He then took the page I had signed, ripped it out of his book, tore it into tiny pieces and threw them back at me. By the time my shredded autograph hit the ground, I had begun to laugh. I laughed so hard that I had tears running down my checks.
This happened at the end of the first week of the tournament. During the rest of the event, if we were alone after our conversation had ended, Tony would quietly say – “Hay, Who Dah Hell Ah’ Yuh?” (And it still makes me chuckle.)
Trabert first played the US National Championships just after he turned 18 in 1948. He reached the third-round losing to Earl Cochell, the No. 9 seed, 6-0, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4. (A must mention aside, three years later  the talented but behaviorally erratic Cochell was suspended for life by the USLTA, [which became the USTA in 1975], after a multitude of incidents in a 6-4, 2-6, 1-6, 2-6 fourth round match he lost to Mulloy.)
During his amateur career, Trabert competed at Forest Hills seven times. By 1977, the exclusive Westside Tennis Club, located in a well-to-do neighborhood, had established a tradition. It hosted the championships for more than 60 years. The facility had become antiquated and didn’t have the necessary adjacent property to become a site capable of hosting the expanding Open.
Finding a new location to host the championships’ fortnight had been discussed by USTA officials for some time. But as Kelleher had commented about tennis administrators being “little more than shoe clerks”, nothing was done. That was until William Ewing (Slew) Hester became USTA President in 1977.
Flying into New York for a USTA Board meeting, about to land at LaGuardia Airport, he happened to glance out the airplane window and saw the snow-covered Singer Bowl ruin, (which had become the Louis Armstrong Memorial Stadium in 1973), where the 1964-65 World Fair had been held. Hester was big and bold. He was Babe Ruth in size and like the baseball great, he was fond of cigars and sour-mash whiskey. An all-around athlete in college, his on court skills were first-rate. During his competitive years, he won more than 500 local and national tennis titles. Delightfully candid, he once admitted that he liked to drink all night and play tennis all day.
Being from miniscule Hazlehurst, Mississippi, Hester spoke “Southern” with an accent that was so syrupy he could have been a “Gone With The Wind” cast member. A savvy salesman, he had made a fortune as a “wildcatter”, selling interests in prospective oil wells.
The smooth-talking Hester knew deal making and he was shrewd. He approached the City of New York and negotiated an arrangement for the 16-acre facility that resulted in a $10 million dollar refurbishing by the USTA. Armstrong Stadium was turned into a 20,000-seat arena (the largest in tennis at the time), with a 6,000 seat Grandstand Court alongside, as well as 25 additional courts.
He had promised that Flushing Meadow – Corona Park would be ready to host the 1978 Open. It was…barely. There were a lot of steel girders visible when the tournament began and landscaping was, in reality, not existent. When criticized, he responded in true Hester fashion – “If people want tradition, I’ll plant some ivy”. (It is important to point out that attendance in the inaugural year at Flushing Meadow – Corona Park was 275,300, or roughly 57,000 more than it had been at the Forest Hills farewell.)
By now, those who have continued to read my story are asking – What does this have to do with Tony Trabert? Here is the answer…
Every afternoon prior to the dinner hour, Hester could be found sitting in a corner of “Slew’s Place”, the restaurant/bar named for him at the “new” Open. He would sit there regaling anyone – actually, almost everyone – who passed by with updates on the day’s action.
He and Trabert had a warm relationship. Because of the friendship, Tony (often with Pat) would spend some of his television break time at Slew’s Place. It was a comfortable spot where he could escape, relax and enjoy himself because “Slew” was the show. Tony regularly gave me an “if you are free…” heads up – Meet me in front of the door to Slew’s.
It was like being invited to attend a session of the Tennis UN. Slew simply being Slew held court while “names in the game” circulated. Because of Trabert, I had access. Later in the tournament, when I would show up before he arrived, those monitoring the door would recognize me as “Tone’s doubles partner…” and let me enter. (Though I could add more about my experiences the first year at Slew’s, this story is about Tony Trabert…)
Hester envisioned turning the final major of the year into the best tournament in the world. It was his goal-driven focus. Forty-three years later, it seems he achieved it. Sadly, few remember his name, let alone give him kudos for his foresight.
(Hester was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1981. His biography notes, “The new facility was aptly called, ‘The House that Slew Built’”. He passed away in 1993 at the age of 81.)
From 1976 to 1980 Trabert served as Davis Cup captain. (He also served as playing captain in the 1953 US 5-0 defeat of Japan.) His debut took place at the Margaret Court Racquet Club Ranch, in Tucson, Arizona. Fred Stolle, whose pro career was winding down, was the Director of Tennis at the club. He and his wife, Pat set the “hosting” a big tennis event Gold Standard entertaining those who were on hand for the Davis Cup.
Stolle is an Aussie to the core. In Tucson, he was a wonderful raconteur with a rich and occasionally sarcastic sense of humor. Looking back, he remembered that the club had 30 lighted courts and that the site had been the home of the American Airlines Tennis Games in 1974 and ‘75. Late in the afternoon when it was “cocktail time” the clubhouse windows offered a spectacular view of the countryside. Surrounded by mountains on three sides, the sunsets were always picturesque. He reminded me that those were the days of “clinics…where you could learn to play in 15 minutes…” Another recollection was that Foster’s came in cans that were the size of those that contained Valvoline Oil.
He has fond memories of Tucson not only for the good times he had, but, more important, for the array of friends he made. “Those were the days…” he concluded.
In his initial Davis Cup tie, Trabert’s team defeated Venezuela 5-0. Round II was not as fortuitous. The US lost to Mexico 3-2 at Estadio Rafael Osuna in Mexico City on clay.
(For me, it was another, being in the right place at the right time because, since the meeting, Stolle has become a friend.)
In all my dealings with Trabert, it is hard to remember an instance when I saw him get angry. April 16, 1977, was one of the few exceptions. The US was playing South Africa at the Newport Beach Tennis Club, in Newport Beach, California. For many it wasn’t a question of winning a Davis Cup tie, (which the US did, 4-1), it was tennis facing off against apartheid.
There were banner and poster waving protestors all three days. On Saturday, security was breached. Two individuals jumped a tiny entrance gate and ran on the court during the third set of Bob Lutz and Stan Smith’s, 7-5, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 victory over the South Africans, Byron Bertram and Frew McMillan. They spilled oil on the court that took just short of an hour to clean up.
I watched Trabert as soon as it became clear what was taking place. He grabbed his C-6 Tony Trabert Graphite Racquet and went after the invaders. (Never before, during his time as captain, had he taken his racquet on court with him.) He clubbed one of the men while the police wrestled with the other. Once the skirmish ended, both individuals were handcuffed and taken to jail.
Prior to the tie there had been discussions between USTA officials and those organizing the event about the boycott efforts that were expected, along with worries about physical threats that could result. Both Hester and Trabert made it quite clear that neither they, nor other administrators in game, supported the apartheid practices found in South Africa. But the country had a right to participate in Davis Cup play. Following the doubles match, Trabert said he reacted as he did because he had players on court and would do anything necessary to protect them…
(The 1977 Davis Cup campaign ended at the Buenos Aires Lawn Tennis Club where Argentina defeated the US, 3-2, on clay.)
Three years earlier, during the 1974 Tony Trabert Tennis Camp season, we had occasionally talked about the Watergate investigation. When President Richard Nixon finally resigned on August 8th, Trabert’s reaction was “Tony True”. He was most disturbed by what it meant – For the country. How would the US handle what was taking place? Long before “America First”, became a tainted bully-banner for racism, he admitted winning the 1954 Davis Cup was his most cherished accomplishment because it was a triumph for America. Being responsible, ethical and accountable were part and parcel of his character. That’s why his reaction to the oil spilling didn’t bring about a raving rant. What had taken place was wrong and that was all that he had needed to say…
Trabert played on five Davis Cup teams and the 1954 squad was victorious. In five years as the US captain, he piloted teams to two triumphs. The first was in 1978.
Living in Southern California almost every tennis location is “drivable”. The time it took to get to Newport Beach was almost the same time it required to reach Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage. The location, which was the original home of the men’s tournament that has become the BNP Paribas Open, was the December 8-10 site of the US – Great Britain 1978 Davis Cup final. The only drama in the 4-1 British “skunking” was Buster Mottram’s Lazarus recovery from two sets down to defeat Brian Gottfried in the second match of the tie. The contrast was jarring. Mottram, a provocative talent who was an alt-right supporter before that ideology came into dubious vogue, after leaving the game, went on to become a very successful professional bridge player. He staggered back to claim a 4-6, 2-6, 10-8, 6-4, 6-3 victory over the resolute Gottfried. It was an almost five-hour contest on a very quick hard court.
Lutz and Smith were straight set winners in the doubles and so was Gottfried in his second match. But this was incidental because of John McEnroe’s performance. In two contests, he only lost a mere Davis Cup record setting 10 games (against John Lloyd and Mottram).
As defending champions, the US was up to the test the next year. Throughout his career, Trabert admitted his most bitter defeat took place in Kooyong Stadium in Melbourne, in the 1953 Davis Cup final. He had taken the first two sets but Hoad roared back to claim a 11-13, 3-6, 6-2, 6-3, 7-5 decision. In 1979, a sort of a Deja vu all over again took place at White City Stadium in Sydney. He and Seixas won the cherished trophy there in ’54.
In 1979, Trabert’s lads were 4-1 better than Australia in the Inter-Zonal semifinal. The most noteworthy result was Vitas Gerulaitis of the US taking a page from Mottram and staging a comeback by defeating Australia’s Mark Edmondson in the first match, 6-8, 14-16, 10-8, 6-3, 6-3.
The US faced Italy in the December 14th-16th final at the Civic Auditorium, in San Francisco. On indoor carpet, Italy was crushed 5-0. The victory took his record to 14-3 and it would be the final time Trabert would serve as a winning team captain.
When he was introduced as the new Davis Cup captain in September 1975, Trabert talked about increasing awareness and hopefully the status of the competition that was being pillaged by tennis politics, moneyed interests and players’ increasing self-importance. He and Seixas had defined “team” and he hoped to modernize the concept…trying to do that finally became too much. As Evans said in his Guardian article, “From 1976 to 1980 Trabert led his country to two Davis Cup triumphs as captain – one against Britain in the final at Mission Hills, California – before he started to find the generation gap between a very young John McEnroe and himself a little too wide for his liking”.
Leaving the Davis Cup captaincy in 1980 didn’t mean that Trabert, all of a sudden, had a lot of time on his hands. In fact, he became more occupied. Through the mid-1980s, his summer tennis camp was still a sensation. But that doesn’t tell the actual story. The three three-week sessions, each with 90 youngsters attending, constantly sold out. As the game’s popularity continued to grow, so did his opportunities to provide insight for US Open, Roland Garros and Wimbledon television viewers.
When he was describing what was taking place in a match, he was succinct. I am always reminded when I hear commentators who seem to be paid “by the word” of what he told me long ago – “Let the point tell the story…”
In “Tuning in to Mary Carillo”, a March 31, 2021, story by Mark Preston on the website usta.com, the widely respected sportscaster, discussed her career influences. She told Preston, “Well, I was lucky, because I had listened for many, many years to Tony Trabert and Pat Summerall [of CBS]. To me, those were the voices of tennis – and they were minimalists. They just sort of let the match come to them. So, when I got to sit next to those guys, that was something special. And I learned that if you open your mouth, it better be worth something.”
David May II, the scion of the May Department Store Company was not only a millionaire, he was a tennis fanatic. All six of his children were immersed in the game. During the early 1970s, before he became US Davis Cup captain, Trabert began working with Kathy May when she was 15.
When I was preparing the dinner program biographies for the 2011 Southern California Tennis Hall of Fame, I called Trabert because May, along with Billie Jean King, Pat Canning Todd, Dorothy Head Knode, Franklin Johnson, Dick Leach, Billy Martin and Hugh Stewart, was being honored. He said, “I went to her house (in Beverly Hills) almost every day. There was a court in the backyard, so it was easy to practice. When I first saw her, Kathy had good ground strokes, but she didn’t serve that well and the only time she went to the net was to shake hands after she won a match.”
Trabert was rarely acknowledged for his ability to develop talent and help an individual become a complete player. He accomplished the task with May.
“She worked on her serve and getting to the net,” he pointed out. “During practice, I would encourage her to try different things, like serving and coming in. She would get passed and wanted to stay at the baseline because she was so comfortable hitting groundstrokes. But she continued to work on her serve and volley and in time, it became second nature.”
Trabert, tongue in cheek, added, “David, once said, that ‘I don’t know if she needs you, but I sure do’.”
Before injuries brought her career to an end in 1980 at 24, she was a quarterfinalist at Roland Garros (twice) and the US Open once. She was ranked as high as No. 8 in the world and had victories over Martina Navratilova, Wendy Turnbull and Virginia Wade.
(Over the years, I was fortunate to be able to participate in many of the workout sessions at May’s home. Because of the crème de la crème practice setting, tour names such as Chris Evert regularly showed up. One afternoon I saw the game’s future and didn’t realize it at the time. The player was a stocky lefthander who “punished” every shot. She didn’t have much to say but her playing approach was eye-catching. It was my introduction to Martina Navratilova.)
Television continued to offer an opportunity for Trabert to showcase his talent…and he took full advantage. As was the case when he was a competitor, he was always ready. He prepared notes for every match assignment as if he were a research fellow. What’s more, he was regularly praised for the thoughtful “feel” he exhibited during US Open post-match on-court television interviews.
His interview with Whitney Tower in 1955 indicates why he became so skilled. “I worked hard to become a champion, and it’s something I’m proud of”, he admitted. “Like others who’ve reached the top I’ve had to experience a lot of things-obligations, responsibilities, disappointments, hard work, joy, radio and television shows, clinics and speeches. I know it’s the sort of life I have to accept…”
In 1982, “The Cincinnati Kid” scored again…in a big way. While covering the Tournament Players Championship for CBS in March at Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, he attended one of the PGA event’s social activities and met Vicki Valenti, a local real estate agent. (He and Shana Wood Trabert had divorced in the late 1960s.) Stolle delightfully revealed that she had no idea who he was and being Trabert, he never said a thing about being a tennis great… They married in 1985 and Ponte Vedra became his home. In an interview he said, “We met on March 20, 1982…it’s easy to remember because our zip code is 32082…”
The same year he married Vicki, Steve Flink, the 2017 International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee, wrote an enthralling October World Tennis column. In “A Man for All Seasons”, Flink delved into the game’s need for leadership, a commissioner, if you will. He pointed out that Trabert would be an ideal candidate because he was “the sport’s conscience…”
Then, as today, the game needed an overseer; someone who could skate on the always thin ice that the alphabets – ATP, WTA and ITF – along with the players, national associations, sponsors, agents, et al, combine to maintain. Tennis governance is very tricky. Though tremendously popular and most important – respected – for his integrity, Trabert wasn’t a political insider. He wasn’t beholding to anyone. Naturally, the idea, which seemed very practical, remained…merely an idea, likely because it made so much sense.
Polished and articulate no matter the situation, Trabert was an ideal representative, which was the reason that in 2001, he was named President of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. The selection resulted in universal applause. For 10 years, he chaired the induction and selection committees, earning kudos for being an effective and efficient administrator.
Throughout his life he spoke of Cincinnati as “home”. It was fitting that in May 2006, the university opened the UC Trabert-Talbert Tennis Center. A year later, he and Hall of Fame basketball player, Oscar Robertson, also an alumna, were recognized with Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters.
In 2014, he became the 24th member of the US Open Court of Champions, a walkway with plaques saluting each included individual at one of the entrances to Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Recognizing the legacy of past singles winners was inaugurated in 2003. Supposedly, a ballot is sent to international media members with a list of nominees, and they are asked to rank their top three choices. (The selection process is being revised. From 2003 until 2014, it was done annually then took place in 2016 and 2019.)
After more than 30 years with CBS and more than 20 with Australia’s Channel 9, he moved to the broadcasting sidelines in the mid-2000s. Physically he was no longer the strapping Trabert of his youth, but his mind remained as active as his sense of humor. He told Cincinnati Enquirer contributor Mark Schmetzer in January 2016, “When you’re doing nothing, the problem is you never know when you’re finished…”
A smattering of the recognition he received over the years, in addition to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, include:
1968 – Hamilton County Hall of Fame
1977 – UC Athletic Hall of Fame
1983 – Intercollegiate Tennis Hall of Fame
1994 – William Howard Taft Medal for Notable Achievement (by UC alumni)
2002 – Cincinnati Tennis Hall of Fame
2005 – International Tennis Federation Philippe Chatrier Award
After my years working at the Tony Trabert Tennis Camp, we followed an August 16th routine. No matter where I was, I would give him a birthday call. Prior to his 90th birthday last year, Brooke, his daughter, sent an e-mail asking me, along with many others, to put together a short Happy Birthday video and send it to her before the actual day. I did and from what I have heard the entire tennis community responded extending meaningful birthday wishes. On the day itself, we chatted for quite some time… Being Tone, he was more interested in talking about how I was doing, saying next to nothing about himself and his declining health. Sadly, I had no idea that it would be our final chat.
Stolle called him three days before he passed away, and shared some of the conversation, “I told him, ‘Trabes you’ve been down a break before in the fifth and come back…He told me he was ready to go…”
Each year during Roland Garros, the ITF holds the Champions Dinner. The COVID-19 crisis made it impossible to hold the gathering last year. Stolle was supposed to be the 2020 Chatrier honoree, so this spring ITF President, Dave Haggerty flew to Florida and presented the award, named for Trabert’s dear friend, Philippe Chatrier. After mentioning that he was delighted to receive the recognition at the Williams Island Tennis Club (his club), he returning to talking about his good friend. “Trabes had some good innings…”
Truth be known, he and Stolle shared plenty of good innings… “We roomed together on Somerset Road sharing a house during Wimbledon. It was a short walk to the club. Russ Adams (“Dean” of tennis photographers who was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2007) stayed with us. He was an unbelievable chef. He would go to the market every morning and get things and every night we would have a gourmet dinner”.
(Our conversation switched to Lew Hoad and Stolle brought out that Tony and Lew were very good buddies…they were authentic. You could say anything and always trust that what was discussed would go no further).
Stolle admitted that his friend offered guidance when he (Stolle) first began his television work. He went on to say, “When he was part of the television group (Channel 9), Trabes was so helpful. He was particularly good working with the ‘rookies’ who were just starting”.
Kathy May is much more than the mother of Taylor Fritz. She put in the time to become a player of note and did her utmost to overcome a series of injuries that plagued her. Trabert played a critical role in her life. “I have so many thoughts about Tony,” she e-mailed to me. “He helped me so much in my career. I was so fortunate to have him not only as my coach [during] my entire career but to have him as a mentor and also, best friend. We had a very special relationship. I remember when he would watch me practice or play in a tournament, if I looked at him, I knew exactly what he wanted me to do at that moment. Outside of my family, he knew me better than anyone. He was so very special, and I will miss him tremendously”.
Stolle offered much the same saying, “I’m going to be miss him immeasurably, he was very much part of my life…”
The “Tweet Tributes” following his passing indicated how much he was appreciated and for that matter, loved. A sampling of the thoughts included:
Rod Laver – I’m saddened to hear that Tony Trabert has passed away, a 100% class act in every way. Legendary feats on court, Tony served the game in so many ways with a driving passion for the sport. Goodbye my friend.
Billie Jean King – I am deeply saddened to learn of the passing of one of my heroes, American tennis great Tony Trabert. He was the first athlete I asked for an autograph and I remember the moment at the Los Angeles Tennis Club where he took the time to speak with me. Over the years our relationship grew deeper, and he was a wonderful mentor in tennis, in broadcasting and in life…He was a legend and a friend, and I will miss him.
Todd Woodbridge – Tony Trabert and Fred Stolle are the soundtrack to my childhood watching tennis. Through their passion I fell in love with tennis. Thank you. RIP
For readers who have taken the time to read through my appreciation of Tony Trabert, the end is near…But, first there will be a slight segue. On February 3, 1959, Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and JP “The Big Bopper” Richardson, who were part of “The Winter Dance Party”, a 24-city tour of the US Midwest, were killed in a plane crash outside of Fargo, North Dakota on the way to their next concert venue. Because the trio played an essential role in establishing Rock & Roll, the catastrophe was called “The Day the Music Died”.
When Tony Trabert passed away 62 years later on that same date, figuratively speaking, some of the sweetest music in my life died.
Tony Trabert was a mentor and an example of what I have always striven to be – fair – honest – and real. I hope I have been able to touch on just how unique and special he was to me, and so many others. Simply stated, though I have a good bit of gray in my hair now, he is still my hero…
(Putting together a Tony Trabert tribute required in-depth memory sorting along with caring research help from a number of people. To everyone – A sincere thanks, Marko)
Top photo from Van Wagner Productions
End photo from Getty Images