Obituary: Abe Segal, legend of flamboyant tennis

17 April 2016 - 02:00 By Chris Barron


Abe Segal, who has died in Cape Town at the age of 85, was an international tennis star of the 1950s and 1960s and one of the game's most irrepressible characters. His wit and flamboyance as much as his tennis endeared him to fans around the world, not least Peter Ustinov and Sean Connery.In 1951 he beat Guy Jackson for the singles title at the Irish Open. In 1955 he beat third-seeded Rex Hartwig to reach the singles quarterfinals at Wimbledon.He twice made the doubles final of the French Open.In 1958 he and Australian Bob Howe went down to Ashley Cooper and Neale Fraser, and in 1963 he and Gordon Forbes (one of the world top five doubles partners) lost to Roy Emerson and Manuel Santana.Later that year they reached the Wimbledon semifinals and only lost because Segal pulled a stomach muscle just before the game. Forbes felt the title could have been theirs.In 1966 Segal and Forbes played the longest set in a doubles match at Wimbledon, which lasted two and three-quarter hours. They lost it by 30 games to 32 to Alex Olmedo and Pancho Segura and went on to lose the match.Although grass best suited his booming left-hand serve-and-volley game (with its vicious top spin), Segal scored some memorable victories on the slower clay courts.In 1959 he beat Olmedo in the US Clay Court championships soon after the Peruvian had thrashed Rod Laver in just more than an hour in the Wimbledon finals. Olmedo's performance, however, was so listless that at one point in the match Segal yelled at him to "start playing tennis".In 1964, at the age of 33, he beat top seed Arthur Ashe, then 21 and ranked sixth in the US, in the US Clay Court Championships at River Forest. The report of the match in the Chicago Times raved about Segal's "strong, twisting service, tormenting lobs and soft placements" which, it said, "added up to some of the finest tennis in the tournament".Weeks before this Segal had been the centre of controversy at Wimbledon when two Russian players refused to play against him because of South Africa's apartheid policies. Ashe said he would play Segal "any time" because he didn't believe politics had any place in sport.Segal played in 19 Davis Cup ties for South Africa and helped the national team to a number of semifinals. He won five national men's doubles titles with Forbes and Eric Sturgess, and beat Forbes for his only singles title.Segal was born in Johannesburg on October 23 1930. The third child of impoverished Polish immigrants, he was brought up in Doornfontein, then a Jewish ghetto resembling Brooklyn in New York City. Some thought this explained the American twang he shared with his good friend Sol Kerzner, who came from the same area.He was sent to trade school where he began training to be a fitter and turner until he was expelled for being disruptive.He began playing tennis with his mates in the street and found he was rather good at it.He would sit on a roof overlooking the Ellis Park courts nearby, studying the techniques of top players in tournaments and dreaming about a career in tennis. After everyone had gone home, he would jump the fence and hit relentlessly against the wall until it was too dark.According to his account of it, he and a friend stowed away on a ship when he was 14 and made their way to London to play tennis and maybe hit the big time.A couple of years later he returned to South Africa where his talent was noticed and nurtured. He was awarded Springbok colours at the age of 18.He played in the amateur era and travelled on a shoestring, relying on income as a buyer for his father's textile factory, the generosity of rich patrons and the celebrities he befriended - including British Formula One ace and frequent tennis partner James Hunt and film stars such as Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Ustinov and Connery.He and Ustinov became close friends and mutual admirers after the British writer, actor and comedian saw Segal play at Wimbledon, and was amused by his on-court antics. He asked if he would play against him at Queen's Club, which they continued to do whenever Segal was in London.He and Connery played doubles together until Segal hit him on the body with one of his booming serves and Connery suggested they play golf instead.Forbes wrote a popular book about their exploits called Too Soon to Panic. This was the line Segal used when they were practising for a Davis Cup match against West Germany in 1962 and Forbes was stressing about his game."It's too soon to panic," Segal said. "I'll tell you when to panic."They were two sets down in their match against the Germans, Wilhelm Bungert and Christian Kuhnke, and Forbes was about to face a crucial break point from the towering and big-serving Bungert. Segal stopped play, walked up to Forbes and said: "OK, idiot. Panic now!"They won the break and the match, and South Africa went on to win the tie.Forbes got Ustinov to write the foreword for his classic A Handful of Summers. In 2008, Segal wrote his memoirs, Hey Big Boy, and got Connery to write the foreword.After leaving the circuit he became director of tennis at Kerzner's Sun City and discovered a hidden talent as an artist. His work sold well and he was commissioned to paint sporting venues for Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic.He was married to the Bermuda-born tennis star Heather Brewer for 10 years.He is survived by their two daughters and his partner of 25 years, Deborah Curtis-Setchell.1930-2016

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