Commentary

Segura knows the score

Originally Published: September 22, 2009
By Joel Drucker | Special to ESPN.com

The whole idea was that you always played to the score. No different from a pitcher aware of the count or a quarterback attuned to what down it is, a tennis player should constantly understand what the score is -- and how that could dictate strategic options.

In large part, understanding the score is the cornerstone of Hall of Famer Pancho Segura's tennis philosophy. But in a bigger sense, keeping track of where things stand is but a metaphor.

Segura has been well aware of the score since childhood. He was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, in 1921, the oldest of seven children. As a youth, he suffered from rickets, a disease that causes skeletal disabilities such as bowlegs. His family was poor, his father scratching out a living as the guardian of the property for a wealthy man named Don Juan Jose Medina. As fate had it, though, Medina was a member of a local tennis club. Restricted from playing such popular sports as soccer and baseball because of his illness, Pancho took to tennis.

"I taught myself how to play," Segura said. "And I worked at it, day after day, for hours, hitting on the backboard, begging people to play a little bit with me."

During this time, he honed what the late Jack Kramer would once call "the single greatest shot in the history of tennis" -- a devastating two-handed forehand.

By his late teens, Segura was the finest player in Ecuador and was sent to the U.S. As a player for the University of Miami, he would win three straight NCAA singles championships from 1942 to 1944.

Most of all, he threw himself into studying tennis. "It was either get better or go back," Segura said. "And I'd seen these clubs and these rich people and the life they led and knew that tennis was my path. I was driven."

But he was also poor, and while certain Americans of these days had enough financial backing to travel the world as amateurs before abandoning tennis for a white-collar life, Segura needed to turn pro to earn a living. He traveled from continent to continent as a barnstormer -- often playing on everything from ice to cow dung for $50 a night.

"He became so much better as a pro," Kramer said. "His mind and understanding of the game was tremendous."

No one has better understood the geography of the court and the flow of a match better than Segura. "You are trying to draw a short ball so you can attack," Segura said. "You need to understand things like your opponent's grips, his movement, which shots he can hit and which shots he can't."

That premise is just the tip of Segura's strategic iceberg: 30-love is when you can afford to take the chance; 15-30 is when you can't. At 30-30 you better get your first serve in and play close to the vest. On a big point against a net-rusher, it's good to return down the middle -- he can't afford to go for much, so you can pass him on the next shot. Punish second-serve returns so that you make the other guy go for too much on his serve -- and then he'll start missing. Lob a lot early in the match so that you make the opponent aware that you might lob -- and leave a few inches open for passing shots. On and on and on.

For much of the '50s and well into the '60s -- even when he was well past 40 years old -- Segura was one of the best players in the world, going to toe-to-toe with such pros as Kramer, Tony Trabert, Ken Rosewall and Lew Hoad, along with his closest friend on the tour, Pancho Gonzalez. Said Trabert, "Every town we'd go to, there'd be the headliners, but so many times, 'Segu' would be the one who'd win the crowd over."

[+] EnlargePancho Segura
Ralph Crane/Time Life Pictures/Getty ImagesPancho Segura had none of the luxuries that most of today's burgeoning stars are blessed with.

In 1962, Segura became tennis director at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club. A few years later, he would commence a relationship with his most famous pupil, a driven youngster from Illinois named Jimmy Connors. Having been taught exemplary fundamentals by his mother, Gloria, Connors was, in his words, "ready to take my game to the next level." As Caroline Seebohm writes in "Little Pancho," her elegant new biography, "All Pancho's love for the game would now be passed on to his eager pupil, who could hardly wait to follow in the steps of the master."

The court was Segura's classroom, a cocktail napkin his chalkboard, the wise old man showing the youngster every trick possible with drills and practice matches against the likes of himself and Gonzalez on the court, and drawings and discourse off it. By 1974, under the tutelage of his mother and Segura, Connors had become the world's best player. "I could get him in a hypnotic stage," Segura said.

Connors was but one of Segura's many students. In 1970, Segura relocated to La Costa Resort and Spa near San Diego, where for a quarter century he taught everyone from the visiting rich and famous to eager juniors. Just a few years ago, when Connors was coaching Andy Roddick, Jimbo spent more than a few minutes with Segura gaining insights that would help his charge.

In 1991, more than 50 years after coming to the U.S., Segura at last became an American citizen. "I always wanted to become an American," Segura said, "but I was never here long enough. I was always following the tennis ball around the globe. … I'm proud to be an American. Now I can vote. Now I can eat cornflakes and bananas and be a gringo. From now on, I am a U.S. citizen first and a tennis player second."

At 88, his passion for the game continues. "Who's going to win the tournament, buddy?" he'll be asked, at which point he'll issue a cogent explanation about why one player has the goods, why another doesn't -- and which one has a better understanding of how to play to the score.

"People don't get it," Segura said of his beloved sport. "They think that because tennis is played at these clubs that it's a rich man's sport. But it doesn't take more than a racket and a heart to play this game. That's the great thing about a sport like tennis. It's a great test of democracy in action. Me and you, man, in the arena. Just me and you, baby. Doesn't matter how much you have, or who your dad is, or if you went to Harvard, or Yale, or whatever. Just me and you."

Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and the Tennis Channel.