Pancho Segura. Watching Ashe massage Connors to death on TV, Segura was angry. He’d worked with Ashe, too, and knew if he was near Connors, he could have given Jimmy the pointers to take control of the match.
Wander into the hills of Carlsbad between 5:30 and 6:35 a.m. and you might encounter a legendary man walking through the streets. He's pigeon-toed, so he'll appear to be walking sideways, but his gait will be fast and nimble. Speed, concentration, and continuous motion are the hallmarks of his business. At 74 his face is distinguished by the vivid contrast of his white head of hair set against dark-brown skin. He descends from the Incas, was raised in Ecuador, and though a U.S. resident since 1940, he only became an American citizen four years ago.
Pancho Segura with Charlton Heston and Pancho Gonzalez. Gonzalez was often moody and uncooperative with promoters and even his fellow players. Segura was able to cajole him into enjoying and appreciating the sport.
By the time he completes his 65-minute walk he will have covered five miles through the hills surrounding La Costa Resort Hotel & Spa, his place of employment for the past 24 years. He has raised two children, filled his garage with three Mercedes, and gained the highest level of respect from five decades of his fellow practitioners. These days, he earns as much in two hours as his father made in an entire year.
By the time he completes his 65-minute walk Segura will have covered five miles through the hills surrounding La Costa Resort Hotel & Spa,
The man is Pancho Segura, tennis player, coach, a sort of "pro emeritus" at La Costa, and most of all, lover of a game that bills itself as "the sport for a lifetime." He is to tennis what ex-Charger coach Sid Gilman is to passing, what Ted Williams is to batting.
Jack Kramer, Bill Rodgers, Segura, Don Budge. Said Segura about Kramer: "He'd go right after my weaknesses. He'd pound my backhand, then make me try to pass him."
Segura's offices at La Costa and at his home are lined with photos. In most of them, his smile is dazzling. Usually he's the shortest one in the picture. He's also the most animated, especially his eyes, as if he wants the camera to know just how much he relishes the situation. "He's the kind of guy that draws the camera like a magnet," says CBS and ESPN broadcaster Mary Carillo.
Segura with Jimmy Connors. “Before matches, he used to say, ‘Coach, do you believe in me?’ I said, ‘Jimbo, look, what does that guy do better than you?"
It's the same quality that in conversation draws him increasingly closer to you as the talk continues. Whether on the court or over a meal or in a Jacuzzi, he relishes taking people under his wing and into his confidence. "Now you tell me, what do you think of this guy?" he'll ask.
Here's a photo featuring Segura with Barbra Streisand. Here he is with a full mane of white hair, a towel wrapped around his neck, wearing a sweater vest with a panther logo, and flanked by two young girls. Here's another with the president of Ecuador. Here he is on an Ecuadorian postage stamp. Here's Ronald Reagan. Charleton Heston. All of them have paid good money for his time and tennis expertise. "Not bad," he once said after 6,000 fans attended a night in his honor at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, "for a guy who started out life on a burro."
All this success is the result of his excellence in a sport once reserved for the elite. Although he has plied his craft in elegant settings, he describes tennis as deceptively austere, grim, and adversarial,” anything but refined. Aficion was the term Ernest Hemingway used to describe the lovers of the bullfights, those passionate insiders who keep their eyes open for talent and understand the subtle interplay of the cape, the matador, and the bull.
In the realm of tennis, Hall of Famer Pancho Segura is the premier aficionado. "If you can't improve with me, keed," he said, minutes before my first lesson with him, "then you've really got a problem."
Several years ago, the Association of Tennis Professionals awarded Segura a championship medallion, which read, "His skill, spirit and enthusiasm helped professional tennis survive its darkest days. As a teacher of tennis, he has few peers. As a player, he was a virtuoso. As a man, he is the friend of all who love this game."
This tenacious love is the reason why, on these morning walks, he fills his mind with thoughts of tennis, wondering which pros might win the next major tournament or why the pros at the top of the game aren't making the most of their talent or why coaches aren't drawing on the game's full arsenal.
For Segura, the game's options are enormous “if you use your head.” At five foot six inches tall, he never had the physical gifts that mark many world-class athletes. Always he engaged his brain, wed closely to his heart and soul. "That was it, keed, my head. Had to use every inch of it to play this fucking game. Had to bust my butt to play with these big boys, he says, pointing an index figure to his temple. "That was the ticket."
Segura has invited me to join him in La Costa's sauna. The rocks are hot. Thick coats of steam envelop the room as I look for him. "Here, keed, over here," he waves to me. Barely able to see one another, we're sitting nude on towels resting over wood benches. Earlier that afternoon, we'd shared a lunch of mushroom soup and chicken salad. As we sat overlooking La Costa's elegant grounds, it was hard to believe anything could ever trouble Pancho Segura.
But in the steam room, he is vexed. It's not the 75,000 shares of stock he's purchased in a fledgling company that's on his mind, nor his desire to sell one of his Mercedes or his upcoming annual trip to Ecuador, where he'll visit his 95-year-old mother. Segura's concern is directed at a doubles game he and I played that morning.
Matched against La Costa tennis director Lynn Lewis and a club member, we lost the first set when Lynn rifled a forehand that hit the net and bounced over my head. Think of this as a broken bat single or one of those fumbles the running back falls on in the end zone for a touchdown. Though Segura and I came back in the second set to earn a draw, he is still troubled by Lynn's luck.
"I can't fucking believe it. How can she hit that? On set point! Five years from now, Joel, baby, I tell you, I'll remember that point. I will, I will, I guarantee it. Shhhi-i-i-i-t." Spend five minutes with Segura, and you'll appreciate the raw eloquence and drama accompanying the healthy use of profanity. It's the profanity of a lover, of a man who relishes nothing more than the lust of competition and the sweat of well-waged battle.
Beads or perspiration pour off us in the steam room. "Let me show you something," says Segura. He grabs my left wrist (I play tennis left-handed) and cocks it high, the fingers pointing vertically in the sky. "This is how you have to hit your forehand volley," he says. Now, turning my hand so the fingers point sideways, he admonishes me. "Don't let the wrist drop below the level of the ball. Keep it above the ball. Don't let it drop. Don't let it drop. Come on, let's take a Jacuzzi."
Every day, Segura relaxes in La Costa's spa, recuperating and regenerating from the 60,000-plus hours he has spent teaching tennis over the last 34 years. Throw in the 30 years before that spent playing the game, and you're probably looking at a man with more heavy-duty court time than anyone in tennis history. "Tennis has had great players and great teachers, but Segura is unquestionably the best player who spent the most time teaching the game, too," says Gladys Heldman, founder of World Tennis magazine and co-author of Segura's 1976 book Championship Strategy.
Strolling through the spa in cushy white terry-cloth robes and plastic slippers, we encounter several fo the "boys" of La Costa. These are the older men who have been around the resort since its salad days in the "70s. Their wealth comes from real estate, finance, entertainment and, in some cases, enterprises best left unexplored.
Twenty years ago, Penthouse magazine examined the sinister connections around La Costa, that enchanting and devilish nexus of Hollywood and the Cosa Nostra. "The bulk of the financing for La Costa since its inception," wrote authors Lowell Bergman and Jeff Gerth, "has come from friends in the scandal-ridden Teamsters Central States Pension Fund." La Costa sued unsuccessfully for libel, with several of the boys taking the stand on its behalf.
"We told them living at La Costa was like living on a college campus, fun, relaxed, and enjoyable," one of the boys tells me in the Jacuzzi. "That magazine had the nerve to say that La Costa was some sort of mob hangout," which, of course, it was.
Segura diplomatically refers to La Costa's founders as "the boys who wanted me to come and build up the tennis. I guess you could say they made me an offer I couldn't refuse. They needed me. When this place started, tennis was a joke."
But one thing that isn't a joke at La Costa is money. True, the heady days of the "70s, when La Costa was the spot for the rich and famous, have passed. What remains is its heavy scent of privilege. The boys are gone. La Costa's new owners, Sports Shinko Company Limited USA, a Japanese real estate group, purchased it in 1987.
"I have spent most of my life around this kind of world and these kinds of people," says Segura. "In many ways, I'm lucky to have such a nice life, so many good times, so many nice days. But I've also spent lots of time hanging around rich fucking assholes, wealthy and famous people who've achieved much. Not all of them I like. Some I do, but far too many fail to be humble. They forget where they've been and think they're some big shot because they have money and can afford to think that their shit doesn't smell. I love to beat people who think that way."
Competition's essential nature is never too far from Segura's mind. The paradox of his beloved tennis is that, unlike such sports as basketball, baseball, or football, tennis is a game that brings the raw odor of competition to life in a way that belies its setting. For all the opulence of lush clubs and post-match chardonnay, for all the designer clothes and shiny rackets, for all the elegance we ascribe to smooth champions like Pete Sampras or Rod Laver, tennis is a rather austere game, a solitary endeavor where success is abetted by healthy doses of distrust and isolation.
Whether in La Costa or Hemet, at the U.S. Open or a local park, tennis is usually played on a utilitarian surface not so different from a parking lot. Playing tennis well requires a monomaniacal concentration and a brutal form of self-confrontation. In golf each player competes with himself against an imaginary level of perfection. But in tennis, success demands a penchant for dismantling an opponent.
"Tennis resembles cockfighting for civilized people," says Allen Fox, a former world-class player and author of the book Think to Win. "The lines, the nice settings, the handshake, and all the rules are just boundaries." Once, matched against a Czech Davis Cup player at a WASP East Coast club, Segura won three straight sets without losing a game. Segura says the opponent was left "so utterly naked" he didn't show up at his club for six months.
Segura believes that "sports are the best true test of democracy and true competition. You get out on a court, and it doesn't matter who your dad is or how much money you have or whether you went to Harvard or what. It's me and you, baby, right here, right now."
Perhaps it is true that someone like me, child of an upper-middle-class Southern California lifestyle, sees sports as yet another social endeavor. Certainly I generate intensity around my matches. Certainly I was ticked off when Lynn's shot tripped the net and went over my head for a winner. But then, unlike Segura, privilege allowed me never to worry much about the outcome of a tennis match.
For Segura the meaning was far greater. "That's where people don't get it," he says. "They think that because tennis is a rich man's sport that the great players are all wealthy. They're not, not at all. People with your background, Joel, that send their kids to college, they want them to go to law school, they have friends in business, they have many opportunities in front of them. Me, I had nothing. That's why every one of those matches means so much to me. When you come from where I come from, it means everything.
Pancho Segura was born on June 20, 1921, In Guayaquil, Ecuador, the oldest child of Domingo and Francesca Segura's nine children (six sisters and two brothers). It was not an easy life. Living in poverty in a city by the ocean. Segura says, "We lived like animals. It was filthy, we were poor, we had nothing." In Carlsbad, Segura proudly shows me his clean, orderly garage. "I hate dirt. I had enough dirt when I was growing up," he says.
As a youth, Segura suffered from rickets and malaria. He had been born with a double hernia, and by the age of nine, his testicles were so inflamed they had to be iced. Surgery soon followed. Segura recalls the 14 stitches used to sew up him and "a feeling that I was so weak I was floating."
Like a character in a Dickens novel, Segura found his lucky break in a man of wealth and breeding. J.J. Medina, an Oxford-educated import-export dealer, was Pancho's godfather, and he sought to make a difference in the lives of the Segura family. A member of the board of the Guayaquil Tennis Club, Medina arranged for Domingo to be hired as a club's caretaker. For this he would be paid $300 a year. "Not only didn't we have a pot to piss in," says Segura, "we didn't even have a window to throw it out of."
But they did have love. "We were like the Jews, clannish, protective of each other, looking out for each other, caring about each other," says Segura. "My parents didn't have money, but they wanted us to succeed."
It would be fanciful to romanticize the Guayaquil of Segura's youth, to imagine young Pancho hustling his way through the quaint streets and sunny cafes. It would be fanciful to imagine the excitement of tourists cruising in on Grace Line ships, or Guayaquil in the "30s as a charming seaside city bursting with cosmopolitan flavor, like some Latin American San Francisco.
"The place was a dump," says Segura. "The best comparison is to a city like Manila. You like that city? Well, to me it's a bunch of crap. Too many people, too many ugly buildings, too much poverty." And worst of all, he says, pointing to the trees covering the hills of Carlsbad, "there was no landscaping, nothing. No one could afford that, and the government barely cared. Every day I'd look at those Grace Line ships and say, "I'm going to get out of this place. I'm going to get out of this place.'"
At the club, Pancho helped his father take care of the grounds, washing towels, fixing nets, fetching precious tennis balls for members. In Latin America, tennis balls were in high demand. A good set of three might last months, quite a contrast to America, where players would discard three balls in two hours.
Weakened by the hernia operation, tennis was the only sport Pancho could play. It created a division between him and his peers. "I liked to be with the boys, playing soccer in the streets," he recalls. "But I couldn't play soccer, and there was no way these poor boys were going to be allowed into the club."
To be a young man tennis player in Latin America in the ‘30s was a million light-years from today's tennis culture. There were no doting parents, no motivational coaches, no endorsements or million-dollar purses.
Tennis was perceived as an elite game for genteel lasses clad in white, V-necked sweaters. While this attitude lingered to some degree all over the world well into the ‘70s, it was exceptionally profound in macho-bent cultures like Segura's Latin America.
"Maricon, Maricon was the term everybody used to call me," says Segura. "It's a mean term for fairy, for sissy. I didn't like it."
Lacking money, lacking social status, lacking even an activity his peers respected, Segura was thrown back on his personal resources. Though it would eventually lead him down the path of fame, status, and wealth, learning to be a good tennis player had nothing todo with those things when he started. For Segura it was all about pride, self-respect, courage , all the values no person can put a price tag on.
Six decades later, Segura's pride is every bit as strong as it was when he first started playing tennis. I've come to La Costa to interview him, but before we start, he waves me into the court.
"Come on, let's play these guys, now," he says.
I demur, pointing to my street clothes.
"So what? We've got to play these guys. They've been talking too much about how they can beat me, I'm sick of hearing their fucking garbage."
Clad in khakis and a polo shirt, I borrow Segura's second racket, warm up for one minute, and start serving.
The duo we're playing are a pair of men in their 60s. As recently as ten years ago, Segura would have toyed with all of us. But now, in his 70s, his ability to move is no longer so sharp. I'm quite nervous.
Our opponents are cagey, which means they're able to adroitly hit shots that land at our feet and go over our heads. Balls are hit with far more spin than pace. This is classic club-level tennis, death by papercut. Unless you're equipped to attack with a vengeance, it's quite easy to lose to opponents who play like this.
Quickly, Segura and I are losing 4-2. Segura's brown eyes stare intensely at the ball. His walk grows determined. "Okay, man," he turns to me, "enough of this. Enough of these guys and their crappy little shots. Let's play."
"How it works," Pancho's son Spencer tells me, "is that when you play with my dad, you bust your butt on every point. It's okay to miss shots, but if you don't try as much as you can, he'll get really pissed."
Our comeback begins. Pancho and I start jelling. My early nerves start to vanish, my feet move better. I'm covering those lobs and hitting solid smashes. "I'm returning big on this one," says Segura, nailing a forehand right down the middle for a winner. We quickly win four straight games and take the set.
"Good, now I don't have to deal with these guys clucking about their victories," says Segura.
Afterwards, I tell Segura that he seemed as eager to win that match as he would a Wimbledon final. I wondered why, at this stage of his life, he's still so motivated.
He went back again to the Ecuador of his youth. "I didn't like being underestimated," he says. "I didn't like people looking at me, this little kid whose daddy worked at the club, and they didn't think I could play with them. Pride, man, it counts a lot."
So little and weak was young Segura that he hit his forehand, a shot customarily hit with one hand, with both hands. Anyone who has taken up tennis after 1975 is likely to hit at least one two-handed shot. But in Pancho's time, such a technique was highly unorthodox.
Ecuador's presence on the global tennis scene was minimal. As Segura jokes," Hell, if you played at all, you were one of the best players in the country."
Still, the teenaged Pancho wasn't taken seriously by the members of the Guayaquil Tennis Club. He persevered, playing tennis every day, working hard on his game, hitting balls against a backboard, scurrying on the courts after hours, begging members to play with him.
"I had to compete, I wanted to play, I loved it," he says. Pausing for a moment, he moves two inches closer to me. "Plus," he says, pointing to his crotch, "I had cojones grandes. Do you know what that means?"
Big balls. Big, big balls.
A day finally came when Segura was regularly beating every player in Ecuador. Because the Guayaquil club was a leisure spot for Ecuador's elite, Pancho's activities caught the eye of the government. It was decided that he would be a poster child for the Ecuadorean government's benevolent spirit. He would be exported to improve his tennis, get an education, and act as an informal ambassador. The year was 1939. Papers were drawn up, passage on Grace Line booked, and young Pancho was set for his journey to France.
Then the war came, so Segura was sent instead to America. "Greatest break of my life," he says. Arriving in Miami, he knew no English. In those days, Miami was not a hotbed of Hispanic culture. About all he knew was Spanish and tennis.
Journeying to the Northeast to play tournaments at venues like Forest Hills, Segura met several of the tennis players who would eventually become lifelong friends. Bobby Riggs, three years Segura's senior, was then the best American player. There was also Jack Kramer, Gardnar Mulloy, Frank Parker, and a host of others.
Most staggering of all to Segura was the slick grass surface at many of these tournaments. The Guayaquil Tennis Club courts used a type of concrete similar to most California courts. When balls strike this surface, the bounce is uniform and fairly high. On grass, bounces are erratic and low.
"I'd never seen a grass court in my life," says Segura. "I was worse than a fish out of water. My footing was bad, it was confusing. I had to put in a lot of work to learn how to play on that surface. These other guys knew what to do on the grass, and they made me look pretty bad. It was humbling."
Entering the University of Miami on a tennis scholarship, Segura bunked with the football team, who teased him ceaselessly about everything from his choice of sport to his size and his skin color. At five foot six and 117 pounds, he was putty in their hands.
"They used to push me around," he says. "They used to do things to me that were unbelievable, calling me names like ‘you fucking brown Indian, playing that stupid sissy sport.' Then they'd lock me in a closet or make fun of me more."
Segura laughs now at these memories, joking about the football players and their classic mix of affection and scorn. But it's clear in talking to him now that even the dormitory experience fueled his engines.
Though he never quite finished the bachelor's degree, tennis legend Billie Jean King once remarked that, "Pancho Segura is the Ph.D. of tennis strategy." Considering the deficiencies in his game that had been uncovered by the American players, he knew he had to work that much harder. Among contemporary tennis aficionados, one of the highest compliments one can pay is to say that a player "lived his life in the game." Segura might well have been the inspiration for this saying.
"No, I didn't think that much then about my degree," he says. "I wanted to become the best in our profession. I wanted to become a tennis man all my life, all my career. I loved it with a passion. I didn't have a goddamned backhand when I came to America. I didn't have any good coaching like you have now. I had a terrible grip on my backhand. All I could do then was run around the court and hit forehands. Oh, man."
"But I started watching, started looking closely at Riggs and Kramer and all those other great players. These guys returned to my backhand every time, so I had to learn a backhand. And my serve sucked then, too. So I worked, every day, every day."
The results came. By 1942 Segura was ranked fourth among American players. In 1942, '43, and '44, Segura won the NCAA singles championship. He remains the only player in college tennis history to have won this title three times. Granted the status of a diplomat, he spent World War II playing tennis, he says.
Yet for all the social tumult wrought by the war, the social mores of tennis were unchanged. It remained an elite sport governed by a 19th-century belief in amateurism. Tournaments were usually played at posh, old line clubs, the kind where the membership's idea of an ethnic was a Lutheran. Typically, a player rose through the junior ranks and then played a combination of either college tennis or tournaments, all for no prize money and a modest reimbursement of expenses from local tennis associations. From time to time, the very top players, a Riggs, a Kramer, would be slipped money under the table. Hundred-dollar bills would find their way into a player's' locker, or a tournament director would wager a C-note that the top seed couldn't jump over a pencil. Generating income this way was quite undependable.
The alternative was to become a professional, earning money from a promoter to play events all over the world. The downside was that when a player became a professional, he or she was barred from playing the game's prestigious events like Wimbledon and Forest Hills.
Because of this schism between amateurs and professionals, the sport was unable to realize any potential for popularity. Even if tennis is associated with elite venues, many of its players actually came from non-elite backgrounds. Kramer, Riggs, Don Budge, and Pancho Gonzalez were among the game's greats who grew up in middle-class California homes. The combination of accessible public parks and year-round sunshine made it easy to take up the sport. "It doesn't have to be expensive to play tennis," says Segura. "Yes, it takes skill but if there're a park and courts, it doesn't necessarily take that much money. People of all income levels can play it."
Yet the powers-that-be running tennis were not eager to popularize the game. For decades, promoters fought, with minimal progress, to let professionals play with amateurs and make tennis "open." This would not happen until 1968.
For some American players, tennis became an easy way to have a good time, earn a few random dollars, and make business contacts. This was quite a common route. Even today, the world of finance is filled with ex-players adept at combining social doubles with investment pitches.
There was no old-boy network or junior position waiting for Segura at Goldman Sachs or Dean Witter. Tennis it had been, and tennis it would be.
By the end of the 1947 season, Segura had established himself as one of America's finest amateurs, albeit not quite at the level of a Forest Hills or Wimbledon champ. He'd won the national indoor and clay titles, earning many trophies for his efforts in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles. At 26 Segura decided to migrate yet again.
Jack Harris of Wilson Sporting Goods ran the pro tennis circuit. His offer to Segura: $300 a week (excluding expenses). The good news was that Segura could earn an honest living. No longer would he be dependent on the caprice of tennis associations. The bad news was that he'd be spending 45 to 50 weeks a year earning it.
Pro tennis in those years was similar to baseball's Negro Leagues. Barred from the major league venues, ostracized by the game's administrations, professional tennis players barnstormed their way around the world.
A typical tour stop might be a hockey rink in Elmira, New York. Like rock "n' roll roadies, the advance crew would arrive that day and roll out the court carpet that had been brought in by station wagon. Then the pros would arrive and begin practice. Then someone might discover that the court was laid over some ice, which made things wet and slick. Or the lights were too dim or the ceiling was too low. Or the distance between the baseline and the back wall was only 18 inches.
Attendance fluctuated wildly. In some towns, there would be a small cult numbering in the hundreds. In nations like Australia, tennis was major league, and crowds usually exceeded 10,000.
Though successful as an amateur, Segura hadn't quite reached the headline generating level of a Don Budge, Bobby Riggs, or Jack Kramer, each of whom racked up titles at Wimbledon and Forest Hills. As the second-tier drawing card, Segura knew his survival was intertwined with his on-court success. As in Ecuador and the University of Miami, he knew there was no safety net for him should he fail. Only by moving forward and becoming a better tennis player could he continue thriving. Moving forward would become the hallmark of his style. It would propel him on the court all the way to the hills over La Costa, where he takes his morning walk. But in the late ‘40s, with a few bucks in his pocket and thousands more on the itinerary, there was no way he could see the future.
Segura's days and nights were spent studying the great players. From Budge, Segura saw how one big shot could dominate a match. Budge possessed a tremendous attacking backhand. It was a compact stroke, hit with a minimum of effort and exquisitely timed. Because of his technique, confidence and footwork, Budge could hit his backhand earlier than most, what tennis folks call "taking it on the rise." This dramatically reduces an opponent's time to respond to another shot. According to one Budge contemporary, "There was nothing subtle about Don. He just pounded you from corner to corner." As Budge had done with his backhand, so Segura would do with his two-handed forehand.
From Riggs, Segura learned the value of strategy. Riggs's strength was his ability to never try for a bigger shot than necessary. He rarely made stupid mistakes. Riggs could
quickly diagnose an opponent. Like Segura, Riggs was shorter than most tennis players, five foot eight. Unlike Budge, he was a counterpuncher, more prone to mix up spins and paces, lobs and angles in an effort to frustrate an opponent.
In Kramer, Segura saw the attacking game at its zenith. Closer to Budge in size, Kramer had worked with an automotive engineer to build a realpolitik strategy that would eventually be dubbed the Big Game, wherein the player follows his serve into the net to hit the ball in the air. This is called a volley, as distinct from letting the ball bounce and engaging in a rally. Coming forward to volley puts tremendous pressure on an opponent. Hit the ball as high as you customarily hit it in a rally and you give the net-rusher a "high ball," an immediate opportunity to end the point. Hit the ball too low, though, and you flirt with hitting it right into the net.
From Budge's big weapon, Riggs's craftiness, Kramer's pressure, Segura continued to build his game around his own set of strengths.
"It was amazing becoming a pro," Segura says. "You'd go from being hot stuff as an amateur to having a guy like Kramer absolutely kill you. He'd go right after my weaknesses. He'd pound my backhand, then make me try to pass him, force me to hit good shots. I knew that the only way I could get off the defense was to build up my offense. That's how we all made each other better players." For the pros, it was frustrating to see the amateur champions copping the big crowns at Wimbledon and Forest Hills. It was an open secret that virtually any pro could destroy those titleholders.
Yet tennis elitists scoffed at the pro game. Much as Olympics czar Avery Brundage disdained professional athletes as "impure," tennis's leaders barely acknowledged Segura and his mates. It was as if the commissioner of basketball ignored the NBA and only rewarded collegiate champions.
"People thought our matches were fixed," says Segura. "Well, let me tell you, when you're playing for an extra $50, and you're not even sure if the local promoter's check is good, you try pretty damned hard."
It was an odd life. Sometimes the mayor rolled out the red carpet, gave away keys to the city, and the players hit balls on the main drag. On another night, Segura and his buddies played in front of 200 people in an arena where lobs vanished between ceiling pillars, the locker room was a nail hammered into a wall for hanging a jacket, and hot-and-cold-running shower water was always negotiable.
When the matches ended, it would be time to roll up the carpet, load it into the car, and drive to the next town. Unfortunately for his colleagues, Segura's driving skills lagged behind his on-court capabilities. "He told us all he couldn't drive," says ex-pro Tony Trabert. "And then while we were driving, he'd be sleeping in the car, resting up for his matches. I swear, Pancho could sleep anywhere."
"Sure, I knew how to drive," Segura says," but not very well. Besides, why did I want to use my all my energy behind the wheel? Kramer, Trabert, those guys loved to drive for hours. So let them drive."
"Well, we finally found out that he could drive," says Trabert. "So we're going from Dallas to Tampa, and we've made Pancho the driver. Then we get into New Orleans, and remember, there was no big freeway back then. "Do you know how to get through New Orleans?' I asked Pancho. "Sure, no problem,' he says. I go to sleep, and an hour later I wake up expecting to be out of Louisiana, and there's Pancho, still driving us all around New Orleans.
"After that, we decided it was best not to let him drive after all."
Night after night, day after day, Trabert, Kramer, Pancho Gonzalez, Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad, Segura, and others would journey anywhere there was a demand for tennis. In India they played on a court made of compacted cow dung. Another time, Segura recalls, they played on a court covered with snow, laid out over an ice rink.
Shoring up his serve and backhand, improving his volleys, Segura became a much more aggressive all-court player. Playing doubles, he came to net much more, worked the court’s many angles, and continued to learn new techniques and strategies from his colleagues. His two-handed forehand was a heat-seeking missile, inspiring respect and fear.
“He could hit it hard, flat, and deep or mix up spins or lob you or just about do anything he wanted to with that shot,” says Jack Kramer. “To this day, I still consider Pancho’s two-handed forehand the greatest single shot in tennis history.”
“A player should be able to hit every kind of shit,” says Segura. “Drives, lobs, drop shots, spins. Too many players are too limited. They hit the ball one way. Well, that’s not going to work against everyone.”
Yet for all his emphasis on variety, Segura repeatedly stressed two points: a willingness to attack and an awareness of the score. No one in tennis history is more knowledgeable than Segura bout these two facets of the game. No one is better than Segura at assessing the geometry of the court and determining the proper game plan for mastering it. “He has an unparalleled ability to see how tennis is like chess,” says Gladys Heldman.
Perhaps the recognition of his humble origins has always made him keenly aware of the score. To forget it for a minute might have resulted in his going back where he had come from, and as he puts it, “There was no way I wanted to go back to Ecuador.”
These were the years when Segura earned his doctorate in on-court strategy and the nickname “Sneaky.” A common scene would find him, minutes before a match, giving one player advice on how to beat the other. Then he’d walk across the locker room and counsel the other guy.
“The name of the game is to draw a short ball from your opponent,” he says. “Then you can attack and force him to hit a tough shot. You’ve got to stay focused to do this and know when it’s right to take a chance and when you should play it safe. You’ve got to know what bugs your opponent and what shots you like to hit. Sure, you can call it sneaky, but it’s just being smart. It’s just paying attention and concentrating as much as you can. When I played, people could be screaming, and I’d completely tune it out.”
In today’s tennis world, players start so young that they often peak by their mid 20s. Segura played his best tennis between the ages of 29 and 39. “He was tenacious and had a great tennis mind,” says Trabert. “He’d never give up; and if he got you on the ropes with that forehand, you were cooked. Somehow you had to find that backhand and press him.
“As we traveled the world, people loved him. He was so popular. ‘Where’s Pancho? Where’s that little guy?’ they’d say. Then you’d play him, and if he beat you with a smart shot, he’d point his finger to his temple, and the crowd would just love it.”
There is only one player Segura could not beat with frequency. Curiously enough, it was a player with a background most similar to his own, the legendary Pancho Gonzalez. Like Segura, Gonzalez came from the other side of the tracks, from a middle-class Mexican family in the Exposition Park section of Los Angeles. While Trabert and Kramer were also middle-class, Gonzalez and Segura’s ethnicity made them exceptional strangers in tennis’s strange land. It also drew them together. Gonzalez, dubbed tennis’s “lone wolf,” was often moody and uncooperative with promoters and even his fellow players. More than any other pro, Segura was able to cajole him into enjoying and appreciating the chance to earn a living playing a sport. “Segura is like a very close older brother to me,” said Gonzalez earlier this year. “When you travel so much, it’s not always that fun. But he had such energy and love for life that I would listen to him talk about anything – tennis, events, politics, poverty. He seemed aware of the world at a young age. This kind of knowledge made my life richer.”
And if Gonzalez could hold grudges against others for decades, toward Segura, he admitted, his “anger never lasted longer than 20 seconds.”
On-court, though, Gonzalez’s beautiful and powerful serve, coupled with his nimble volleying abilities, made him the pro circuit’s best player throughout the ‘50s and early ‘60s.
Which is not to say that Segura didn’t get in his licks. “Oh, he beat me plenty of times all right,” said Gonzalez. “He could be real trouble if I was just a bit off.” In separate conversations, Gonzalez and Segura summoned the memory of the same 1957 grass court event in Sydney, Australia. Down two sets to love in his quarterfinal versus Australian Rex Hartwig, Segura heeded Gonzalez’s advice to put on spikes to gain better footing. Playing brilliantly, Segura fought back to win, but his wrist was throbbing. Gonzalez helped out, massaging his friend’s wrist, getting him treatment from a trainer in advance of Segura’s next match – a semi-final against Gonzalez.
The next day, on the fast grass court that had bedeviled Segura in 1940, Gonzalez sprinted off to a big lead, taking the first two sets. But again Segura dug in, winning the last three sets.
“Boy, I was pissed,” said Gonzalez, laughing. “I’d helped him recuperate and then he beat me.”
The next day, Segura whipped Australian Frank Sedgman in three straight sets. But it’s the wins over Gonzalez he cherished most.
“Gonzalez is the player [that] I would have play for my life,” says Segura. “It’s that simple.”
By the end of the ‘50s, Segura knew that even he couldn’t play tennis forever. Like many pro players, his first marriage lay in tatters. “You can’t be a pro athlete and a husband,” he says. “I’d tell a player not to marry until his career is over.”
Segura married his second wife, Beverly, in 1961, the year he significantly curtailed his pro career. He was 40, had risen to the game’s highest levels, and had netted only $15,000 for his efforts. By the time his playing days were over, Pancho Segura was arguably the greatest tennis player ever seen by the fewest number of people, as if he were some kind of racket-toting version of Negro League stars Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige.
Even after 20 years in America and touring the world and meeting kings, queens, the rich and famous, Segura was still keenly aware of where he’d come from and what that meant. Tennis’s white American champions – Budge, Riggs, Kramer, Trabert – easily slid into the world of business, working as promoters or salesmen and wisely building off their celebrity. True, tennis wasn’t a big sport, but it was a cozy niche for the wealthy. As a Madison Avenue executive once remarked, “It’s a sport that’s demographically blessed.”
The game’s brown-skinned greats – Segura, Gonzalez, and, later, Peruvian Alex Olmedo – continued to make their livings on the court as tennis directors. For Segura and Olmedo, this translated into thousands of hours teaching tennis. “Let’s say I made my living through tennis, the hard way,” says Segura. “But a good living it’s been, and I don’t resent a thing about it.”
During the ‘60s, Segura was the head tennis pro at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club. An intimate club tucked into a residential neighborhood, it was founded in the ‘30s by tennis greats Fred Perry and Ellsworth Vines. Its five courts were a playground for many Hollywood notables, from Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers to Neil Simon and Johnny Carson.
Segura was a natural fit. Fresh off the pro tour, enthusiastic and knowledgeable, simpatico with the club’s heavy mix of Jewish moguls who, like Segura, had shown off their moxie to the WASP establishment, he was an exceptionally popular teacher.
“What made him a great teacher was the way he cared about your tennis,” says Dave Engelberg, a Segura student and currently a teaching pro at the Beverly Hills club. “There was a wisdom and love he brought to the court. My nickname for him was Seguru.”
Many tennis teachers concentrate on technique, covering the intricacies of how to hold the racket, move your feet, and swing through the ball. While Segura’s knowledge in this area was highly competent, his real love was for match play strategy. As he had done on the pro tour, he routinely drew on napkins, illustrating scenarios and strategies.
“He taught me how to compete,” says John Levin, now a San Francisco lawyer who worked with Segura as a teenager, before playing at Harvard. “He was very verbal, a mix of cynic, comic, and strategist. It was a very intellectual experience.”
But tennis teachers know that for every Engelberg and Levin, there are ten students going through the motions. For Segura, who had dedicated his life to tennis, who, without the sport, imagined he “would be swinging from a coconut tree in Ecuador,” teaching tennis had its frustration.
“He’ll never admit it,” says one former student, “but Pancho resented teaching these lazy rich people who didn’t really care much about becoming better tennis players. It was clear they just wanted to pass the time. And to him, they were just wasting it.”
Still, the passionate students made it worthwhile. Segura loves teaching, loves seeing people improve. Most of all, he loves seeing people give their all to improving. Last summer, I sent three days taking lessons from him. “Look, keed, I know you’ve got a job, and I know you’ve got only so much time for your tennis,” he said, “but make the most out of every minute out there.”
In our brief time together, we did just that. From movement and backswings to strategies and tactics, Segura showed me a range of expertise that made me sorry I hadn’t worked with him regularly in his prime.
“Move it, man, move it!” he yelled at me. “Stay down, move your butt, go. That’s it, you’ve got it.” And then, he would tip his hat in my direction. “It’s showtime when you play with him,” says Pancho’s son Spencer. “Be alert and pay attention every minute.” Sweating after a demanding drill, I felt a degree of the raw intensity that ignited the partnership between Segura and his most famous student.
One day in the mid-‘60s, Segura was playing an exhibition in St. Louis. Afterward, he was approached by a woman who’d been one of his mixed doubles partners in the ‘40s. He’d known her as Gloria Thompson. She was now Gloria Connors. Mrs. Connors taught tennis in her backyard and had a son named Jimmy she believed would benefit from Segura’s wisdom.
The teenaged Jimmy Connors was filled with enthusiasm. Shorter than his peers, he ran all over the court and never gave up. Gloria Connors had instilled in him classic fundamentals, from his compact strokes to his exemplary footwork. She had also permitted young Jimmy to hit a two-handed backhand. Jimmy was a lefty. Perhaps because he hit this backhand from his right side, Gloria was reminded of Segura’s great two-handed forehand she’d seen in the ‘40s.
The Connors family — Gloria, jimmy, and grandmother Bertha “Two Mom” Thompson — moved west. Father James Sr. and older brother Johnny remained home in Illinois. No one is clear about the estrangement of Gloria and Jimmy’s father, but what was clear was how determined the Connors family was to make Jimmy the best possible player. “You see, we more or less had to part ways if Jimmy was to play the tournaments he had to,” Gloria told Sports Illustrated’s Frank DeFord in 1978. “Two Mom and I had a job to do.”
This was long before tennis became a big-money sport. For the Connors family, the urge to make Jimmy great was as much fueled by love as ambition. There was also a social matter at hand. The Connors came from Belleville, Illinois, across the river from the well-heeled tennis patricians of St. Louis. To the Connors clan, the folks in St. Louis personified the type of snob who dared to discount young Jimmy.
Segura clicked into all of this. The small body, the two-handed shot hit from the right side, the urge to prove himself, the desire to be the best and show the richer kids he could play – all of it made Connors an American mirror of Segura’s own ambitions. “It was like my dad saw himself in Jimmy,” says Spencer. “He recognized that passion, that motivation. It was magic, and it was very powerful.”
“Right there was where I went to school,” Connors once said as he pointed to the clubhouse of the Beverly Hills Tennis Club. There, Segura took the hustling teenager and helped mold him into a champion. The cocktail napkin diagrams came out in full force. He constructed drills to make Connors more aggressive and arranged matches with locals and visiting pros.
“There was a special closeness we had in those days,” says Segura. “Before matches, he used to say, ‘Coach, do you believe in me?’ I said, ‘Jimbo, look, what does that guy do better than you? Does he move better than you? Does he hit the ball earlier than you do? Does he volley better than you?’ Then he’d say, ‘No, coach, we’re better.’ I got Jimmy in a state of hypnosis.
“But he would never say, ‘Gee, is this guy better than me?’ No fucking way. Never. He would never admit it. That’s like me – to never admit that you could lose. That’s the attitude you’ve got to have.”
Jimmy Connors was a fine junior under Gloria’s tutelage. But even though he’d won numerous junior titles at all age levels, when he started working with Segura in his late teens, he was not highly touted. Other juniors like Erik van Dillen and big-serving Roscoe Tanner were considered greater prospects. “Everyone thought my dad was nuts to be so high on Jimmy,” says Spencer. “They all thought that when it was time for the big leagues, that Jimmy wouldn’t have enough artillery. Boy, did Jimmy prove everyone wrong.”
“They underestimated Jimbo like they underestimated me,” says Segura. “All they’d look at is size and strokes. But they didn’t look close enough at desire, at the guy’s willingness to work hard and love to struggle. That’s what made the difference. Jimbo had the biggest heart of anyone.”
Connors’s ascent while working with Segura was remarkable. In 1970, he became the number-one junior in the nation. He accepted a scholarship from UCLA under the Gloria-stipulated condition that UCLA coach Glenn Bassett defer all coaching decisions about Jimbo to Pancho Segura. Bassett readily agreed.
This happened about the time Segura was relocating to La Costa. For all the pleasures of the Beverly Hills Tennis Club, Segura found himself driving for hours, teaching for scant dollars and, nearing 50, growing tired of schlepping baskets of tennis balls to remote locations throughout Southern California. La Costa’s boys offered permanence, real estate, a prestigious director position, and the potential of running a tennis academy.
Segura and Connors continued their collaboration. In the spring of ’71, Connors surprised the experts when he became the first freshman to win the NCAA singles title. By 1972 he’d turned professional.
Unlike the situation in Segura’s era, turning professional in the early ‘70s carried no shame. Tennis went open in 1968. Pros and amateurs were allowed to play every tournament. Concurrently, the tennis boom was reaching its height. America’s suburban middle class wanted the good life for its children, and tennis was part of the package. Throw in a generation seeking a leisure activity and the individualistic tug of the Me Generation, and there was tennis, the first child of America’s fitness boom.
Connors was suddenly the right man in the right place at the right time. In his first year as a pro, he won six titles and earned $90,000. In 1973, he shared the rank of number-one American with Stan Smith (ironically, Smith had once been a Segura student).
With Connors grabbing it by the throat, tennis was becoming a sport for the masses. Connors’s manager, Bill Riordan (brother of Los Angeles’s current mayor), marketed Connors like a prizefighter, a leading contender for the heavyweight crown. Gloria’s father, Al Thompson, had been a boxer. Gloria herself taught with a pugilistic form of intensity. Connors, with his Prince Valiant hair and hustling bravado, conjured up images of Ali. “I must have been born arrogant,” he said, “’cause I came out of the womb walking that way.”
Segura was tennis’s premier corner man. A frequent image of his years with Connors is Segura wearing an elegant warm-up suit, a towel wrapped around his neck, his white hair contrasting strikingly with his dark-brown face, his feet moving quickly alongside Jimbo.
“You like Bjorn Borg? You like Bjorn Borg and his top spin?” Segura turned sideways and challenged someone lauding Connors’s greatest rival. “Well, I got news for you, pal. It’s the wrong kind of top spin. Jimbo, he’s jumping all over it. He’s pounding it down Mr. Borg’s throat. Then we’ll see how much Mr. Borg likes running all over the court.”
Connors’s trademark shot was his return of serve, a shot laden with psychological consequences. A good serve simply knocks an opponent over. An effective return, however, can simultaneously take away an opponent’s strong serve and quickly put the receiver on the offense. It is the ultimate counterpunch, the most emphatic way of turning the tables and making an opponent pay for his hubris. Segura’s return had been a strength. Connors’s return became a legend, arguably the greatest in tennis history. Make my day. Time after time, servers fired bullets at Connors, who spit them back and took control of the point. Even before Segura, he’d been a solid defensive player. With Segura, Connors learned to press his advantage even more. This ability to switch rapidly from defense to offense – to turn back the heat and apply his own power – would become the hallmark of Connors’s career. Feel lucky, punk?
As inspiring as Connors was on the court, he was equally odious off the court. Brash, cocky, and often downright crude, Connors’s antics offended most tennis fans. Learning how to win came naturally to him. Learning how to lose was not so easy. Often after tough losses, Connors would storm off the court, treat fans and the press churlishly, and barely acknowledge his opponent’s efforts. The “me and you against the world” sensibility instilled in him by his mother was packaged by Riordan and harnessed on the court by Segura.
“It may be,” wrote Richard Shickel in his book The World of Tennis, “though this is the purest speculation – that Segura, who never won any major titles and who, with his comic Ecuadorian accent, may have been something of an odd man out in big-time tennis, saw in Connors an instrument for revenging past hurts and slights. Or not – who can say?” Segura the player rarely lost his temper. Segura the coach and Gloria, a devout Catholic, turned a blind eye to Connors’s antics. It was all part of the package.
In 1974 Connors reached the finals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. His opponent was Ken Rosewall, a 39-year-old Australian who Segura had played hundreds of times. Pancho and Connors built a perfect strategy for bludgeoning Rosewall predicated on swarming over the Aussie’s weak serve and pounding firm volleys. Wimbledon to Connors, 6-1, 6-1, 6-4. The Open was even more decisive – 6-1, 6-0, 6-1 in little more than an hour.
“What’s next?” a reporter asked Connors. On the court, Jimmy had been well coached by Segura. Off the court, Riordan gave him what proved to be one of tennis’s richest sound bites.
“Get me Laver,” Connors declared. Thus was born one of the tennis boom’s greatest events: challenge matches, built with all the aura and hype of prizefights.
Connors and Laver had never played one another. The only player to have won two Grand Slams (all four major titles in one calendar year), Laver personified all that was great and stylish about tennis. He was the old champ, elegant and quiet. Connors was the new king, gruff and loud. Barely a decade earlier, Rosewall had been crowned the world’s pro champ in a Los Angeles parking lot, only to have his prize money check bounce. On February 2, 1975, Laver and Connors would square off in a nationally televised match for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The venue, Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, Riordan remembered it as the highlight of his years with Connors. “The suite was like a fight dressing room a half-hour before the match,” he told World Tennis in 1979. “A tape recorder was blaring. Jimmy was bouncing up and down, screaming obscenities at the top of his lungs. Pancho Segura was sitting there like a fight trainer, yelling, ‘Keel him, keel him.’ Jeezus, it was something. “By the time we got down to the court, the adrenaline was really going. It was like the lions and the Christians. The kid was the enemy. The whole crowd was for Laver, loud. So here comes the kid bouncing up the aisle in his London Fog raincoat, the people are going crazy, and he’s cursing them out. ‘Fuck you. Fuck you, too.’ Top of his voice.”
Tournament tennis forbids on-court coaching. In the spirit of boxing, however, coaches were permitted on-court for these challenge matches. Segura, grinning and gritting, strode into Connors’s corner. Amid all the hype, he and Connors had concocted a strategy. It was based on hitting balls to Laver’s strength, his powerful topspin forehand. Segura’s belief was that Laver’s top spin would bounce high and short, giving Connors a chance to pound deep balls and rush his opponent. It worked like a charm, with Connors winning in four sets and taking him at least $150,000 for a day’s work.
Three months later, Connors and Segura returned to Las Vegas for another challenge match, this time versus Australian great John Newcombe. As with most sequels, this match didn’t have quite the sizzle of the first encounter. Still, Connors had never beaten Newcombe and had most recently surrendered his Australian Open crown to him in January ’75. Newcombe had a much more limited arsenal than Laver, and Connors won again in four sets. At that moment, he stood atop the world, ready to launch major titles defenses at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
Segura loved every minute of it. For years he had labored in cultish obscurity. He’d been a popular athlete, but in a sport barely recognized. He’d been a great player, but not quite the champ. Now, with the game soaring in popularity and Jimbo leading the charge, his recognition also soared. He was now earning in excess in $100,000 a year, quadruple what he’d earned in the 1960s.
This success greatly pleased the boys at La Costa. They’d made an investment in a tennis director. His popularity was paying off big time. Segura and the tennis club was one key part of the resort’s status in the ‘70s as a haven for the rich and famous. Robin Leach could have filmed a decade’s worth of episodes at the La Costa of the ‘70s. Though Segura might well have been a beloved tennis director without Connors, his status as Jimbo’s coach added more star appeal. “Jimmy made tennis big news,” said Beverly Hills Tennis Club member and movie producer Stan Canter. “He brought it to the cover, not only of Sports Illustrated, but to Time.”
As Jimbo’s star ascended, as Segura’s value became clear to so many, Gloria Connors slowly began to seethe. “Here was Gloria, having given Jimmy his strokes and all of her time,” says a source close to Segura and Connors, “and there was Pancho getting the credit. He wasn’t grabbing it, but everybody knew how much he’d helped Jimmy. Gloria started to really resent it. She couldn’t handle it.”
One month after bringing him courtside for the Newcombe match, the Connors clan requested Segura not come to Wimbledon for Jimmy’s title defense. Never again would Segura and Connors be so close. Connors lost that year’s Wimbledon final to Arthur Ashe, a match that revealed a strategy for beating Connors, based less on power and more on guile.
Watching Ashe massage Connors to death on TV, Segura was angry. He’d worked with Ashe, too, and knew if he was near Connors, he could have given Jimmy the pointers to take control of the match. Later that summer, Connors was again dismantled by Spaniard Manolo Orantes at the U.S. Open. Just months ago, he’d reigned supreme, and now, on a muggy New York afternoon, Jimbo looked woefully out of sorts.
“Jimmy lost a lot of confidence that year,” says Segura. “He was a great player, but we knew there were things he needed to do to get better and stay number one. But the mother, oh, the mother, she didn’t want us to mess with her boy’s game. I loved Jimbo, but what could I do?” Over the next several years, Connors regained the top spot, lost it, regained it, lost it, regained it, staying in the top three for 11 years. On the surface, Segura’s role was severely diminished. No longer did the Connors family recognize him as Jimbo’s coach. But on several key occasions – a ’76 challenge match versus Orantes, the ’76 and ’78 U.S. Opens – Segura was brought back into the fold as a special consultant. Even into the next decade, at Wimbledon in ’82, Segura gave Jimbo several tactical pointers that helped him win the title over John McEnroe.
“Erased from history” is the concept novelist Milan Kundera used to describe the Soviet regime’s treatment of Czech leaders. Connors had similarly purged Segura. Since the ‘70s, he has constantly referred to Gloria as his only coach.
Asked about Segura, Connors told me this may that “He was part of the scene when I came to the Beverly Hills Tennis Club in the ‘60s. My mother had given me the great basics, and she wanted me to be around more great male champions. Then he went to La Costa, and I didn’t see him much after that.”
In 1990 I walked with Connors through the grounds of the U.S. Open. We came across Segura.
“Pancho!” exalted Connors.
“Jimbo!” shouted Segura.
They hugged briefly, exchanged pleasantries, and headed on their respective ways. It seemed sad, seeing these two warriors who had ridden the train of desire so far, so fast, treating each other like little more than one-time business associates. Deep down, I suspect, each has a profound love for the other, would cross oceans to aid one another if necessary. But for now, there is a hardness and bittersweet quality to the Segura-Connors relationship.
Segura’s coaching efforts did not end with Connors. For the last 20 years, he has worked with many aspiring players. In the ‘80s, he arranged for young Michael Chang to live at La Costa. Segura also worked with Chang on the court. Like Segura and Connors, Chang emerged as a tenacious and intelligent champion, a gutsy little guy duking it out with bigger foes who dare to underestimate him.
Andre Agassi approached Segura in 1993. It was potentially an inspired pairing. Unfortunately, the timing wasn’t quite right. Agassi was 15 to 20 pounds overweight, and his wrist was sore. After suffering a first-round loss at that year’s U.S. Open, he summarily dumped Segura. “I wish Andre had the guts to tell me he was out of shape then,” says Segura. “With a little more patience, and if his wrist had been healthy, we could have done so much.”
As it turned out, Agassi fixed his body and his wrist soon after breaking up with Segura. Then he joined forces with Brad Gilbert, a fellow touring pro and author of the book Winning Ugly. Ironically, much of Gilbert’s advice was based on the same principles Segura had been preaching for decades: play to the score, stay in the point, attack, get your first serve in on key points and, most of all, use your head. The difference was multifaceted; Gilbert had actually played many of Agassi’s rivals, Agassi’s body and mind were now well adjusted, and finally, that quality of chemistry was present with Gilbert that never quite clicked with Segura. Perhaps it was generational. Perhaps it was a matter of timing.
In September ’94, one year after the first-round loss, Agassi proved he was for real, winning the U.S. Open. As the spectators poured out, I saw Segura. I yelled in his direction. He waved back, but there appeared to be a trace of sadness in Pancho’s eyes, an aura of upset indicating that just maybe, if he and Andrew had made it work, Segura would be in the limelight as he’d been with Connors.
But only a trace of sadness. Segura is too proud to admit vulnerability. “I’m not the kind of guy who kisses asses,” he says. “I’m not going to run around telling players they should work with me. It’s okay. What happens, happens. Jimmy Connors doesn’t buy my food. Andrew and me, we tried for a bit. I tried, I tried.”
We’re sitting again in the Jacuzzi. “There’s the boss,” says a member, waving at Segura.
“How the hell are you?” asks Segura.
As the man walks away, Segura leans to me and whispers out of the side of his mouth, “That guy is worth $100 million. You wouldn’t know it from how he acts. He’s friendly, he’s humble, he’s normal. Then you take other guys, and they treat people like peons. Now why is that?”
I offer some windy answer, but finally concede I don’t have a clue.
“Some people just don’t understand how precious life is,” says Segura. “They ought to go to the Galapagos. Just 600 miles from Ecuador you’ve got a set of islands with penguins, birds, bats. That’s life out there, buddy, that’s life for you. That’s where you see what it’s all about. That’s where you see how things live and die.”
Life and death are on Segura’s mind. Beneath the lemonade and the Jacuzzis, around the golf course and the tennis courts, mortality constantly asserts itself at La Costa. It is not a residence for the young. Every time I’ve visited Segura, there has been news of the death of a club member or employee.
And Segura’s tennis cronies are dying. Pancho Gonzalez died in July. Bobby Riggs has lung cancer. Segura’s heard that Don Budge is ill. Lew Hoad, a golden-haired legend from Segura’s touring days, died last year at 59. Vitas Gerulaitis, Arthur Ashe, Fred Perry, and Ellsworth Vines – all players with friendly ties to Segura – have died within the last two years.
Segura is at once touched and energized by this talk of death and life. Stepping out of the Jacuzzi, putting on his robe, he inquires about the time and date of an upcoming memorial service for a spa employee. Then Segura turns to me and says, “Now the next time you come here, you’ll remember how to hit that volley. We’re going to beat those guys, I swear. If you want to win, you’ve got to take it early and pay attention.”
Somehow I don’t think he’s referring strictly to tennis.