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.
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.
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.
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.
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.