The memorial service for Pancho Segura wasn’t the last hurrah of the glory days of Southern California tennis – it just felt that way. So instead, let’s view it as a grand gathering of the tribe.
There, to this storied world of stately palms and gleaming Mercedes, the good and the great, some 200 strong, descended. To the venerable Beverly Hills Tennis Club came mighty Jimmy Connors, who probably got more folks into tennis seats than anyone before Federer. There was timeless Rod Laver, who’s still in the debate about who’s the greatest to ever pick up a racket. There was Charlie Pasarell, the visionary entrepreneur who transformed the tournament experience. There, chatting with Jack Kramer’s boys, was tennis’ extraordinary wingman, Lornie Kuhle. And there was commentator Paul Annacone, UCLA’s Justin Gimelstob and USC’s Peter Smith, Alex Olmedo, Tom Edlefsen and young Brandon Holt. And there was Brandon’s mom – the former No. 1 Tracy (“Where have all the pigtails gone?”) Austin, coach Larry Stefanki and the former No. 1 in America, Cliff Richey.
And, this being Beverly Hills, we were not only at a club founded by stars – even millennials know of Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx – we were in the presence of many a celeb, including Burt Bacharach. Not surprisingly, names of Hollywood’s royalty were dropped with seamless ease: Barbra Streisand, Charlton Heston, Mickey Rooney, Dean Martin and Lloyd Bridges, to name a few. But this sparkling Sunday afternoon in December was about just one man – a curious genius with an inspired eye for the game and an unmistakable presence, whose welcome-to-America journey was rare and whose zest and sparkle were unmatched – Pancho Segura.
Macho men – think Connors and Pasarell – choked up with emotion, and one speaker after another celebrated the big splashy legend of the diminutive bronze man. “If the world was more like you, Pancho,” said one pal, “it would be a better place.” To Tracy Austin, it wasn’t just that with him, “every point was a learning experience…[It was that] you felt his joy and love of life.”
Pancho’s son Spencer said that his dad had “this karma.” Never mind that young Pancho had malaria and lived under a club grandstand in Ecuador, he was so outgoing and optimistic. Naturally, the master teacher offered his son much sage advice: “Take calculated risks and go for it, learn from successful people, analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the competition and don’t be too serious about yourself. After all, you’re alive, healthy and living in the US.”
But Segura was also a stern taskmaster. Papa Pancho would smell his kids for drugs. They had to be in bed by ten. And while teen Spencer yearned to have flowing locks like his Hollywood pals Dino Martin and Desi Arnaz Jr., “Forget it, buster” – son Spencer was relegated to a crew cut.
Of course, few others in the game cut up more than rascal Pancho. So we heard yarns of “the only man on this planet who Bobby Riggs couldn’t hustle,” and the tale of how Bacharach’s $45,000 racehorse called Pancho Segura couldn’t win a darn race. We heard Laver lament how Segura swept past legends Lew Hoad, Pancho Gonzales and Ken Rosewall and almost ruined a Sydney tournament. Pancho’s longtime lawyer shared the story of how, after 50 years of being here on a green card, he became a US citizen. Then again, with Pancho, the most mundane task, like dropping by the DMW, could morph into a dazzling adventure. We’ll pass on sharing with you the tale of how Pancho teased one of his pals about the fellow’s late-night proposal to Rosie Casals. Instead, we’ll reflect on the observation of Segura’s friend Shridhar Srinivasan, who noted that, “Heaven now has a new member, and if you look up and see Pancho and ask him how he is doing, he’ll reply, ‘I’m doing everyone.'”
At the memorial, as in life, just when things got a tad raunchy, you were reminded what an insightful, erudite and passionate man Pancho was. Along with Guga Kuerten and Guillermo Vilas, he was the most influential South American tennis player ever. He was a world champion, a pioneer of the game and had legions of friends. A brilliant analyst, he was an inspired tactician who grasped the game with an uncanny and unmatched mastery. Few others so exuded tennis.
According to David Kramer, Pancho was “the valedictorian of the tennis school of life.” His friend Martine Barba noted that he wanted just three things from people: to see their belief in themselves, to see their smile and to hear their laugh.
Similarly Pasarell, another great Latin legend of the game, noted, “Lunch with Pancho was a four- or five-hour event…Everybody knows how entertaining it was to be around him. We also knew that Pancho was a great player, and many argued that he had the best mind in the sport. But there is one thing that can’t be argued, and that is that no one loved the sport more than Pancho and no one in the sport was loved more than Pancho. He was one of a kind. Tennis will miss him, but we will never forget him. Gracias, Pancho.”
A prime reason we will never forget Segura was that he was the Connors whisperer, who guided the legendary Jimbo from adolescence to top-of-the-heap success. Connors, of course, was once that naughty force of nature we so loved because, with a raw fury, he broke all the rules as he upended tennis’ far-too-orderly hors d’oeuvres. But today we heard such a different, caring voice. Here was a reflective, appreciative, even vulnerable son who spoke with love, reverence and insight about the father figure who transformed his life and gave him the male influence (“I feel your passion, I’ve got your back”) he’d craved for so long.
In a moment of stunning poignancy, the once breathtakingly brash Jimmy gave us a touching remembrance of his mentor. He began, “If Pancho came in here now, this place would light up. When my mother met him in St Louis, she said, ‘I’ve got my son here and he’s got some talent.’ I was standing there and I wilted and said to myself, ‘How many times has Pancho Segura heard that?’ But…[soon] I was on a plane to California and the Beverly Hills Tennis Club. That changed my life forever. I walked in here, and my first friend was Pancho’s son Spencer, who I played with on the back court. I never looked back.
“Pancho came into my life at just a perfect time, when I was 15-16 years old. Perfect, not [only] for tennis…but I also needed the male influence. And, oh, what an influence he was! I came from the little town of Belleville, Illinois, and I wondered, ‘Does that [big city] stuff really happen?’ But instead of telling me about it, he took me out and showed me – my life was changed forever.
“Spencer’s friends became my friends and I went from there. Pancho knew why I was here. He watched out for us. There were rules and we had to follow them. We had to play the tennis and we had to work, but we could live our lives. It was okay to relax…What you can’t get accomplished by 10 [p.m.], you probably aren’t going to get accomplished at all….
“The fun part was being able to come into this club. Pancho accepted me like his son and treated me as such. He was like no other. He was educating me…on life and what was going to happen if I worked hard enough and if things worked out…and how to handle situations.
“His personality drew everybody in. You’d walk in here and there was Pancho Gonzalez, Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Charlie Pasarell and Alex Olmedo. If you couldn’t get a game here, you couldn’t get a game anywhere. He took me in and allowed me to be a part of all that. Anybody and everybody wanted to be around him – Barbra Streisand, George Peppard, Lloyd Bridges and Burt Bacharach. Forget about the tennis – the tennis was something extra special – but it was his attitude and what he brought to everything – the light that he shined on everything…
“Whether here at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club or at La Costa, tennis was special. He loved playing the game and showing his skills. But he also liked sharing all that – and that’s something you can hardly find. If you’ve got something, you [usually] want to keep it. [But Pancho] wanted everybody to know what he was all about and how he was going to make them better…With the teaching he gave, there was no messing around and that was what I was looking for. I needed somebody riding me so I could take that from the practice courts to the matches…[and I] trusted him enough to feel that whatever he told me…would work.
“His mind never stopped. We’d come in from practice and sit in the restaurant and he’d draw strategy on a napkin. ‘Listen, you came in down the line, but you don’t come in like this’ and his arrow would go there. My mind would swirl. Pancho always liked to go up and take a steam after his day was over. So I’d say to Spencer, “Tell me Spence, did I miss something here?” So I’d go up and talk to him in the steam and ask him what he meant and he looked at me like, ‘Are you crazy? Get out of here.’
“But I wanted to catch everything he had to say. I didn’t want to let one thing go. I wanted to soak up his knowledge and what he was going to give me and allow me to have. It went beyond everything. At the US Open and Wimbledon, he’d sit around and hold court. The great Mr. Laver wanted to be around him…You never knew what was going to rub off even from a five- or a twenty-minute conversation.
“One of his talents was that he could say anything. You’d be sitting there and he’d come out with some [salty] sayings. I know Tracy didn’t want to talk about it, but how can you not? He’d get by with it. We’d shake our heads and marvel at him and ask, ‘Pancho, how can you say that?’ And he’d say ‘It’s all in the way you say it, keed.’ I guess I never got that part.
“At the US Open I’d get in some heated matches and Pancho was always in the front row. So I’d towel off behind him and look for words of wisdom.
“And there were words of wisdom, but it wasn’t about the tennis. And I’m going, ‘How can you say that? It’s four-all in the fifth!’ And he’d say, ‘It’s okay, it’s okay, you’ll be alright, you’ll be alright.’ He had a way of getting rid of all the pressure and allowing what he was planning for me to take over.
“That’s why my mother sent me to him. She’d taken me so far, but I needed that male influence….
“I came here 50 years ago. I can’t believe how fast time has gone by. I look out now and I see so many friends that I saw from my first days. Nobody had more fun around tennis than Pancho. He so appreciated what he got from the game and what he was able to give and pass on.
“It was tennis that made everything possible…[He’d say] ‘If you have a racquet, you can walk in anywhere…[and] the better you play the more friends you’re going to make.’
“I’ll never forget the last time I saw Pancho, he looks up and says, ‘Jimbo, how you playing it? Are you going to play Wimbledon this year?’ In his mind, he thought I was still playing. It touched me because that meant that what he gave me was still on his mind in some way.
“I look back and I know I couldn’t afford to screw up. I did, but not as often [as I might have]. I couldn’t afford to because I had too much invested in me from Pancho and my mom. Not money. Time and emotion and love. For me [it was about] taking what he had given me and trying to make it all possible. He said one thing. He said I was the kind of player that he wanted to be.
“That’s wrong. I’m the player he made. He gave me that. And for that there is no payment.