Former tennis pro visiting Stonington serves up opinions on sport he loves
Stonington - Abe Segal made the doubles final of the French Open tennis championships twice, in 1958 and 1963, but last week he could be found hanging around the courts of Mystic Indoor Tennis, trying to find someone to play.
Luckily for the 80-year-old Segal, tennis pros Chris Portelance and Andrew Morris found time in their schedules to hit around with the salty South African left-hander, who counts wins over Wimbledon singles champions Arthur Ashe and Alex Olmedo as among the most memorable of his career.
"When you play as long as I have, you're definitely going to beat a lot of people when they have a day off," Segal said later, during an interview at Noah's restaurant in Stonington.
Segal and his girlfriend, Deborah Curtis-Setchell, have been staying at the Grand Street home of friend Garner Anthony, now a successful businessman and previously a tour-level tennis player himself. They have been impressed with the local reception, which Segal says he doesn't get everywhere.
"A lot of people don't care what I've done in tennis," he said. "I'm yesterday's news."
"It's great to talk to him and hear the old stories," said Portelance.
The big-serving, 6-foot-2 Segal played with the best of his era - Pancho Gonzales, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Frank Sedgman and Tony Trabert among them - during a career highlighted by more than 20 appearances at Wimbledon. But he swears the best player of all was the late Lew Hoad, who won 10 Grand Slam titles in singles and doubles.
"He was the strongest bloke you ever came across in your life," Segal said. "He was the greatest volleyer I've ever seen."
Segal can talk tennis, no doubt about it. He has strong views about top players Serena and Venus Williams - "they changed the women's game for the better; it was terrible tennis before that" - as well as the men's circuit, which he believes would be boring without champions with distinctive styles such as Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.
"They all play the same today, except for Nadal and Federer," he said. "Tennis is now becoming the biggest game in the world because of those two guys."
But Segal prefers sharing a laugh to talking tennis, and enjoys regaling new acquaintances with stories about the crazy things he has seen and done and friendships he has formed. The stories often move from movie stars such as Kirk Douglas and the late Peter Ustinov to other well-known figures, including friend and casino magnate Sol Kerzner, the South African who backed the Mohegan Sun and helped develop the Uncasville gambling mecca along with local businessmen Len and Mark Wolman.
Wrote a book
Sean Connery wrote the foreword to Segal's book that came out last year, "Hey Big Boy: A Legacy of Laughs by an ex No. 1," which the famed actor called the "funniest and most irreverent I have read in a tennis context." The book recounts in riotous detail Segal's encounters with mob hitmen, CIA and KGB agents - and, of course, the foibles of those quirkiest of athletes: tennis players.
In the pages of his book, one encounters characters such as Herbie Flam, a top American player Segal dubbed the Insomniac Kid, who "wasn't a bad looking guy when he wasn't biting his nails or covering up his glasses with his Hiawatha headband." Then there was Arthur "Tappy" Larsen, who "could give Herb a run for his money in the centre court 'loony bin' stakes" thanks to a nervous condition he developed after surviving a German bombing attack.
"You don't find characters like that anymore," Segal said.
The same could be said for Segal, who peppers his stories with the sometimes-profane language of a guy who grew up in a rough neighborhood and had to fight his way past Nazi-loving ruffians on a regular basis in his youth.
It is a lesson in fortitude that this virtually uneducated Jewish boy from a poor section of South Africa - who had to jump 10-foot-high fences at private clubs and work out ways to steal equipment just to have an opportunity to play - became a top tennis player in the age when most people thought of the then-amateur sport as a rich man's game.
But Segal says he had as an inspiration in the rough-edged American pugilist Pancho Gonzales, a man who escaped a troubled early life in Los Angeles to stand among the top players in the world in the 1940s.
"Gonzales was my hero," Segal, who lives in Johannesburg, said. "He was the bad boy of U.S. tennis."
First time at Wimbledon
Always adventurous, Segal at age 15 hopped on a ship with a friend, making his way to England in time for the first tournament at Wimbledon after World War II, where he again climbed a fence only to be confronted by a friendly Bobbie. The police officer kindly told him to camp out overnight to ensure he could purchase a ticket the next morning.
Segal and his tennis-playing friend later strolled into the Dunlop Sports Company in London, hoping to get a sponsorship to play in some tournaments during the summer. To their amazement, not only were they seen by one of the company's top managers, but the bedraggled pair - who had been forced to steal apples to survive their stay in England - emerged a few minutes later with new racquets, strings and tennis outfits.
"You'd never see that again," Segal said.
Though Segal lived through an era when tennis players made little money - and what little they made was largely under the table because of the strictures of what came to be known as shamateurism - the former South African Davis Cup player says he has no regrets.
"What was was - if you can't laugh about it, what good is it all," he said.
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