Born prematurely in a bus traveling from Quevedo to Guayaquil, Ecuador, Pancho Segura was never given a head start to succeed in life. He grew up dirt poor and suffered from a case of rickets that left him bowlegged. His height never topped 5-foot-6, but he became a towering figure in tennis at a time when the game was exploding in popularity.
Segura died at his California home this past Saturday at age 96 after complications from Parkinson’s disease.
“He was attending tournaments and watching on television until at least 90,” Segura’s son, Spencer, told ESPN.com. “He was really with it until just two or three years ago.”
Segura never became a household name like Pancho Gonzalez or Rod Laver. He didn’t have the requisite gaudy Grand Slam record. But Jack Kramer, the father of the pro tour and a multiple Grand Slam champion, once said Segura’s unique, two-handed forehand was the best shot in all of tennis.
During his peak years as a barnstorming pro exiled from the amateur-only Grand Slam events, Segura delighted crowds with his bombastic showmanship. He also thrilled them with an aggressive brand of creative tennis, heavy on angles and slice, that often cut much larger, more well-known opponents down to size.
Perhaps more importantly, when all those years of playing in the stands over and over against the same titans came to a close (one year, he played 85 matches against Kramer, who prevailed 58-27), Segura helped turn Southern California into the epicenter of American tennis. As a pro at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club, he developed his star pupil and surrogate son Jimmy Connors into a champion. Segura also had a shaping influence on dozens of others, including Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith, Charlie Pasarell, Butch Buchholz and Billie Jean King.
Segura transformed the BHTC into a place where his bread-and-butter lessons (including a score of Hollywood A-listers such as George C. Scott, Ava Gardner, Kirk Douglas and Barbra Streisand) punched forehands on courts alongside those occupied by future Wimbledon champions and talented youngsters, some of whom couldn’t afford the court time. Segura had them string rackets to work off their debt.
This was in a critical moment for tennis because the game was struggling inside its husk. It had a well-deserved, if not entirely accurate, reputation as a sport for the rich. Segura helped the game break out as the Open era dawned by his very being, as well as his attitude.
“It doesn’t take more than a racket and a heart to play this game,” he told ESPN in 2009. “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.”
Segura also helped open up tennis with the support he showed for players such as Smith, a middle-class kid from Pasadena. Scores of promising players who would have brilliant pro careers came and went at the BHTC. Sometimes Segura cleared time to go help them at collegiate or federation-sponsored training camps or small tournaments. Smith is a USC graduate who would go on to be No. 1 and win two majors. “I think of [Segura] as maybe the greatest tactician I ever met,” Smith told Caroline Seebohm, author of a biography titled “Little Pancho.”
Partly because of Segura’s efforts, the U.S. developed a fleet of elite players led by Ashe. The Americans successfully kept Australia, led by Laver and Ken Rosewall, from dominating tennis in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Connors was Segura’s acknowledged masterpiece, and his success prefigured the current era in a number of ways. The emphasis on attacking the serve and punishing second serves particularly is pure Segura influence. So is the commandment to powder any short ball. Connors was a master of using short angles, although that devastating two-handed backhand kept him from developing an effective sliced backhand approach shot — a tool of choice in the Segura kit.
Sad day– lost my friend-coach- and mentor- the great Pancho Segura to complications from Parkinson’s- passed last night at age 96- RIP 🎾😥
— Jimmy Connors (@JimmyConnors) November 19, 2017
According to Spencer Segura (who still hits and talks frequently with Connors, Laver and others), the player who best embodies his father’s vision is Federer. Unlike Connors, Federer is a master of using the chip and low slice approach shot, then coming in to cut off the angle of the return. But, Spencer said, “The slow balls have changed everything. It’s a game of long rallies, high balls, and guys standing 2 yards behind the baseline. Federer is the only guy who can use those slices and chips and get guys moving.”
Segura’s legacy lives on. But he didn’t shape and leave an indelible mark on the future of tennis simply because he had a great tennis mind. It takes a more vigorous force to do that. Segura also had a way of making people believe in him — and in themselves.
“He was such a warm person; he liked to help anybody,” Spencer Segura said. “He was so dynamic; he could make you laugh even when the worst thing on earth had just happened to you. He was relentlessly optimistic, I guess because he had started out so poor.”
He might have come to tennis poor, but both Segura and the game he loved were enriched by his work and his presence.