Many wonderful tennis players have come and gone over the years, but I still have a soft spot for the Australian champion Frank Sedgman. He was my father’s number one sporting hero (in equal place with the cricketer Keith Miller), and I can still remember listening to the Davis Cup matches of the early-1950s, with Sedgman taking on and cleaning up the top Americans. As a schoolboy I was once a ball-boy in a match at Kings Park Tennis Club in which Sedgman was playing, and I can still remember his flashing strokes, to say nothing of his superb athleticism, sportsmanship and good looks.
His style of play – coming to net behind both serve and return-of-serve to put away crisp, penetrating volleys – and his capacity to win points, rather than have his opponent lose them (as is so much the style today), was his hallmark. It was said of Sedgman by the other pros that “no other top tennis player hit fewer second volleys”, the first nearly always being a clean put-away. He also had uncanny anticipation – the factor that lets so many modern players down when they occasionally venture to the net and then stand in the middle like a stranded fish. Sedgman would approach down the centre, but just as his opponent was about to strike the ball, he would dart to left or right and cut off the attempted passing shot. He also had an uncanny ability to “get out of his own way” – in other words to skip nimbly aside from the ball hammered straight at him, and then deal with it. His great doubles partner, Ken McGregor, was also a wonderful volleyer, but was vulnerable to the hard-hit ball coming directly at him.
I have recently re-read Ellsworth Vines’ excellent book Tennis – myth and method, and a story about Sedgman caught my eye. Vines recounts how, in 1952, Sedgman played in the Pacific Southwest Tournament against Linn Rockwood and defeated him 6-0 6-0. Lockwood was twice US National Public Parks champion and was “as steady as a rock”. In the match against Sedgman, Lockwood didn’t make a single unforced error, but still could not win a game, scarcely could win a point. Every time he looked up, whether he was serving or receiving, Sedg was at the net putting away a volley or killing an overhead.
Vines was writing in 1978, well into the pro era, and he summed up Frank Sedgman as one of the top ten all-time players, on about a par with the older Pancho Segura and with the edge on Tony Trabert. Vines rated Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Pancho Gonzales, Jack Kramer and Rod Laver as all being above Sedgman when they were playing at their top, but coming in #6 on a list like that is nothing to be ashamed of.
But I’d like to linger a bit further on 1952, as we celebrate the 70th anniversary of what was one of Australia’s greatest tennis years.
At Wimbledon that year Frank Sedgman won the men’s singles (above), the doubles (with Ken McGregor) and the mixed doubles (with Doris Hart), the only man ever to win the triple crown. He was also undefeated in singles and doubles in the 1951/52 Davis Cup, in which Australia cleaned up the US to take out the Final, won the 1952 US championship singles and mixed doubles, was runner-up in the Australian and French Championships, and won the Australian and French doubles championship.
And when I remember 1952, I also remember my father and the pleasure he derived from sporting champions like Frank Sedgman and Keith Miller. The opinion of an American like Ellsworth Vines meant nothing to Dad: in his eyes, Sedg was number one.