Almanac Tennis – Wimbledon 2020: Seeing Lew Hoad in a Dream

 

Wimbledon in the mid-80s. Photo: Wikicommons

 

 

Wouldn’t it be lovely to switch on the telly this week and see Wimbledon looking back at you?

 

The Championships were always a summer, sporting whimsy in the depths of winter and I suspect I wasn’t the only one who did their homework in front of the heater and was allowed to watch the first set before going to bed.

 

The soundtrack came from Tony Trabert, John Newcombe and Fred Stolle who told you what was going on in a way that suggested you weren’t quite in on the joke. Trabert in his Midwestern drawl: “and that is Borg safely through to the third round … after the break … some thoughts from the fiery one”.

 

That was Stolle’s ironic nickname because of his dislike for mornings, shaped in the same way that Ken Rosewall was ‘Muscles’ because of his lithe frame and Rod Laver ‘The Rocket’ due to his sluggishness on court.

 

Stolle played with them all but his greatest admiration was for Lew Hoad. Hoad is one of those athletes like Keith Miller that make people’s face light up when you ask about them.

 

“He was a man’s man,” was Mal Anderson’s description.

 

His illustration of that is to describe a scene he witnessed while on the professional circuit in the late 1950s where Hoad had just finished a match against Richard ‘Pancho’ Gonzalez.

 

The American was a player of almost unrivaled ability and he had a menace to match. A profile in Sports Illustrated in 2002 told of a drinking session he had with Newcombe after a match in Los Angeles. In the carpark Newk leapt on the bonnet of Gonzalez’s Mustang and playfully gave him the finger. Gonzalez floored it and then hit the brakes, sending Newk tumbling.

 

“Don’t fuck with me kid!” he shouted as he left in a cloud of dust.

 

In the match Anderson recalls, Gonzalez had broken into histrionics to throw Hoad off his game. Hoad steamed during the contest and then took matters into his own hands afterward in the change room.

 

“He called him ‘Gorgo’ and he had him up against the wall with one hand around his throat and the other balled up in a fist. He said ‘Gorgo if you ever do that again on court then you will wear this’. Well Gonzalez just went white.”

 

Two of Hoad’s passions outside tennis were boxing and jazz and it seems there are elements of the two in the way he played. Tennis historian Joel Drucker believes Hoad is an example of how genius takes its own form.

 

“Lew Hoad had his own vision of how to play the game. As a youngster he is trying to hit top spin on both sides, forehand topspin, backhand topspin sometimes even swinging volleys. It is very physical and very inventive.”

 

Stolle believes Hoad had what he didn’t – supreme strength. He was “big, strong, muscular and emotional”.

 

His youthful visage is immortalised with his teenage Davis Cup twin Rosewall in the Wimbledon museum. Glamour postcards of their Brylcreem hair and post-war smiles created what Drucker calls an early version of Beatlemania.

 

There is also a picture of nearby St Mary’s Church where Lew and Jenny Hoad’s shotgun wedding took place just before Wimbledon 1955. The union was witnessed by Harry Hopman and Rex Hartwig and after a few photos, Hoad was off to Queen’s Club for a match against Rosewall.

 

Hoad won Wimbledon twice but like other professionals was banned from the tournament after relinquishing his amateur status. On the punishing professional circuit, he and Gonzalez were major drawcards and made a fortune for promoter Jack Kramer.

 

In her memoir My Life with Lew, Jenny Hoad wrote that Lew considered Gonzalez the best player he faced while in return Gonzalez said “Lew was such a strong son-of-a-bitch. He was the only guy, if I was playing my best tennis, who could still beat me.”

 

His physical style of play took its toll with a debilitating back injury. At times he grew disinterested in playing and by the late 1960s was self-medicating to relieve the pain. He set up a tennis ranch in Spain where he coached others on the red clay and told fables over sangria afterward.

 

That was when Wimbledon came back for Lew Hoad.

 

 

 

 

The sport was divided with the amateurs having the status of the major tournaments but knowing they were not the best players. The professionals got the money, but their grind lacked romance and history. The Chairman of the All-England Club Herman David sought to create open tennis that would allow everyone to compete together.

 

His strategic move came in 1967 when he arranged an eight-man professional tournament to be played at Wimbledon the week after the Championships. The BBC was now broadcasting in colour and was looking for content.

 

Gonzalez returned to SW19 for the first time since 1949 and for Hoad it was the first time he had breathed in the aromatics of the fabled centre court for a decade. Back then he had ruled the amateur tennis world – within a few points of winning the Grand Slam of 1956 – now he was, according to Peter Wilson in the Daily Mirror, “thick of waist and thigh, but still kissed with the fairy gold of genius”.

 

The word was that the Australian only had one match in him and David couldn’t have imagined a better one when the draw pitted Hoad against Gonzalez. Fred Stolle lost to Rod Laver in the first match and charged off the court as fast as he could, wanting to quickly shower and get back to watch Hoad play Gonzalez. By the time he found a seat he had already missed the first set.

 

It took only a quarter of an hour for Gonzalez to win it 6-3. Although he was six years older than his opponent the American was in better shape and as ruthless and cunning as ever. He played the ball short over the net using dinks and drop shots to make Hoad work in and out of the court. He was, said Stolle, trying “to break Hoad’s back”. Despite the hard veneer that professional sportsmen develop, Stolle became emotional watching what he called “the last dance of the old pro”. He almost had to look away.

 

The second set was when Hoad entered the zone – that mythical place that the great athletes cannot consciously find a path into but recognise when they arrive. It is a time and space of unknown duration that belongs to them. Stolle describes it as a feeling of the supernatural and that is from where he saw Hoad return heavy artillery with heavy artillery.

 

“These two great players went at it as if this were the last tennis match of all time. It had the feeling of judgement day; both gave it everything they had. Each one wanted to win more than anything in the world,” he later wrote in his memoir Tennis Down Under.

 

Gonzalez had two match points in the second set but couldn’t close the deal, watching as Hoad blasted backhand winners. In turn, Hoad then needed two set points before prevailing 11-9.

 

In the final set Gonzalez was down 6-7 and serving at 30-40 to stay in the match. He wound up and followed his first serve into the net from where he volleyed deep, sending Hoad scrambling behind the baseline.

 

After the boxing, now came the jazz note. Rather than trying to pass, Hoad lifted the ball in an improbable lob that floated over the American’s head. Gonzalez looked at the ball and knew it was going long and so didn’t chase it.

 

Like a slow-motion Hollywood sequence, the ball drifted high over the centre court and then fell softly to earth, landing with a tiny puff of white chalk dust on the baseline.

 

Hoad stood with his arms above his head and his look of joy found those of his exultant fellow Australians in the crowd. As he did, at the other end Gonzalez hit what Stolle estimates to be the longest ball the famed court has ever seen, sending it out of the stadium and possibly into the next county.

 

“It was a miracle for all us,” wrote Stolle. “It was possible to have one more great moment.”

 

 

 

 

The final contest of Pancho Gonzalez and Lew Hoad was broadcast to millions of tennis fans and the success of the mini-tournament helped convince the Championships to go open the following year.

 

After beating his greatest rival, Hoad could barely walk the next day and Rosewall despatched him 6-1, 6-1. Stolle believes Hoad never played another competitive match after that – the contest with Gonzalez was his final blazing moment. Lew told Jenny after the contest that he would only play tennis now for fun.

 

Lew Hoad died of leukemia the day Pete Sampras beat Goran Ivanisevic to win the Wimbledon crown in 1994. His essence drifts around the storied tournament in many forms – his youthful vibrancy, his marriage, the lion-in-winter match against Gonzalez and then the timing of his passing.

 

As we wait for tennis to return, broadcasters are again scratching around for content. Imagine if the BBC could find Hoad v Gonzalez 1967 – a match that lives in the memory of those who saw it and who will never forget.

 

 

Read more from Mike Sexton HERE

 

 

Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.

 

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About Michael Sexton

Michael Sexton is a freelance journo in SA. His scribblings include "The Summer of Barry", "Chappell's Last Stand" and the biography of Neil Sachse.

Comments

  1. Colin Ritchie says

    Great read Michael! There was something about tennis in the 50s, 60s & 70s before big money became involved. Players played for the love of the game and they are the players I fondly remember. Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewell, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, no ranting and raving from them.

  2. They don’t make ’em like that anymore, Michael! A most enjoyable read.

  3. Richard Gonzales, played Charlie Pasarell @ Wimbledon in 1969, a match that would be suitable for the old Epic Theatre.

    Gonzales won, 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9. The match consisted of 112 games, went 5 hours 20 minutes, a long standing record for Wimbledon,but nothing lasts for ever.

    41 years later @ Wimbledon John Isner, defeated Nicholas Mahut, in a rain interrupted match lasting 11 hours and 5 minutes over three days.

    Any how no Wimbledon in 2020 and after the recent ‘episode’ involving Novak Djokovic, i’m not sure how much, if any, tennis we see in 2020.

    Glen!

  4. 6 per cent says

    Great story! You had me in your clutches!

  5. Evokes such glorious memories of a time; a place; a contest and a gloriously flawed genius. Interesting parallels in how tennis and golf have been shaped by technology. The end of wooden rackets in tennis; persimmon headed woods, spinny balata balls and steel driver shafts in golf. Changes that favour the athlete over the artist. Great players would always adapt but the style of play changes forever. In footy its the physical capacity of the hyper-trained modern athlete and the regimented coaching that has destroyed the game. It lives on in dreams where I only see sunlight and never clouds. Many thanks for the reminders.

  6. John Butler says

    Enjoyed this a great deal, Michael.

    Cheers

  7. Shane Reid says

    Thanks for this great piece Michael. It’s still on my bucket list as a sporting fan to see an Aussie win the Australian Open (I was born a year before Edmonson’s win so don’t remember a great deal). I’m fascinated with the era you write about here, thank you.

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