Remembering Tony Trabert
Tony Trabert, one of American tennis’ top stars in the 1950s, who later distinguished himself as U.S. Davis Cup captain as well as a coach and commentator, passed away on Feb. 3 at the age of 90.
A 10-time major champion and 1970 International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee, Trabert’s impact across the sport that he so loved was unparalleled. Everything he did in every facet of his Hall-of-Fame career was done with a singular grace and class. In 1955, he was the game’s top-ranked player; and throughout his life, he was one of the game’s top-ranked gentlemen.
Trabert reached the quarterfinals of Forest Hills in 1951 before a two-year stint in the U.S. Navy took him away from the game. But upon his return in 1953, he captured half a dozen titles in the run up to his Forest Hills comeback. There, he swept to the title without losing a set, beating French Open champ Budge Patty in the quarters, Aussie Ken Rosewall in the semis and his friend and doubles partner Vic Seixas, fresh off winning Wimbledon, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 in the final.
Three months off the high seas, Trabert made Forest Hills a watershed point in his career. Achieving the promise and fulfilling the potential he’d shown two years earlier, the kid from Cincinnati was suddenly a big man in the tennis world.
“I think winning Forest Hills sort of signified that I’d arrived as a player,” said Trabert.
“It was my first Grand Slam title as a singles player and as an American, there’s a special thrill about winning your national championship. You feel like, “Hey, I can play with anybody.’ Of course, that doesn’t mean you’re always going to beat them, but you feel like you belong.”
Trabert’s career would take off to even greater heights from that point, and in 1955, at the age of 25, Trabert dominated the sport of tennis in a way that few—before or since—have been able to equal. The young man with the buzz cut and the blistering backhand pounded his way to a staggering singles match record of 104-5, including 38 consecutive matches, 18 tournament titles and 10 straight tournament wins.
Trabert won three of the four Slams that year, the only hiccup en route to completing the Grand Slam a semifinal loss to Ken Rosewall at the Australian Open. In winning both Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships, he did not drop a set. He was, of course, the world’s No. 1-ranked player for those 12 months.
Trabert was so dominant throughout that magical year, that when he appeared in a tournament, it was virtually a given that he’d appear in the winner’s circle. Tournament promoters knew they’d have a marquee name putting fans in the seats right through the final. Indeed, a Trabert loss was so unexpected, and his personal standard so high, that when he did drop a match at the Wiesbaden, Germany event in the spring of that year, he volunteered to play an exhibition for free, as a way of apologizing to the promoter.
“I’ve been asked if I regret not having won the Grand Slam,” said Trabert. “Of course, the answer is yes. But I have no regrets about the way I played. I did my best every time I stepped on a court, from the first point to the last. My attitude was always, ‘Win fast and get off the court, because nothing bad can happen to you once you’re in the locker room.
“I never counted wins, I just wanted to win titles. I was never the most gifted guy out there, so I had to work at it and, especially in that year, the work paid off. Besides, in those days, one of the real bonuses of winning was that you’d keep getting your per diem, which meant you could eat."
Certainly, in 1955, he seldom went hungry.
Trabert turned pro in 1956 and not only played, but helped to manage, the fledgling professional tour, playing against the world’s best at stops all over the world—from San Francisco to South Africa—until 1963. But even when he gave up playing full time, he never stopped giving back full time.
In 1970, he started the Tony Trabert Tennis Camp in Ojai, Calif. His talent as an instructor and keen understanding of the intricate mechanics of stroking and strategy would also serve him well in the TV booth, as he began his broadcast career with CBS in 1972.
With an economy of words, Trabert always stood out as one of the most sagacious talents in the increasingly chatty world of tennis broadcasting. He knew the game and the viewer always had a better understanding of the “how’s” and “why’s” of tennis for having watched any broadcast in which he was involved. He understood how to teach because he’d always had the desire to learn.
But for all of his singles accomplishments, Trabert was always most proud of his involvement with the U.S. Davis Cup effort. He played in every Challenge Round from 1951-55, leading the U.S. to its only seizure of the Cup from the years-long unrelenting grip of the Aussies in 1954. Trabert served as U.S. Davis Cup captain from 1976-1980, guiding the squad to two titles—in 1978 and ’79.
“My whole Davis Cup experience was great,” Trabert told me. “Representing your country is the greatest honor and opportunity you can have. Just to be out there giving your all for your team and your country and your flag. To hear the words, ‘Game, set, match, United States…’ There’s nothing else that compares to it. Beating the Aussies in ’54 was the biggest thrill in my tennis career.”
Trabert’s respect for the game and its players, his understanding of tennis’ rich history and his status as a champion in every sense of the word served him well when he served as President of the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I., from 2001-2011
“When they asked me to be president, I gulped,” admitted Trabert. “I wasn’t sure I was qualified. I said there are two things you’ve got to understand about me: I don’t have a lot of money to give you and I’m not a fundraiser. I don’t like asking people for anything. And they said I could help just by giving them authenticity as a Hall of Famer myself. I was proud to do it because my role gave me a chance to stay involved in another aspect of the game, which was very important, and to play a role in preserving tennis’ history for generations to come.”
Most certainly, Tony Trabert, who also was inducted into the US Open Court of Champions in 2014, will long be a part of that history. His love affair with the sport lasted right up until his passing.
“It may sound cliché,” Trabert told me in our last interview, “but I don’t know where I’d be without having played tennis. I’d like to think that I’d have figured something out, but I can’t imagine anything that would have taken me where I’ve been.
“The game’s been good to me. I haven’t made a fortune out of it, but I made a decent living, traveled the world and met all kinds of people. I’ve gotten an education that you don’t get out of books. I’ve played, by my best count, in 57 countries. For a guy from a lower middle class family on a dead end street in Cincinnati, Ohio, it’s been a pretty amazing ride.”