By Joel Drucker
Historian-at-Large, International Tennis Hall of Fame
To speak with 1984 Hall of Fame inductee Pancho Segura was a joy, a cavalcade of insights from a man who’d studied Ellsworth Vines and Don Budge; competed versus Bobby Riggs, Jack Kramer and Pancho Gonzalez; aided the ascent of Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith and Jimmy Connors; envisioned the future of Roger Federer. “This kid from Switzerland,” he said of the 19-year-old Federer in 2000, “if he gets it together, he could win more than 10 Slams.”
By the time Segura was 26 years old, he’d won three straight NCAA singles titles (1943-45) at the University of Miami) and been ranked in the top ten in the United States six straight years. In 1948, he joined the traveling troupe of touring pros led by the number one player in the world, fellow Hall of Famer Jack Kramer.
At one point during those pro years, Segura was co-ranked number one in the world. The cornerstone of his game was a two-handed forehand, a shot Segura drove with missile-like speed, accuracy, deception and touch. Kramer called it the single best shot in tennis history.
Segura passed away on November 18, 2017 at age 96.
“Pancho was one of the most brilliant tactical minds I’ve ever encountered in the sport. He taught me how to analyze the situation I was in with each point and to select the shot that would be most advantageous for me. He helped me learn to be as present on the court mentally as I was physically. Also, he was as funny and kind as he was brilliant. He was a great friend to me and so many in our sport,” stated Hall of Famer & ITHF President Stan Smith. “Segoo will be greatly missed, but never forgotten as one of the all-time greatest players and minds in tennis.”
While the likes of Kramer, Gonzalez, Lew Hoad and Tony Trabert were the marquee acts, during Segura's playing career, often it was Segura who would steal the show: the undersized (5’ 6”) supporting actor with the sharp mind and clever persona. “We called him ‘Sneaky,’ said his fellow Hall of Famer, the late Vic Braden. “He knew how everyone played, how everyone hit the ball, what they’d do on every point.”
All that wisdom made Segura a natural coach. No student did he click with more brilliantly than another feisty two-hander, the young Connors, who began working daily with Segura just as he turned 16. The court was the canvas, the cocktail napkin Pancho’s chalkboard. Said Segura years later, “I would get Jimbo into a trance.” Soon enough, the entire world was spellbound too.
But big as Segura’s mind was, it was eclipsed by his heart. All his life, Segura was deeply aware that he’d come from extremely humble origins in Ecuador, his father earning $300 a year, young Pancho’s dreams of a better life aided by kindly men who aided his relocation to North America. Empathy remained a major Segura asset.
Head, heart, desire, work ethic – the Segura package was irresistible. Impish and lively in his youth, he aged magnificently, his silver hair and dark skin making Segura a magnet for the camera and a voice always worth listening to. From grips and swings to emotions and tactics, Segura had inhaled the game so deeply and was so grateful for all it had given him, that he couldn’t help but share that love with others.
Tennis to Segura was not merely a solo act, but a relationship sport, competition a way to connect and commune. "Tennis is democracy in action,” said Segura. “Just me and you, baby. Doesn't matter how much money you have, or who your dad is, or if you went to Harvard, Yale or whatever. Just me and you." No one has ever proved this more vividly.