Class of 1969
Art Larsen had all the natural skills necessary to become a champion tennis player – he was fleet of foot, had quick hands at the net, reliable groundstrokes off both sides, and an effective serve. He was a lefty, which in tennis can be worth a few games on its own, especially against an opponent who doesn’t come prepared to face the intrinsic qualities a left-hander brings to the court. The greatest lefty players in tennis had supreme balance – there wasn’t one stroke that could be attacked successfully throughout a match – and they could effectively keep opponents off-kilter with wide spin serves, deft angles off volleys, terrific touch and athletic grace.
Larsen, a native of Hayward, California, began playing tennis at age 11, and enjoyed a successful pre-scholastic career as a tournament champion at the Olympic Club in San Francisco at age 14. At age 18, he served his country with heroism and dignity in World War II, but that meant he didn’t wield a tennis racquet for three years. Serving in the military for Larsen, as with many veterans, created hardships when he returned home. It was suggested playing competitive tennis again would be a healthy diversion for Larsen, and in many ways it was. The 5-foot-10, 150-pound Larsen returned home for college, attending the University of San Francisco where he was a member of the 1949 NCAA Men's Tennis Championship team.
One year later, he became a champion at the major that meant the most to him – the U.S. Nationals.
In 1950, Larsen became the first southpaw to win the U.S. Nationals in the post-World War II era, and the first since John Doeg captured his major in 1930. He was seeded No. 11, and winning the title would take a herculean effort aided with some opportunistic blips in the draw along the way. Both happened. The top two seeds, American Budge Patty and Australian Frank Sedgman, didn’t make it past the third round. That opened up the draw, but didn’t make Larsen’s road to the championship any easier. From the second round to the finals, Larsen didn’t have a cake walk – all tough four-setters, including one in a third round victory over No. 4 Jaroslav Drobný and another in a mighty semifinal tussle against No. 15 Dick Savitt. In the final, he went down 2-1 against No. 3 Herbie Flam, rallied in a monumental fashion and secured the championship, 6–3, 4–6, 5–7, 6–4, 6–3. Repeating at Forest Hills was a tough proposition and in 1951 Larsen made a concerted bid, reaching the semifinals where he lost to eventual champion Sedgman. He was a quarterfinalist in 1949 and 1954, losing to Pancho Gonzales and Ken Rosewall.
Larsen’s success wasn’t restricted to just the U.S. Nationals. As the No. 12 seed he advanced to the finals of the 1954 French Championships, but was overpowered by No. 2 seed Tony Trabert, 6-4, 7-5, 6-1. He was a semifinalist at the 1951 Australian Championships (lost to Ken McGregor) and three times a quarterfinalist at Wimbledon (1950, 1951, 1953), losing to Sedgman, Savitt, and Mervyn Rose respectively. Larsen advanced to the quarterfinals of the 1950 French National Men’s Singles, falling to Eric Sturgess.
Larsen was an endearing and engaging player, who earned the nickname “Tappy” because he had a superstitious habit of tapping people and things a certain number of times on selected days. “Every day was a onesie day, or a fivesie day — that’s what he called them — and if he happened to run into you on, say, a threesie day, he’d tap you three times,” said Savitt, the 1951 Wimbledon champion and a frequent Larsen opponent, in Larsen’s New York Times obituary.
Larsen defeated Savitt to win the 1952 Clay Court title, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2, nabbed Flam again in the 1952 U.S. Hard Court in straight sets (7-5, 8-6, 7-5), and in 1953 on the U.S. Indoor over Kurt Nielsen, 5-7, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. Coupled with his victory at Forest Hills, Larsen became the first man to win the American amateur championships on the four distinct surfaces (grass, clay, hardcourt, indoor). Only one other male player, Trabert, achieved that feat.
Larsen’s tennis career suffered dearly following a tragic accident on November 10, 1956. He lost control of his Italian motor scooter on a Northern California highway and the accident put him into a three-week coma, costing him the sight in his left eye and leaving him partially paralyzed. Unfortunately, the injuries ended his competitive playing days.
His shortened career didn’t taint his successes. He was a Top 10 U.S. ranked player eight times starting in 1949, rising to No. 6 in 1948 and No. 1 in 1950. He ranked among the world’s Top 10 players in 1950 (No. 3 overall), 1951 and 1954.
Upon his death at age 87, he was awarded four campaign stars and honored with a military burial service in California.