Class of 1979
World No. 1 (1963)
Grand Slam Results
4-time major champion, 2-time finalist
Gold Medal winner in Singles at the Demonstration Tournament, 1968
Gold Medal winner in Doubles in both the Exhibition and Demonstration Tournaments, 1968
Member of the Mexican Davis Cup Team 1958, 1960-1969
Overall Record: 42-23
Singles Record: 25-15
Doubles Record: 17-8
Rafael Osuna has been described as the “Best Player You Never Knew.” Those who saw the crafty and clever player perform knew better. The greatest player in Mexican tennis history and an immensely beloved figure throughout the country was one of 79 people who tragically died on June 4, 1969 when Mexican Airways Flight 704 crashed into mountains near Monterrey, Mexico. He was just 30-years-old, and in a far different era of tennis where tour athletes played more, practiced less, had careers absent of special diets, personal fitness specialists, and a traveling entourage. Osuna was still a formidable player even though he had been on tour since 1959.
There were a plethora of reasons that Osuna’s death was a devastating blow to his country and a global tennis community that shrunk in grief particularly because it came just nine days after Osuna led Mexico to a stunning 3-2 victory over Australia in the Davis Cup tie in Mexico City. Osuna, who was a Davis Cupper for Mexico 11 years, carried the weight of his nation and team gallantly on his racquet strings. He was near retirement, and cajoled into playing. He responded in heroic style, defeating Bill Bowrey in the clinching fifth match, 6-2, 3-6, 8-6, 6-3. He had secured a crucial doubles point earlier with partner Vincente Zarazua over Phil Dent and John Alexander in a colossal effort, 18-16, 12-10, 6-4. After the victory, the crowd went crazy, jumped onto the court, and carried Osuna away atop their shoulders.
Less than two weeks later, Osuna left for a day trip to Monterrey. The last thing he did before departing was play a game of chess with his father-in-law. “His legacy as a tennis player and a human being was very big,” Osuna’s sister Elena Osuna de Belmar told CNN’s Open Court.
Osuna was both quick and fast, tennis historian Bud Collins confirming this depiction, saying “He was the quickest of his era.” He was a voracious serve and volleyer who covered the net with reflexes and anticipation few in the sport had. Joe Cullman, then the Chairman of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, delivered Osuna's induction speech in 1979. He started his speech with the following words: "The fastest human being ever to have set foot on a tennis court, and the only one capable of reaching a drop shot and hitting it as a volley." “He played with the speed of a panther, but with the grace of a matador,” Elena Osuna de Belmar said. “That’s how I remember him as a winner – he was a winner.” Little doubt there, as Osuna was ranked in the World Top 10 three times (1962-1964) and ascended to No. 1 in 1963.
The U.S. Nationals was his favorite event, where in singles he reached the semifinal round 4 times (1961, 1962, 1964 & 1965) and won the event in 1963. The No. 4 seeded Osuna became the first and only Mexican player to win the tournament, defeating unseeded American Frank Froehling, 7-5, 6-4, 6-2. The two final points of the match were orchestrated in vintage Osuna fashion: He served deep into Froehling’s backhand – handcuffing a soft return – and his serving motion naturally moved him to net. His forehand volley was hit crisply and deeply down the center line. Froehling pushed back a soft backhand lob over Osuna’s left shoulder, which he flicked back just inches inside the line. Froehling went wide to his right and tried to power a forehand down the line. Osuna was in perfect position to slap his backhand volley into the open court for match point. He won the title on his next serve and then jumped over the net in joy. “He was the first to open the doors for tennis in Mexico and show Mexico we can be somebody,” Osuna’s nephew Rafael Belmar Osuna told Open Court. Osuna reached the semifinals at the U.S. Nationals four times in 1961, 1962, 1964, and 1965.
Osuna parlayed his proficient singles game and became an innovative doubles player, winning a pair of Wimbledon Gentlemen Men’s Doubles Championships in 1960 and 1963 and the U.S. National Championships in 1962. His first Wimbledon title came with American Dennis Ralston over the British duo of Mike Davies and Bobby Wilson, 7-5, 6-3, 10-8. The duo made history as the first unseeded players to win the title. Osuna’s second Wimbledon triumph came with compatriot Antonio Palafox over the French team of Jean-Claude Barclay and Pierre Damon, 4-6, 6-2, 6-2, 6-2. The 1962 U.S. triumph was partnered with Palafox over American’s Chuck McKinley and Ralston in a heavy, 64-game comeback match, 6-4, 10-12, 1-6, 9-7, 6-3. The match featured brilliant exchanges, powerful play and proficient rallied by both teams. Like his singles victory, Osuna closed out the match with an unreturnable serve. Along with his doubles wins, Osuna and Palafox reached the finals at the in U.S. Nationals 1961 and 1963, making three straight finals appearances. The two were also semifinalists at Wimbledon in 1964.
The 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City featured tennis prominently. Tennis had not been a Full-Medal sport since 1924, and Mexico selected it to be featured in two events: one as an Exhibition Sport in Mexico City and one as a Demonstration Sport in Guadalajara. Rafael Osuna was a Gold Medal winner in Singles at the Demonstration Tournament and a Gold Medal winner in Doubles in both the Exhibition and Demonstration tournaments. Tennis returned to the Olympics as an Exhibition Sport in 1984 and as a Full-Medal Sport in 1988. It remains one of the most popular Summer Olympic Sports today.
Osuna had a bevy of posthumous honors, including being inducted into the Intercollegiate Tennis Hall of Fame in 1983, the USC Athletic Hall of Fame in 2007, and the tennis stadium in Mexico City bears his name. His sister published his biography, Rafael Osuna: Sonata en Set Mayor in 1990.
“I was so nervous watching my little brother play and he knew that,” Elena Osuna de Belmar explained. “Between points he would walk toward me, he knew where I was sitting and he would wink the eye to say, ‘don’t worry, I am going to win.’ He was such a charismatic guy. He really was a boy that just enjoyed life.”
Wimbledon: QF 1962, 1964, 1965
U.S. Nationals: W 1963
French Championships: SF 1965
Wimbledon: W 1960, 1963
U.S. Nationals: W 1962