Little Pancho: The Life of Tennis Legend Pancho Segura By Caroline Seebohm

Long Island Tennis Magazine’s Literary Corner
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Last year was a tough year to publish a tennis biography if your name wasn’t Andre Agassi. But Caroline Seebohm’s account of another baseliner who also had the best return of serve of his era should not be overlooked.

Pancho Segura, the Ecuadorian pro with the two-handed forehand, has been a tennis pro’s tennis pro. His rise from a poor family in Guayaquil to a supporting role in Jack Kramer’s professional troupe in the pre-Open era is known to tennis insiders. But it is appropriate that Seebohm has made sure that more tennis fans will become aware of Segura’s contributions to the game.

One of the beauties of this book is that the reader gets not only Segura’s story, but also a thorough history of an era in tennis, the 1950s and most of the 1960s, when the game was still divided into pros and amateurs. You get a nicely detailed look at the hardships of the barnstorming pro tour of these years, with its small-change purses and grueling pace.

Little Pancho Cover ArtSegura turned pro in 1947 at the age of 26, driven by economic necessity, and played on various tours until he took a teaching job at the Beverly Hills Hotel in 1963 when he was 42. Although he was usually the warm-up act, he had wins over all the great players of his era, Jack Kramer, Pancho Gonzales, Bobby Riggs, Frank Sedgman, Mal Anderson, Ken Rosewall, Lou Hoad and Rod Laver. Seebohm quotes many of these stars saying that Segura was the best tactician they’d ever met. His knowledge of the game was absorbed by nearly every champion who crossed his path.

The book is filled with testimonials like this one from pro Butch Buchholtz, who joined the tour in 1961, just as Pancho’s skills were fading. “Nobody had a better tennis mind. I have a good understanding of the sport because of Pancho.” Billie Jean King called him “The Ph.D of Tennis.”

One basic concept Pancho taught was to play the score. If you are ahead, take chances. If you are behind, play more conservatively. Nobody seems to have told the Chilean star Fernando Gonzalez about this, but for many players this will work fine.

One of Segura’s great regrets is that he turned pro before he won any of what were then amateur events, like Wimbledon, the U.S. championships or the French Open. Seebohn traces his career from his days as a ball boy at the Guayaquil Tennis Club, to his pro career. She also devotes chapters to his years spent as a teaching pro, first in Beverly Hills and then, at La Costa in Carlsbad, Calif.

Also folded into her account is a thorough character sketch of Segura’s friend and rival, Pancho Gonzales. She describes the racism both men endured as they made their way through the upper middle-class tennis world of the time. Segura, “Little Pancho,” had a knack for clowning his way through and deflecting the anti-Hispanic prejudice both men encountered. “Big Pancho” was less accommodating.

For all that has been written about Gonzales, Seebohm’s quote of Segura’s take on his friend sums up “Big Pancho” in a few words …

“He was a peculiar guy. He was a nice guy if he liked you. If he didn’t like you, it didn’t matter if you had money or power, he didn’t give a damn.”

In addition to an in-depth portrait of “Big Pancho,” Seebohm also describes the role Segura played in the development of Jimmy Connors.

Before Segura took Connors under his wing in 1968, he was giving lessons to movie stars and film executives at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club. Not a bad gig, but Segura itched to work with a player who was going to make a dent in the game. When Connors’ mother made the arrangements to move Jimmy from Illinois to Los Angeles and let Segura train him, both the coach and the protégée profited.

Seebohm’s book provides a slice of life look at the pro tour when it had more in common with professional wresting than the game as we know it today. She also throws in pitch-perfect descriptions of Gonzales, Connors and life in the glittering community that was the Beverly Hills Tennis Club in the sixties.

But even though this is a tennis biography with no admissions of meth use, it is a fascinating portrait of a few eras and towering figures in the game using Segura as a jump-off point.

And, last but not least, Seebohm shares a fascinating bit of tennis trivia that Long Island Tennis Magazine readers should be able to use to win bets. What invention in the late 1880s was crucial to the development of the game of lawn tennis? The lawn mower.