Right before the Grateful Dead played “Johnny B. Goode,” guitarist Jerry Garcia used to announce, “This is the one that started it all off.” For tennis memoirs, the same can be said about A Handful of Summers by former South African tennis pro Gordon Forbes. A Handful of Summers is a coming of age story set against the cosmopolitan background of the pro tour in the 1950s while it was still segregated between amateurs and pros.
Forbes starts with his childhood on a farm in South Africa, where he learned the game with his brother and sister on a gravel court. He becomes a promising junior, eventually lands a spot on the South African Davis Cup team and begins touring.
His is the era of Lew Hoad, Tony Trabert, Vic Seixas, Roy Emerson, Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall. The Australian Davis Cup team ruled the international tennis roost and its lesser players, like Warren Woodcock and Don Candy, figure in many of Forbes’ stories. Tennis fans will recall that competition between pros and amateurs didn’t start until 1968, so in Forbes’ era, most of then tour and all of the Grand Slams were for amateurs only. There wasn’t much money to be made, and when it did change hands, it was usually done under the table.
Less money may not always equal better stories, but in Forbes’ memoir, it seems to. There are a lot of anecdotes that start out “We had gone to dinner in Konigsberg,” or “Our boat put in at Las Palmas” or “We had finished the tour at Eastbourne” and then tells some madcap story that may or may not have much to do with tennis.
Forbes wisely uses his friend and traveling partner Abe Segal, another South African pro, as his comedic foil. The chemistry between the two men, Forbes, at the start of the book a provincial and somewhat shy and refined young man and Segal, a bull in a china shop, gives rise to numerous funny stories.
How different was the pro tour then? Well, for starters, can you imagine a tournament promoter offering a small
weekly stipend, lunch, maybe free housing in a club member’s home, and a return train ticket to the capital on the modern pro circuit? That would make for a small draw on today’s ATP or WTA tour.
For some of today’s senior players,
Forbes’ book is a place to find stories about the pre-Open era coaches some of us were lucky enough to have. You find a geezer tennis player using a continental grip, it might well be the legacy of lessons with some of the colorful characters out of the pages of Forbes’ book. For example, Forbes has a lot of stories about the Warren Woodcock. I took lessons with Woodcock at the Spring Lake Bath & Tennis Club in Spring Lake, N.J., in the early
sixties. A few years later, Woodcock moved to Queen’s West Side Tennis Club where he taught Vitas Gerulitas among others. If fans remember Vitas’ clipped volleys, it’s safe to say he picked them up from his lessons
with Woodcock. Former pro and current sportscaster Pam Shriver’s coach, Don Candy, another Australian star from this era, figures in one of Forbes’ nuttiest stories in A Handful of Summers.
In a tale that resembles the Abbot & Costello routine “Who’s on First?,” Candy threw a tantrum at a small pro event in England to get a linesman removed who wasn’t there. The dialogue went like this.
“I want that man removed!” Candy said.
“There is no one there,” said the umpire.
“Well, I want you to get someone,” said Candy, “so I can have him removed.”
“But if we get someone and then remove him, we will have no linesman,” the umpire said.
“But we already have no linesman,” Candy said. And so on.
In the wake of this year’s French Open, tennis fans are again debating the age-old question who is or was the best player ever. Is it Federer? How can it be Federer given what Nadal has accomplished? Agassi and Sampras, Laver and Tilden all have their supporters. But read A Handful of Summers and Forbes will remind us of how dominant Australian pro Lew Hoad was in his prime. Injuries and turning pro may have blunted his legacy, but Forbes is quite good on just how much respect “Hoadie” earned in the 1950s. Of course, Hoad has fewer Slams than other contenders, but his peers tell a compelling story about how strong he was.
Some of Forbes’ stories don’t quite come off but you can’t do better than A Handful of Summers for a description of the game before Open tennis.