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Spain's Andres Gimeno celebrates winning the 1972 Roland Garros title, the high-point in a 18-year career.

Andres Gimeno: 1937-2019

Pioneer of Spanish tennis was one of the sport's nicest guys

Andres Gimeno, who played much of his best tennis on the pro tour of the 1960s and captured the 1972 Roland Garros title, passed away aged 82 on Wednesday after a long illness.

“He was a gentleman on court and had an enormous talent," said Manuel Santana, his long-time friend, to Agencia EFE. "He was a great friend and a champion in life. Andres, friend of his friends, you’ll be in my life until my last breath. Rest in peace."

Amiable, polite and pleasant off the court, Gimeno is remembered as one of the nicest guys on tour. At 6’1”, he was lean, lithe and extremely consistent, particularly on his favoured clay courts. He possessed a good serve and a game centred on a powerful forehand, slice backhand, and a willingness to chip and charge to the net. Pancho Segura, one of the leading players of the 1940s and 1950s, helped Gimeno develop his net game and cross-court forehand volley.

Cliff Drysdale, the first president of the Association of Tennis Professionals when it was formed in September 1972, told ATPTour.com, “Andres was always looking for a reason to laugh. To enjoy. He lived on his own terms and you did not need to feed your friendship. It was what it was. After a break on tour, you just took up where you left off. He was easy-going and looking for the next fun thing to happen. I loved Andresito.

“On court, his anticipation was uncanny. He had a simple game plan: chip and charge. I used to goad him in to trying to hit a topspin backhand like Ken Rosewall, but it was impossible. I remember when we used to play golf, he said with a smile, 'Irone Sinko Dreesdale idiota' (Five iron, you idiot!)”

Stan Smith, the 1971 US Open and 1972 Wimbledon champion, who is currently the President of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, told ATPTour.com, “He was a gentleman, liked by all and a really nice guy, who I played plenty of big matches against, including at 1972 Roland Garros. He was a strategic player, who sometimes suffered from nerves, but had a good serve and net play. I still smile at the day in Washington, D.C., when Andres was playing when Cliff Richey pulled up a line on the court and 30 nails came flying out. Andres had no idea what to do, let alone anyone else!”

Encouraged by his father, Esteban, who later became one of Spain’s first professional tennis trainers, as a youth Gimeno trained at the Real Club de Tennis Barcelona, venue of the ATP 500-level Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell. By the age of 17, he won the 1954 national doubles championships with Juan Couder and soon the international amateur circuit beckoned.

As a pioneer of Spanish tennis, which is today led by Rafael Nadal, Gimeno’s best year as an amateur came in 1960 when he clinched titles at Monte-Carlo (the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters), Barcelona and also at The Queen’s Club in London (the Fever-Tree Championships), where he beat Ramanathan Krishnan, Rod Laver and Roy Emerson. That year, he also partered Jose Luis Arilla to the Roland Garros doubles final (l. to Emerson/Fraser).

When a vote for Open Tennis failed by only five votes —134 of the 209 votes to reach the two-thirds majority (139) required for a major rule change — at the International Lawn Tennis Federation (ILTF) A.G.M. in the summer of 1960s, to “end the distinction between amateurs and professionals”, several of the leading amateur players were recruited to the pro tour. Future ATP founder Jack Kramer, who had turned pro himself in 1947 only to lead the tour by 1954, signed up 23-year-old Gimeno to a three-year contract — paying $16,000 per year, plus bonuses and travel expenses — in July 1960.

Gimeno won his first pro-tour match against Alex Olmedo in Deauville, northern France, in August 1960 and by the middle of the decade, the Spaniard was considered to be the third best pro after Laver and Rosewall. Strong off both sides, his forehand return was considered on a par with Laver, Segura and Earl Butch Buchholz in the pro game.

Gimeno played in the London Pro Championships (1927-1967) at Wembley on seven occasions, losing to Laver 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 in the September 1965 final. He was also runner-up in the French Pro Championships of 1962 (l. to Rosewall) and 1967 (l. to Laver) and at the 1967 US Pro Championships (l. to Laver). In August 1967, at the invitation of the All England Club, he was one of eight players that contested the three-day Wimbledon World Lawn Tennis Professional Championships on Centre Court. He lost 6-3, 6-4 in the semi-finals to Laver, but secured the doubles title with Richard Pancho Gonzales over Laver and Fred Stolle 6-4, 14-12.

Closing in on his 32nd birthday upon the advent of Open tennis in April 1968, Gimeno's peak performance days were limited, but he managed to reach the 1968 US Open doubles final with Arthur Ashe, losing to Bob Lutz and Smith 11-9, 6-1, 7-5 and, four months later, he beat Ken Rosewall en route to the 1969 Australian Open final in Brisbane, where he lost to Laver 6-3, 6-4, 7-5. In 1970, the year he reached the Wimbledon semi-finals (l. to Newcombe), he joined the World Champions Tennis tour as a contract pro from the National Tennis League.

Aged 34 years and 10 months, sixth seed Gimeno became the oldest men’s singles champion at Roland Garros with a 4-6, 6-3, 6-1, 6-1 victory over ninth-seeded Frenchman Patrick Proisy. Only Clark Graebner and Alex Metreveli took Gimeno to five sets during his historic run, which saw him follow in the footsteps of fellow Spaniard Manuel Santana, the 1961 and 1964 champion.

Twelve months later, Gimeno had retired from the sport due to a meniscus injury. He purchased 20,000 square metres of land in 1972, with the intention of forming the Andres Gimeno Tennis Club and by September 1974, Juan Antonio Samaranch, Spain’s then Minister of Culture and Sports (1973-77) and the future President of the International Olympic Committee (1980-2001), was on hand at the inauguration. Soon, the club had 17 clay courts, an outdoor pool and a 1,720 square metre clubhouse. By the end of the decade, there were 25 courts and 1,600 members.

In his playing retirement, Gimeno became a tennis coach, a television commentator, wrote columns for Marca, the Spanish daily sports newspaper, and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2009. By the late 2000s, at the height of the global economic crisis, Gimeno was forced to sell property. In 2011, Nadal, David Ferrer, Tommy Robredo, Marcel Granollers, Albert Montanes, Oscar Hernandez and former WTA World No. 1 Arantxa Sanchez Vicario took part in an exhibition at the Palau Blaugrana to raise funds.

Gimeno, who fought hard in his two-year battle with pancreatic cancer, is survived by his wife, Cristina, who he married in 1962. The couple had three children, Alejo, Andres Jr. and Cristina Jr., who sadly passed away in 2011 due to leukemia.

Andres Gimeno Tolaguera, tennis player and commentator, born 3 August 1937; died 9 October 2019.