Tony Trabert, Major Champion & Tennis Icon, Dies Aged 90
The tennis world mourns one of its greatest supporters
Tony Trabert, who saw the sport from all angles as a major champion and ambassador both on and off the court, has passed away aged 90. His record of 106 match wins and 18 singles titles in the 1955 season remains one of the greatest years in tennis history.
The universally popular American enriched tennis for more than 70 years as the world’s top amateur player, a contract pro, a manager of Jack Kramer’s troupe and executive director of a fledgling players association, which helped push for Open tennis. His insight for more than 30 years as a highly successful television commentator and analyst, helped to drive the sport’s boom and brought the US Open and other major championships to new audiences. He was also a two-time Davis Cup winning captain of the United States, a coach, an author and later served as the President of the International Tennis Hall of Fame before his health and mobility began to suffer.
International Tennis Hall of Fame President Stan Smith, who succeeded Trabert in that role and was on two US Davis Cup teams captained by Trabert commented, “I had big shoes to fill coming into this role after Tony, but that is exactly the example that Tony’s life in tennis was in all areas. He didn’t just show us all how to be a great champion. He was also a role model as a wise coach and mentor, a fair and effective leader, someone who gave back to the sport, and an all-around terrific ambassador for tennis. He was a good friend to me and to so many and he will be greatly missed.”
“The world knew Tony for his excellence in tennis, from his remarkable career to his Davis Cup success as a player and captain to being the voice of the US Open during his decades with CBS Sports,” said Western & Southern Open Tournament Director J. Wayne Richmond. “Tony’s impact went far beyond the court, in particular to those who knew him closely. He was so proud of his Cincinnati roots and was always a loyal supporter of the tournament here.
“Tony also worked very hard to promote the game, developing junior players at summer camps and honoring the great history of the sport during his tenure as president of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Above all else, Tony was wonderful friend and an incredibly loving father, grandfather and great-grandfather. He will be dearly missed.”
The ITHF mourns the loss and celebrates the life of Hall of Famer and past President Tony Trabert.— Tennis Hall of Fame (@TennisHalloFame) February 4, 2021
Tony's life in tennis covered every stage, and he will be remembered for his character and kindness in every endeavor. Our thoughts are with his family and many friends. pic.twitter.com/8DhV2onOqN
Trabert, the son of a sports mad sales engineer with General Electric, grew up in Bond Hill, two houses down from a Cincinnati park that had clay courts, and started playing tennis aged six with his older brothers, Marc and Douglas. It wasn’t long until he came under the guidance of Carmago Club pro Earl Bossang, who gave Trabert his first tennis racquet, and Cincinnati Tennis Club pro Howard Zaeh. Both taught Trabert the fundamentals: good groundstrokes, the volley and an all-court game. His backhand, backhand volley and overhead would become his best shots.
Already a winner of local junior tournaments, 12-year-old Trabert came under the wing of another Cincinnati native, Bill Talbert, during the peak years of his own illustrious career, who offered volleying advice at the 1942 Tri-State Tennis Championships. At this time, Trabert was a big Cincinnati Reds fan and felt he was better at baseball. Talbert, who went on to become an NBC Sports commentator and a future US Open Tournament Director, once said of the youngster, "[Trabert] was interested, hard-working and eager to improve. He was obviously a fine athlete with a natural ball sense, hampered by only being a bit slow on his feet. I could see in him a duplicate of myself at the same age — an intense desire to be a good player and a willingness to spend the long hours required to make the grade."
He excelled at every sport at Walnut Hills High School, but gradually limited himself to basketball, which he mainly played to sharpen up his footwork for tennis. In 1948, Trabert and his father, Arch, a former amateur boxer, attended the Bobby Riggs and Kramer pro tour match in a Cincinnati high school gym and spoke to both players in the locker room. Quick to pick up technical changes, he became the US National Indoors singles and doubles champion that year.
Trabert became the first player in history to win three consecutive Ohio singles championships. He was offered scholarships at leading West Coast universities, but decided to stay at home, enrolling at the University of Cincinnati, where he studied political science. Trabert won the 1951 NCAA Singles Championship and started as a guard for the Bearcats basketball team, which won the Mid-American Conference championship and played in the National Invitation Tournament. By continually working on his movement and fitness, he kept at a playing weight of 185lbs.
Trabert made his first big impact in 1950, when, as a 19-year-old, he beat Ted Schroeder in the Western Championships and finished the year ranked No. 12 in the United States. On his first all-expenses-paid trip to Europe in 1950 with Talbert, they won every doubles tournament they contested, including the Internazionali BNL d'Italia in Rome and Roland Garros, beating Jaroslav Drobny and Eric Sturgess in the Paris final. Trabert played the Big Game of serve and volley, using a Wilson Jack Kramer Autograph racquet between 1949 and 1956, striking clean and hard service returns that resulted in spectacular passing strokes. His first serve was powerful and he struck his second serve with excess spin. He hit topspin on his backhand, but Trabert’s mind was his greatest asset.
The follow year, he rose to No. 3 nationally, but in September 1951, just as he was about to start his third year at the University of Cincinnati, he was drafted for a near two-year stint in the U.S. Navy that limited his tennis playing time. Reporting initially to Bainbridge, Maryland, he served as a seaman apprentice on the bridge for air defence, then in the quartermaster division and navigation on the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean during the Korean War. Immediately after leaving service in June 1953, Trabert met Shauna Wood (1930-2019) while playing the National Hard Court Championships in Salt Lake City, two months before he captured his first major singles championship title at the U.S. Nationals in Forest Hills (d. Vic Seixas). Wood, a University of Utah graduate, had just been named Miss Utah and became a contestant in the 1953 Miss Universe Pageant. They were married on 26 October 1953 at the Salt Lake City Country Club, before going on a week-long honeymoon in Hawaii and then onto Australia with the U.S. Davis Cup squad.
Photo courtesy: International Tennis Hall of Fame
Trabert's motto as a player was, “You’re not safe until you get in the locker room.” He won five major singles championships in a three-year period between 1953 and 1955. He captured two Roland Garros crowns in 1954 (d. Art Larsen) and 1955 (d. Sven Davidson) and remained the last American male champion in Paris until 17-year-old Michael Chang lifted the trophy in 1989. Having developed blisters on his feet and right hand in a five-set fourth-round victory over Davidson en route to the 1954 Wimbledon semi-finals, Trabert was determined to capture The Championships crown the following year. He beat Kurt Nielsen 6-3, 7-5, 6-1 in the Wimbledon final and went on to defeat Ken Rosewall 9-7, 6-3, 6-3 in the U.S. Nationals final at Forest Hills — completing the title double without losing a set.
In 1955, 25-year-old Trabert produced one of the best seasons in tennis history, compiling a staggering 106-7 match record, including a 38-match winning streak, 18 titles, including 10 straight tournament wins, and three of the four major championships. He lost to Rosewall in the Australian Open semi-finals. To date, he is one of seven men to win three major titles in a single season. Only Don Budge (1938), Rod Laver (1962, 1969), Mats Wilander (1988), Roger Federer (2004, 2006, 2007), Rafael Nadal (2010) and Novak Djokovic (2011, 2015) have accomplished the same feat.
Having conquered the amateur circuit in 1955, Trabert looked to settle down with his family as West Coast salesman for Security Banknote Co. Later that year, Kramer offered Trabert a guarantee of $75,000 against a percentage of the gate to play on his pro tour. Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall also signed contracts, but they were talked out of turning pro when they returned to Australia. Trabert toured for 14 straight months all over the world with Richard Pancho Gonzales and in one five-month stretch in North America the pair met on 101 occasions. Gonzales’ serve did the damage, winning the series 74-27 on mostly indoor, portable canvas surfaces, which would move slightly when you set off to chase down a ball. Playing five matches per week, Trabert took home $125,000 in the first year, a far cry from the £10 certificate redeemable at Lilly White’s Sporting Goods store in London after his Wimbledon triumph. At the time bread was a nickel (five cents) and car petrol a dime (10 cents). He won the 1956 and 1959 French Pro titles, beating Gonzales and Frank Sedgman respectively.
While Trabert continued to play on the pro circuit, he took up Kramer’s offer in 1960 and moved to Paris to organise pro tour matches and tournaments in Europe, Africa and Asia. He signed 1962 Grand Slam champion Rod Laver to a pro contract and later helped Rene Lacoste develop what became the Wilson T2000 steel design racquet — used by Billie Jean King, Clark Graebner and Jimmy Connors — and promoted the Lacoste ‘alligator’ logo shirts. Trabert lived in France with his wife, who worked as a top model for Chanel, and their two young children, Mike (born 1956) and Brooke (born 1958), for three years before he stepped into playing retirement by returning to the United States. In 1962, Trabert also became the first executive director of the Independent Tennis Players’ Association (a forerunner of the Association of Tennis Professionals) and continued to push for Open tennis.
Trabert, who was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1970, opened up his highly successful ‘Trabert Tennis Camps’ in California for children aged 8-18 in 1971. It was the same year he contacted CBS about how he felt the broadcaster was covering tennis. Trabert launched his broadcasting career from an initial two-day taped commentary recorded at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida. Renowned for preparing 10 times as many notes as he used, Trabert told fans what they didn’t see and what tactics the players used in a CBS Sports role that spanned 33 years until his retirement in 2004. He mastered the post-final interview at the US Open and worked alongside former American football player Pat Summerall for 25 years. On 8 September 1984 — 'Super Saturday' at the US Open — the pair commentated for 12 straight hours. In witnessing the evolution of the game and technology, he also commentated for Australia’s Channel 9 for 23 years alongside Fred Stolle and John Newcombe, and published the 1988 book, 'Trabert on Tennis: The View From Center Court'.
Photo courtesy: International Tennis Hall of Fame
Trabert, an easy speaker with the manner of a diplomat, was honoured to captain the United States Davis Cup between 1976 and 1980, bringing a young John McEnroe into the fold. The nation lifted the trophy in 1978 (d. Great Britain) and 1979 (d. Italy). In the 1970s, Trabert also coached Kathy May, a future World No. 10 and Taylor Fritz’s mother, until she retired aged 24. While covering a golf tournament in Ponte Vedra Beach in 1982, Trabert met his second wife, Vicki, who worked was a real estate agent at the time, and settled in Florida, just minutes from ATP's American headquarters.
After more than 50 years as one of the sport’s greatest ambassadors, Trabert was named President of the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, in 2001. Over the next 10 years, he also chaired the Enshrinee and Nominating committee (1998-2011), meeting with the 21-person panel each year at Wimbledon. In early 2014, he underwent heart surgery, and while Trabert was unable to play golf or tennis due to a bad right shoulder in recent years, he continued to marvel at the great champions and the depth of the sport.
Trabert passed away on Wednesday evening at his family home in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, surrounded by his second wife of more than 30 years, Vicki, his two children, Mike and Brooke, and three step-children.
Marion Anthony Trabert, tennis player, coach, captain, author and sports commentator, born 16 August 1930; died 3 February 2021.
THE TENNIS WORLD PAYS TRIBUTE
RIP Tony Trabert.... a champion tennis player, a champion tennis analyst, a champion family man... I remember using his signature wooden racket and listening to his USOpen commentary. Stellar character 🙏— Chris Evert (@ChrissieEvert) February 5, 2021
I'm saddened to hear that Tony Trabert has passed away, a 100% class act in every way. Legendary feats on court, Tony served the game in so many ways with a driving passion for the sport. Goodbye my friend. 🚀— Rod Laver (@rodlaver) February 4, 2021
A lovely obituary @joeldrucker, thank you. https://t.co/BGRVFVuHiz
Tennis lost a legend today #TonyTrabert was a grand slam champion, amazing broadcaster, grew up listening to him with John Newcombe, Fred Stolle on @wwos @Wimbledon they helped build my dreams and goals. Lucky to be living them. Thanks Tony— Todd Woodbridge (@toddwoodbridge) February 5, 2021
It’s not often that I’m lost for words but today I am. No matter what I say, I cannot do justice to what Tony Trabert did for tennis both on and off the court. Tennis legend, @TennisHalloFame, player, coach, captain, commentator and much more. RIP Tony.— Nick Bollettieri (@NickBollettieri) February 4, 2021
Heartbreaking to hear of Tony Trabert’s passing. Hall of Fame, legendary careers in tennis & commentating. Such a gentleman!Took lessons as a little girl, he became a good friend & feel fortunate to speak to Tony last week. Condolences Vicki, Mike, and Brooke #RIPTony 💔💔💔— Tracy Austin (@thetracyaustin) February 5, 2021
Sad to learn that tennis has lost one of its greatest today, Tony Trabert. My thoughts are with Tony's family and friends. Rest In Peace legend.— Craig Tiley (@CraigTiley) February 4, 2021
A sad day for tennis to lose one of our legends on and off the court. Tony welcomed me to the broadcast booth in 1981 when I was just 19 years old. He will be missed and sending prayers to his family! 🙏🏼😢 pic.twitter.com/61GO8dF5EH— Pam Shriver (@PHShriver) February 4, 2021