He Played His Way into Tennis History
There was little to suggest the short, skinny kid with bowed legs would amount to much of a tennis player. Born prematurely, he endured a double hernia and rickets as a child, taking up tennis only after a family friend suggested it would help build his strength. The friend, conveniently, got the boy’s father a job maintaining the courts at the country club in the family’s hometown of Guayaquil, Ecuador. “I was the ball boy and got towels for the members,” says 90-year-old Francisco “Pancho” Segura, ’45.
|Pancho Segura, ‘45, and his coach at UM, Gardnar Mulloy, right
When he wasn’t working—and nobody was looking—the young Segura would spend hours hitting tennis balls. His unusual two-handed technique was born of necessity. “As a kid, I was weak,” he explains, “so I gripped the racket with two hands, and it just became habit.”
Maybe that stroke is what first caught the attention of Gardnar Mulloy, at the time University of Miami’s tennis coach and a top international player. Mulloy says just before World War II, he was on a State Department tour of Latin America, playing exhibition matches against the local talent. Segura, in his late teens, was no longer honing his game on the sly. “I hit some balls with him,” says Mulloy, now 98. “I told him, ‘You’re never going to get good, playing down here. You’ve got to come to the U.S.’”
Not a recruiting pitch, exactly, but that’s how it turned out. A few years later, says Mulloy, he was at the U.S. Grass Court Championships in Rye, New York, when there was a knock on his door. It was Segura. “You said come to America,” he recalls Segura saying. “Here I am.” Mulloy got his protégé a tennis scholarship to UM in 1941.
“I was one of the few students who spoke Spanish,” says Segura.
Make that almost nothing but Spanish.
“He stayed in the dorm with the football team,” recalls Mulloy. “Once a football player instructed him to approach a co-ed and make an indecent proposal—without telling him what he was saying. She slapped him so hard, and poor Pancho was, like, ‘What did I say?’”
But on the court there was no getting the better of Segura. “Other players were so scared of his forehand,” says his old coach, “they would break their ass to stay away from it.” It didn’t work. Against Segura, hardly anything did. Nicknamed “Segoo” by players and fans, he was crowned the intercollegiate men’s champion from 1943 to 1945, the only men’s player to accomplish the feat in the modern era. “I just kept improving,” says Segura. “That’s the great thing about tennis. It doesn’t matter who your dad is or where you go to school. It’s just me and you. It’s democracy at its best.”
That attitude served Segura well after UM. He more than held his own playing against some of tennis’s greatest, including Jack Kramer, Tony Trabert, and the other “Pancho”—Richard “Pancho” González. Segura ranked at or near the top of the professional men’s game for much of the 1950s. “He was [only 5’6” and], in a way, not as strong as the other players,” says Segura biographer Caroline Seebohm, “but he was a terrific strategist, and that’s how he beat people.”
By 1968 Segura, too old for competitive play, began teaching at the Beverly Hills Country Club. He would, though, make one more lasting contribution to the professional game when he took a youngster named Jimmy Connors under his wing. “He had tremendous desire,” says Segura of the five-time U.S. Open champion. “I knew he’d surprise everybody.” Just like a skinny, bowlegged kid from Ecuador did.