Feb 3, 2021: The day US legend Tony Trabert passed away, aged 90

Every day, Tennis Majors looks back at the biggest moments in tennis history. On February 3, 2021, tennis legend Tony Trabert, a five-time Grand Slam champion, passed away at the age of 90.

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What happened exactly on that day

On February 3, 2021, Tony Trabert, a trail-blazing figure of American tennis, whose career spanned the amateur and professional eras, died at the age of 90. He won five Grand Slam titles and won the Davis Cup as a player and captain.

Early years: Roland-Garros doubles champion

Tony Trabert was born in 1930 in Cincinnati. He took to tennis at a young age, practicing on public clay courts, and by the age of 11, he was already winning junior tournaments. Later, as he was sharpening his game at the Cincinnati Tennis Club, he met Bill Talbert, 12 years older, who became his mentor, especially during their 1950 Tour in Europe – which peaked with the pair winning the doubles event at Roland-Garros (defeating Jaroslav Drobny and Eric Sturgess, 6–2, 1–6, 10–8, 6–2). However, Trabert’s tennis career was then interrupted when he served for two years in the Navy during the Korean war.

Amateur career: Five slam titles, Davis Cup glory

Trabert was back at tennis in 1953. Described by Bud Collins as an “exceptional athlete, an attacker with a powerful backhand and strong volley”, he claimed his first singles Grand Slam title at the 1953 US Championships, where he didn’t lose a single set, outclassing Victor Seixas in the final (6-3, 6-2, 6-3). That year, he played one of the greatest Davis Cup matches of his time, in the Challenge Round against Australia, but he was defeated by Lew Hoad (13-11, 6-3, 2-6, 3-6, 7-5). 

In 1954, Trabert triumphed at Roland-Garros, on red clay, defeating countryman Arthur Larsen in the final (6-4, 7-5, 6-1). After he defended his title in 1955, no American player would triumph on red clay in the next 34 years, until Michael Chang lifted the trophy in 1989. However, despite this great success, the highlight of Trabert’s 1954 season was his Davis Cup triumph. This time, he took his revenge upon Hoad (6-4, 2-6, 12-10, 6-3), before sealing the deal on the following day, partnering Seixas to defeat Hoad and Ken Rosewall (6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 10-8). 

“My whole Davis Cup experience was great,” Trabert explained, years later, according to Mark Preston, quoted by USTA.com. “Representing your country is the greatest honour and opportunity you can have. Just to be out there giving your all for your team and your country and your flag. To hear the words, ‘Game, set, match, United States…’ There’s nothing else that compares to it. Beating the Aussies in ’54 was the biggest thrill in my tennis career.”

His amateur career peaked in 1955. That year, he scored a match record of 104-5 at singles, including 38 consecutive matches, 18 tournament titles and 10 straight tournament wins. He won three out of the four Grand Slams, defeating Sven Davidson in the Roland-Garros final (2–6, 6–1, 6–4, 6–2), Kurt Nielsen at Wimbledon (6-3, 7-5, 6-1) and Ken Rosewall at the US Championships (9-7, 6-3, 6-3). On top of that, with his old-time partner Vic Seixas, he also triumphed at doubles at the Australian Championships and Roland-Garros.

At the end of this amazing 1955 season, one of the greatest that was ever achieved in tennis history, Trabert, like many amateur world No 1 before, turned pro, joining Jack Kramer’s tour.

“When I won Wimbledon as an amateur, I got a £10 certificate, which was worth $27, redeemable at Lillywhites Sporting Goods store in London,” he told The Florida Times-Union in 2014. “Jack Kramer offered me a guarantee of $75,000 against a percentage of the gate to play on his tour.”

Pro career: Two French Pro titles

Trabert began his professional career by challenging the dominant player, Pancho Gonzalez, on a head-to-head tour – where Gonzalez prevailed by 74-27. However, in 1956, it was the same Gonzalez whom Trabert defeated in the final of the French Pro, on clay (6–3, 4–6, 5–7, 8–6, 6–2). During his years as a professional, Trabert added another French Pro to his list of achievements, in 1959 (defeating Frank Sedgman in the final, 6–4, 6–4, 6–4), and finished runner-up at the 1956 Wembley Pro as well as the 1960 US Pro. In the 1958 pro tour, Trabert won a personal series against Segura 34–31.

“The game’s been good to me. I haven’t made a fortune out of it, but I made a decent living, travelled the world and met all kinds of people. I’ve gotten an education that you don’t get out of books. I’ve played, by my best count, in 57 countries. For a guy from a lower middle class family on a dead end street in Cincinnati, Ohio, it’s been a pretty amazing ride.”

In retirement: Davis Cup captain, commentator for CBS

After his career as a player came to an end, he started the Tony Trabert Tennis Camp in Ojai, California, in 1970, and the following year, he also began a 33-year-long career as a TV broadcaster for CBS, which ended at Wimbledon, in 2004.  At the 1984 US Open, he set up a record, with his partner Pat Summerall, during the Super Saturday, when they commented for 12 consecutive hours.

In the years 1976-1980, Trabert was also the captain of the United States Davis Cup team, a team which, with the help of the rising start John McEnroe, he led to the title in 1978 and 1979.

A member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame since 1970, he was named President of this prestigious institution in 2001, a position he held for ten years.

When Tony Trabert passed away in Florida, on February 3, 2021, at the age of 90, many tennis legends paid tribute to his legacy, such as Rod Laver, the man who achieved the Grand Slam twice, who wrote: “I’m saddened to hear that Tony Trabert has passed away, a 100 percent class act in every way. Legendary feats on court, Tony served the game in so many ways with a driving passion for the sport.”

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