Stories You Should Know: Tony Trabert

Tennis in 1955 was in a state of flux. The traditional majors still had the prestige, but Jack Kramer’s Professional Tour had the best players.  Pancho Gonzales was in the middle of his seven year run as the #1 player in the world. Frank Sedgman and Pancho Segura were also in the top five, but because of the rule against professionals, they were not allowed to participate in the Australian, French, United States or Wimbledon Championships. The best the traditional Majors could showcase were a 25 year old Navy veteran from Cincinnati, Ohio, Tony Trabert, and a 5’5” 20 year old phenom from Sydney, Australia, Ken Rosewall.

Ken Rosewall of Australia

The 1955 Majors were played in the same order as today. The Australian Championship was contested in January. Tony Trabert made the trip Down Under for the first Major in January. This didn’t seem to impress the people setting up the draw for the Australian Championships. Tony was given the 4th seed. Ken Rosewall was seeded 1st, followed by 32 year old American veteran, Vic Seixas, and then another Aussie, Rex Hartwig. The worst part about the seeding is it set up a match between the two best players, Rosewall and Trabert, in the Semi-finals and not the Finals.

Trabert was not nearly as invincible in the early rounds in Adelaide as he would be in the other three Majors. In the Third Round, Australian Neale Fraser shocked just about everybody by winning the first set, 6-1, and then amazingly won the second, 6-3. Facing an early exit Trabert recovered to win in five sets. It took Tony another four sets to dispose of another Aussie, Mervyn Rose in the quarters, setting up the match everybody was hoping for against Ken Rosewall. Rosewall had lost only one set in his first three matches and was poised to give Trabert all he could handle. Rosewall won in straight sets 8-6, 6-3, 6-3, then won the tournament the next day with a similar result against Lew Hoad in the Final, 9-7, 6-4, 6-4. Tony Trabert would not lose another Major Championship match as an amateur.

Ken Rosewall beats Tony Trabert in Ampol tournament.

The French was next. Despite the loss Down Under, Trabert was the #1 seed in Paris. He  caught a huge break at the French. The best clay court player eligible to play at the time, was Trabert’s chief rival, Ken Rosewall. Rosewall chose not to enter due to his Davis Cup commitment, clearing the field for Trabert. Tony only lost three sets in his run through the draw, defeating Sweden’s Sven Davidson in a four set Final. He would be the last American to win the French until Michael Chang’s triumph in 1989.

Wimbledon was next. Again Trabert was the #1 seed, but Rosewall was back as the #2 seed. Both players rolled into the Semi-finals, Trabert hadn’t lost a set, Rosewall only one. The match everyone wanted to see seem inevitable. But unseeded Kurt Nielson shocked the tennis world by ousting Rosewall in Semis, opening the door for Trabert to breeze in a straight set Final win. Trabert’s run through the draw was historic. He was only the second player since 1922 to win the Championship without dropping a set (Don Budge in 1938). Chuck McKinley in 1963 and Bjorn Borg in 1976 have done it since.

Wimbledon gave Trabert two legs of the Grand Slam. The U.S. Championships would pose the most difficult draw through the tournament for the first seeded Trabert. He had avoided meeting any of the three players who had a realistic chance of ousting him in the last two. Lew Hoad, Vic Seixas, and Rosewall had either not entered or not gotten to Tony in the last two Majors. That would not be the case at Forest Hills. He had the added pressure of expectations, Sports Illustrated ran a cover story on Tony just prior to the tournament; “Tony Trabert: The Man to Beat” is how it was titled.

The four top seeds all made the Semis. Trabert drew #4 seed Lew Hoad, Rosewall’s doubles partner, in the Semis. Trabert crushed him 6-4, 6-2, 6-1. This set up the much anticipated rematch against the #2 seeded Ken Rosewall, who had vanquished Trabert in Australia. In a decisive performance in the Final, Trabert won his third straight Major with a 9-7, 6-3, 6-3 dismantling of the tiny Australian. For the second straight Major Tony Trabert did not drop a set throughout the tournament. This was a first at the U.S. Championships, only matched later by Australian Neale Fraser in 1960. As Tony said  “I never felt unbeatable, but I did feel confident in my own abilities”

The win at Forest Hills was Trabert’s final appearance in the Traditional Majors. With three of the four Major Titles captured, and a wife and two children at home, Tony made the decision to join the Professional circuit (for a look at how the pro-circuit was organized click here). in 1956. He would win the French Pro Championship twice, in 1956 and 1959. He made it into two other Professional Major Finals, losing to Frank Sedgman at Wembley in 1958 and Alex Olmeda in the U.S. Pro in 1960. The loss to Sedgman was very telling. Sedgman was the first of the “Awesome” Aussies, who took over the pro game in the late 1950s and 1960s. Sedgman was followed by Rosewall, who was followed by Rod Laver as the best in the world. The only American who could keep up with the Australians on the Professional Tour was Pancho Gonzales. Trabert would leave the Tour in 1963, and watch Ken Rosewall win Majors into his late 30s, ending his career with 8 traditional Major Championships and 16 Professional ones. Rosewall led his 1955 rival in career Majors, 24-7.

American tennis player Tony Trabert puts his arm around Ken Rosewall of Australia, who beat him in their semi final match at Wimbledon. Original Publication: People Disc – HP0316 (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

That doesn’t diminish the year Tony Trabert had in 1955, one of the most incredible years in tennis history. He had 15 other titles besides the three majors, and at one time won ten tournaments in a row. His overall record for the year was 104-5 and missed by one loss to Rosewall of being the second man ever to win the Calendar Grand Slam. Tony closed his amateur days winning his last 15 matches in the Major championships. More impressive than that, he did not lose a set in the last 10 of those matches. He reached a level of dominance rarely seen in the tennis world.

So, where does Trabert’s year rank with the greatest seasons ever? It’s complicated, due to the lack of professionals in the draws, Trabert didn’t have to face the best players in the world. It is well below Rod Laver’s second calendar slam year in 1969, when the Majors were opened to the pros. The best years of Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic were better. It’s probably behind Don Budge’s and Laver’s calendar slams in 1936 and 1962. It’s on the level of Jack Crawford in 1933, Fred Perry in 1934, and Lew Hoad in 1956. The problem was that he dominated a relatively weak group.

It wouldn’t be until 1971 that Tony Trabert would hire on with CBS Sports, and begin his role as TV Analyst for the United States Open, that he would gain notoriety. This would be his lasting legacy to most sports fans. He covered the U.S. Open through the eras of Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, and Andre Agassi with grace and candor, a true credit to the game. He would retire in 2002, a beloved figure to the fans of the sport.

In the end Tony said it best “It may sound cliche, but I don’t know where I’d be without tennis.”

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