ABE SEGAL : Tennis Legend and Raconteur
We were privileged this week to have as a guest at Hartford House Mr Abe Segal, South African tennis legend and raconteur.
Abe has recently launched his autobiography entitled, “Hey, Big Boy!” which offers readers an “unfettered, unadorned, unabridged and largely unedited" insight into the "rambunctious, boisterous, funny, informative and chaotic" memoirs of Abe Segal himself.
The following extract from the Evans Report by Richard Evans has a closer look at Abe Segal and his memoirs, “Hey, Big Boy!”
”Well, what about Big Boy’s book? It’s a fun read and opens up a large and well decorated window on an age that today’s tennis pros can barely believe ever existed. It was an age of traveling on a shoe string; receiving hard cash under the table and hoping that some of the rich patrons of the country clubs in which many of the tournaments were played invited you to stay at their mansions. Many did because, as Segal points out, there were a lot of rich wives who were bored with their rich husbands and liked nothing better than a passing dalliance with a virile young tennis player.
And then there was the movie star set. Frequently accompanied by the man to whom the book is dedicated, Lew Hoad, Abe became friends with a whole host of stars from Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall, to whom he seems to have taken a distinct dislike, to Richard Burton and Peter Ustinov, whom he obviously adored.
Abe was the son of poor Polish Jewish immigrants and much of the early chapters are taken up with an account of how he climbed out of poverty by virtue of his winning personality and talent with a racket. Eventually he would meet and marry the beautiful Bermudan, Heather, who came from an altogether classier background and whose English friends obviously bored Segal to tears.
One of his best stories concerns the upper-crust dinner party Heather dragged Abe to in London. Ustinov was starring in a West End hit "Stop Light" at the time and the guests were soon bemoaning the fact that tickets were absolutely impossible to come by. "How many do you want?", asked Segal suddenly, making his first contribution to the conversation of the evening.
"Five, actually," somebody sneered. "But how do you think you’ll manage that when we’ve exhausted every avenue?"
So Abe excuses himself and calls Ustinov at the theatre.
"Peter’s on stage at the moment but will call back," he told the snickering, disbelieving guests on his return. Sure enough, an hour later, the butler came in to announce, "Mr Ustinov on the line for Mr Segal."
Unable to resist mimicking a ticket tout’s accent, Ustinov spoke to Segal in loud Cockney. "Ow many tickets you lookin’ for Saturday night, guv?"
Not surprisingly, Abe says he could have kissed him.
But there are stories for every taste, some of them a little crude; some of them downright scary. With Heather and his Australian doubles partner Warren Woodcock in tow, Segal got himself mixed up with a bunch of Chicago hoods and was actually present when the order was given for someone to be "taken out."
Any doubts about what they had heard were removed next morning when the newspaper headlines read: "Two Men Found in Back of Bullet Ridden Car."
Perhaps it was a good thing that Segal, always on the look out for a witticism, had introduced himself to some of the more notorious gangsters with: "I’m Abe Segal, no relation to Bugsy in case you’re wondering." Evidently they weren’t.
The tone and style of this book are in total contrast to the best selling and beautifully written "A Handful of Summers" penned many years ago by Gordon Forbes, the player with whom Segal enjoyed most success on a doubles court. Perhaps because of that Forbes does not feature as much as one would have expected and certainly not nearly as much as Segal himself did in Forbes’ tome.
But Segal is especially good on Herbie Flam, the troubled American player and Art ‘Tappy’ Larsen, another of that post war generation who played and behaved in ways unimaginable today. There are Dick Savitt stories, too, and revelations about Fred Kovaleski being a CIA agent. Others relate to his close friendship with Sol Kerzner, who built Sun City in Boputhatswana and made Abe the Director of Tennis before going off to develop Paradise Island in Nassau. And then there was Stan Getz and racing driver James Hunt and Sean Connery who wrote the introduction.
Segal was a good friend of Mark McCormack’s, too, and, at Mark’s request, became coach to Betsy Nagelsen for a time before she became Mrs. McCormack. But, throughout the book, Lew Hoad, one of the greatest players ever to pick up a racket, is never far away. In later years, before Lew died of a rare blood disease at the age of 59, Abe spent a great deal of time at the Campo de Tenis that Lew and his wife Jenny used to run in Mijas on the Costa del Sol. For years the picturesque club was the meeting point for stars of stage, screen and sport who liked to sip Rioja at Lew’s bar and party under the palm trees after a little tennis. Those were the days, Big Boy.”